Chapter 21

10 If you go out to war: The phraseology ordinarily used to express this idea is “If you go to war.” The unusual “go out to war” indicates that engaging in war is unnatural for our Divine soul. Our soul’s native environment is the peaceful, infinite Divine consciousness it experienced before it entered the body, when it was only conscious of itself as part of God’s essence. There is no war with evil at this level of existence, since evil is powerless before such overpowering God-consciousness.

The literal meaning of the next phrase, “against your enemies,” is “above your enemies.” This is also an unusual idiom, which, like the first phrase, alludes to the origin of the Divine soul in God’s essence. Since we originate in God’s essence, to which evil can of course pose no threat, we a priori have the upper hand over evil, our archenemy. Furthermore, evil was only created in order for us to vanquish it. For both these reasons, the Torah assures us that “God will deliver your enemy into your hands.”

The phrase “the enemy’s captives,” refers to the elements of reality—both of the physical world and of humanity’s consciousness—that have fallen into the hands of evil, i.e., the mundane or anti-Divine worldliness that pervades reality.1

An optional war: The primary spiritual war that we are all required to fight is the battle to rid ourselves of whatever evil resides within us. True, part of our Divine mission is to vanquish evil in the world at large, but our ability to succeed in this struggle is directly proportional to how successful we have been in subjugating and eliminating our own personal evil. The theatre of our inner spiritual battle with evil is daily prayer, in which we strive to empower our Divine souls over our human-animal souls. The Zohar does not mince words in this regard: “The time of prayer is a time of battle.”2

This being the case, what is the spiritual correlate to the “optional” war? Are we not obligated to confront every instance of evil we perceive within ourselves?

The answer is yes, but there is another way to eliminate evil besides the direct confrontation characteristic of prayer: Torah study. Studying the Torah fills our consciousness with Divine awareness, and this awareness can largely dissipate the evil within us. Whereas the direct confrontation in prayer requires strenuous effort, the effect of Torah study is virtually automatic, for “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”3

Thus, whenever there is an option to do away with evil peacefully, through Torah study, taking the alternate route—that of direct engagement in prayer—becomes an “optional” war. Eliminating evil through Torah study obviates the need to battle evil in prayer, transmuting prayer into the simple, serene expansion of Divine consciousness.4

Your enemies: As we have discussed,5 only God’s existence is intrinsic; the rest of creation’s existence is contingent on His existence. It therefore seems illogical that anyone or anything could be an enemy of Divinity. How could anyone oppose the source of their own existence?

The answer to this is that God created the world in such a way that its dependence upon Him is not only hidden but appears to be contradicted by empirical evidence. God Himself is therefore responsible for the fact that there are elements of this world that deny or oppose Him, as well as people in it who do the same.

As we know, the reason God did this is so that we could win these enemies of holiness over to the side of holiness, thereby demonstrating that even this darkness can be made into His home.

As we further know, God embedded a sense of logic and order into reality when He created the world. The fact that the existence of His enemies defies logic indicates that in order to create them, He had to use a creative power that originates in a higher order of Divinity than that which He used to create the rest of creation. Thus, when we conquer these enemies, we liberate the transcendent Divine energy with which God created them, enabling us to harness this energy in the service of holiness. Thus, our Divine mission is greatly advanced by this process.6

The enemy’s captives: As just mentioned, this verse refers to overcoming the evil inclination. Among the captives we can rescue from the evil inclination are the lessons we can learn from it.

The first such lesson we can learn is that of perseverance. The evil inclination was created by God to attempt to seduce us into actions contrary to the purpose of our creation; it performs this task with the utmost dedication and tenacity. We should be similarly dedicated and tenacious in fulfilling the purpose of our creation: to reveal Godliness in the world through learning God’s Torah and performing His commandments.

In fact, from observing the single-minded drive of the evil inclination, we can deduce just how strong and dedicated our own positive inclination—which must be as strong as the evil inclination in order for us to have free choice—really is.7

To illustrate: The story is told of a famous sage who resolved to rise very early every morning, subtracting from his sleep a few more minutes every few months. Once, he recalled, upon waking, his evil inclination implored him to return to sleep. “You are an old man. You need your sleep. Why wake up so early?” To this the sage replied, “You are older than I am (i.e., you were created at the beginning of time) and you’re awake!”

10-11 If you go out to war: The Maggid of Mezeritch explains that allegorically, this passage refers to a temporary loss of Divine consciousness and how we can restore it:

If you go out: When you leave your state of oneness with God—

To war: you will assuredly have to contend with your evil inclination and the enticements of the physical world.

If you see among the captives: The “captives” are all aspects of the materiality of this world, in which there are captive sparks of Divinity.

A beautiful woman: If you find yourself beckoned by the external beauty of physical reality, its sensuality, and the pleasure it promises—

And you take her: you must not succumb to this aspect of what you see, but rather you should take it—

As a wife: The word for “wife” in Hebrew (אשה, ishah) can also be vocalized to mean “fire offering” (isheh). You should elevate the Divine sparks in the materiality you confront to their Divine source. Rather than allowing the experience of this world to drag you further away from God, consecrate it to God’s service and use it to enhance your relationship with Him.8

11 If you see a beautiful woman: As we have said, the captive woman—being one of the enemy’s captives—allegorically signifies the aspect of our consciousness that had been trapped in worldly materiality. Redeeming this “captive” occurs on two levels: the intellect and the emotions. Both the intellect and the emotions must be cleansed of their material orientation in order to be restored to full Divine consciousness. These processes are alluded to in the next verses, as follows:

She must shave her head: The excess hair that we must shave off the head allegorically signifies the residual life-force of the intellect, the unnecessary intellectual indulgences in the culture of decadence and vanity.

And let her nails grow (lit., “and do her nails”): Although Rashi understands the expression “do her nails” to mean “let her nails grow”—this being a way of uglifying her, similar to how shaving her head uglifies her—the Talmud also records an opposing interpretation, according to which “do her nails” means “cut her nails”—just as the preceding action (shaving the head) is an act of cutting.9 According to this understanding, just as shaving the head signifies eliminating excess intellectual indulgences in materialistic culture, trimming the fingernails signifies eliminating superfluous emotional indulgences in the same—since action, represented by the hands, is the expression of the emotions.

She must remove the garment of her captivity: The soul’s “garments” are its powers of expression—thought, speech, and action. Once we have trimmed ourselves of excess intellectual and emotional indulgences in materialistic culture, we must then divest ourselves of the habits of thinking, talking, and acting engendered by immersion in that culture.

She must weep for her father and her mother for a full month:This refers to the month of Elul,10 during which we prepare to renew our relationship with God on the High Holy Days. In this context, the renunciation of excess materialism in our lives alluded to by shaving the head and cutting the nails is sufficient for the rest of the year, but the self-renewal to which we aspire in the month of Elul can occur only if we intensify our desire to attain Divine consciousness accordingly. To this end, our Divine soul must “weep for her father and mother,” i.e., yearn for the Divine awareness it knew before it was “taken captive” in this physical world.11


[11-14] A captive woman: A soldier is only allowed to take one captive woman as a potential wife. According to the Oral Tradition, the month-long period of waiting is required only if the woman does not consent to convert immediately. If, after the first month, she is still unwilling to convert, she is given eleven more months to deliberate, after which she must renounce idolatry, which then allows her to live in the land as a resident alien;12 otherwise she becomes liable to the death penalty, just as any non-Jew who transgresses the Noahide laws. In any case, the soldier is not allowed to marry her until three months have elapsed since her capture, in order to ascertain that she is not already pregnant by someone else.13


[13] She must weep for her father and her mother:The soul’s “parents” are its innate Divine consciousness. The “father” alludes to the consciousness of Abba (“father”), i.e., chochmah, the soul’s experience of selflessness in the presence of its radical awareness of God. The “mother” alludes to the consciousness of Ima (“mother”), i.e., binah, the soul’s experience of God’s intellect.14


[18] If a man has a son: Besides those mentioned in the text, there are many other conditions that must be met in order for this procedure to be applied, among which are the following:

· The son must steal the money (that he uses to buy the food and wine) from his father.

· He must buy inexpensive food and wine.

· He must consume the food and wine outside his parents’ domain, and specifically in the company of societal outcasts.

· He must eat the meat only partially cooked, as it is typically eaten by thieves—who, living in constant fear of being pursued, cannot take the time to cook their food fully.

· He must drink the wine partially diluted, as it is typically drunk by drunkards—who try to stretch the wine while retaining its strength as much as possible.

· He must consume the required quantities of meat and wine in one swallow each.

· He must not consume the meat and wine in the course of fulfilling any commandment nor in the course of transgressing any other prohibition.

· The majority of the meat he eats must be meat of mammals, rather than of fowl.

· The meat and wine he consumes must be of a type that can be consumed regularly, thus excluding, for example, salty meat or unaged wine.

· Three months have not passed since he began puberty.15

The question then, is: If the conditions prerequisite to applying this procedure are so restrictive as to make it almost impossible to occur, why does the Torah bother to describe it altogether? The answer is that, indeed, some of the commandments and threats recorded in the Torah are there largely (or even solely) for preventative purposes. In other words, they are there precisely in order to ensure that the situations they describe not occur.16

22 If a man commits a sin: In his eulogy of the celebrated Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (known by his initials as “the Ramak,” 1522-1570), Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) interpreted this verse as follows:

If a man commits a sin (literally: “if a man has a lacking”): If a person lacks—

For which he is sentenced to death: any reason that he should die, being void of any sin,

And he is put to death: yet he dies nonetheless—

Hang him on a pole (literally, “on wood”): ascribe (“hang”) this only to the fact that all people must die as a result of Adam’s sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.17

The Talmud also lists four individuals who led sinless lives and died only because of “the venom of the primordial snake”: Benjamin, the son of Jacob; Amram, the father of Moses; Jesse, the father of David, and Calev, the son of David.18 Although these statements seem similar, the significant difference is that the Arizal ascribed the Ramak’s death to God’s decree whereas the Talmud ascribes the death of the individuals it lists to the snake’s venom.

The difference between the Talmud’s statement and the Arizal’s is one of degree. The Talmud implies that the individuals it mentions, though sinless, could not shake the self-orientation that had been injected into humanity by the primordial snake.19 The Arizal implied that the Ramak was clean even of this blemish. The Ramak could attain this level of purity only because he was devoted to the study and dissemination of the inner dimension of the Torah, which reveals the inner dimension of the Divine soul. This dimension of the soul is always pure and cannot be defiled by sin; when it is revealed, it overcomes even the self-orientation we inherit from the primordial snake. The fact that the Ramak did die nonetheless can therefore be attributed only to the fact that God decreed that all people should die.

The lesson for us here is clear: By studying and spreading the inner dimension of the Torah, we can reveal the inner dimension of our own souls and those of others. This in turn neutralizes the effect of sin, therefore neutralizing the result of sin: exile and death. We hasten the messianic Redemption and the subsequent Resurrection of the Dead.20


[22] You must hang him: Although the contextual sense of Scripture mandates hanging all those executed by stoning, the law requires hanging only that those stoned for blasphemy and idolatry.21

Chapter 22

1-3 You must not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying and ignore them: Allegorically, the missing ox or sheep alludes to elements that are lacking from a fellow Jew’s observance of the Torah and its commandments. The Torah tells us here that our Jewish nature will not allow us to ignore this shortcoming in our fellow; it will compel us to help him.

This is true even, as the next verse continues, “your brother is not near you, or you do not know him.” Even in such cases, we must help our fellow Jews retrieve whatever spiritual wealth they have lost due to their inadvertent over-involvement in the mundane affairs of the material world. Furthermore, if necessary, we must educate these compatriots to value this spiritual treasure, “until your brother seeks it out” willingly.22

4You must not see your brother’s donkey fallen on the road: Allegorically, this verse can be interpreted as follows:

If you see your brother’s donkey: If you see your brother, a Jew, acting like a donkey, an unclean animal—

Or his ox:or like an ox, a kosher animal, but an animal nonetheless—

Fallen: that is, he has fallen from the behavior associated with an enlightened human being to the level more associated with animals—

You must not ignore them. You should pick up the load with him:You should feel a brotherly responsibility to elevate and enlighten your fallen fellow Jew. It is precisely in order to assist him that you have been made aware of his spiritual descent. God would not have arranged for you to see him this way unless you were able to help him.23

5 A man’s attire must not be worn by a woman…: One of the reasons for this prohibition is that we should ideally behave in a way befitting the way God made us, not trying to imitate someone else or be someone we are not. Rather, we should strive (and be allowed to strive) to fully realize all of our God-given potentials. This ideal applies first of all in a general sense, meaning that although we should strive to imitate or even emulate positive role-models, we should never lose sight of our individual uniqueness, which endows us with a unique contribution that only we can make to the world.

In the context of gender, this directive means that men should strive to actualize all the potentials God gave them as men, and women should strive to actualize all the potentials God gave them as women, in accordance with the guidelines for self-refinement provided by the Torah. Although, as we have noted,24 we each comprise male and female qualities, our biological gender is a clear indication which qualities we are meant to chiefly manifest.

This mandate to manifest our God-given potentials free of any societal pressure to be something we are not is true “equal rights.” When a woman thinks that “equal rights” means that she should be allowed to behave like a man and to work like a man, she herself is creating a social gap and inequality between the sexes. By pursuing a man’s career, she is implicitly affirming that women are intrinsically inferior to men and that therefore, in order to justify her existence, she must compete with men for a man’s position. The Torah forbids such an affront to the status of women.25


[7] You must first send away the mother once: Although this is the contextual meaning of the verse, legal exegesis derives from the nuances of the Hebrew that if the mother bird returns, she must be sent away repeatedly until she no longer returns, and only then may the young be taken.26

8 You must make a parapet for your roof: The obligation to build a parapet around the roof applies to all houses, not just newly built ones, and devolves on the individual whenever a house comes into his possession, not only if he builds it. The reason the Torah nonetheless chooses to couch this law in the case of a newly built house is in order to allow the following, allegorical interpretation:

When you build a new house: When you get married and begin to build a new household within the Jewish people, you are commencing a new period in your life, with new responsibilities and tasks that you have never yet had to face. Therefore—

Make a parapet for your roof: The stringencies you have relied on until now to safeguard your observance of the Torah and its commandments are no longer sufficient. The demands of your new lifestyle will undermine your spirituality unless you take on new precautions.

Preventing one who falls off from falling of the roof : For the new, additional involvement with the exigencies of life in the physical world that are associated with marriage is a descent, and you are therefore poised to fall from your previous spiritual level unless you take preventative measures.

Another, more general interpretation:

When you build a new house means “when you set out to make this physical world into a home for God.” This house is considered “new” because spiritualizing the physical is a reversal of the order of creation. God made the physical world appear consummately physical; we reveal its inner Divine essence and make it a vehicle for the spiritual.

Make a fence around the roof: In order to succeed in this mission and avoid being dragged into the materiality of the physical world, we must be sure to remain sufficiently aloof from the world. This we accomplish by setting appropriate boundaries, red lines that we do not cross. This shows that our involvement in the physical world is not for our own betterment or indulgence, but for selfless purposes. In turn, this selflessness opens us up to greater insights into Divine reality and to higher levels of the Divine consciousness that we seek to disseminate.27


[12] The exception: The Written Torah requires that tassels (tzitziot) be affixed only to garments made of wool or linen, and it theoretically allows tassels made of either wool or linen to be affixed to a garment of either type of fabric, without regard to the prohibition of sha’atnez. However, since only woolen tassels may be dyed turquoise, when the turquoise dye is not used (either because it is unavailable—as is the case nowadays—or too expensive, etc.) and thus all the threads are white, it is possible to affix tassels without having to override the prohibition of sha’atnez (by using tassels made of the same material as the garment), so that is what is done.

Nonetheless, the sages prohibited affixing tassels with turquoise-dyed woolen threads on a linen garment, lest a person wear such a garment at night, when the obligation to affix tassels does not apply, and thereby be guilty of transgressing the prohibition of wearing sha’atnez when it is not overridden by the commandment of tzitzit.

The sages further required that tassels be affixed to garments made of other fabrics (besides wool or linen), as well. For these garments, the tassels may be made either of the same material as the garment or of wool or linen.28

Chapter 23


[4-9] Restrictions on Conversion based on Nationality: Nowadays, these restrictions no longer apply, since already in the era of the First Temple (6th century BCE), King Sennacherib of Assyria mingled all the non-Jewish nations in his empire—including these—together. It is therefore no longer possible to definitively determine who is a Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, or Egyptian; therefore, any non-Jew who desires to convert is presumed to be one of the majority of gentiles, whose converts are permitted to marry born Jews without restriction.29

A Closer Look

[18] A male prostitute: The Torah has already declared male homosexuality a capital offense,30 so it makes no sense to legislate additional punishment for someone who makes this activity into his profession. Therefore, the Oral Law understands the import of this verse to be referring to the passive participant in male homosexuality, making him liable to the same punishment as the active participant.31

25-26 If you have been hired: On an allegorical level, the neighbor in these verses, who owns the vineyard and field and employs the laborers, alludes to God, and the laborer who works in them alludes to the Jew, who is created to serve his Master.

In this context, working the grain field represents our duty-bound acceptance of our obligation to perform God’s will in fulfillment of our Divine mission. Just as grain is the basic, necessary component of the diet, so is the most fundamental aspect of our relationship with God the acceptance of His sovereignty and observance of His commandments precisely as He wishes.

Working the vineyard, on the other hand, alludes to the deeper relationship with God that is characterized by the experience of sublime pleasure. Just as the grapes are a sweet addition to the normal staples of the diet, so does this aspect of our relationship take us beyond the letter of the law. When we are spiritually mature enough to feel pleasure and joy in the revelation of Godliness, we are inspired to express our awareness of God in all facets of our lives, not only in the ways the Torah expressly requires us to do so.

With this in mind, we can understand why the Torah first discusses the right of the laborer to eat the sweet fruit of the vineyard before it mentions his right to eat grain, even though grain is the more basic food. We are first informed that those who experience sublime pleasure in their relationship with God and are thereby inspired to exert themselves to fulfill their Divine mission beyond the letter of the law will be rewarded by receiving further, more transcendent revelations of Divinity and Divine beneficence. We are then informed that this outpouring of Divine loving-kindness is also given to those who have yet to reach this exalted level of Divine consciousness, but who are aware of the necessity to maintain the more basic level of a duty-bound connection to God.32


[26] Tithing…the first of the dough: The obligation to tithe grain (ma’aser) takes effect only once the grain has been winnowed and gathered into smooth piles;33 the obligation to set aside the first portion of the dough (challah) for the priests takes effect only once the grain has been ground into flour and mixed with water to make dough.34 Thus, if the grain is being grown in order to eventually be made into bread, the worker may eat from the grain until it is made into dough. Similarly, grapes grown to be made into wine and olives grown to be made into oil are not subject to the obligation of tithing until they have been made into their respective products; in contrast, if they are grown to be eaten as fruits, they are subject to the obligation of tithing as soon as they are harvested.35

Foods that are not subject to any specific commandments: The Written Torah only subjects grain, wine, and olive-oil to the obligation to separate terumah and ma’aser from them. Other vegetables and fruits are subject to these obligations by Rabbinic decree.36

Chapter 24


[1] Divorce: From the wording of this verse, it is clear that only the husband can legally initiate divorce proceedings. If the wife, however, feels that there are grounds for divorce and the husband does not agree, she may present her case to the court, and if it is found to be just, they are allowed to force the husband to divorce his wife.37 The wife, however, may not be divorced against her will.38

Grounds for divorce are defined here as “an unseemly matter.” This somewhat vague term is understood in Jewish law to include a wide range of circumstances, including (but not limited to) incompatibility, physical impediments to marital relations, childlessness, various types of mistreatment, verbal or physical abuse, irreligion, irresponsibility, spiteful behavior, and infidelity.39

Nevertheless, the high value that the Torah places on marital harmony—witnessed by the fact that Aaron is praised as promoting peace between husband and wife40 and that God allows His Name to be erased in order to rehabilitate a shaky marriage41—has always rendered divorce a last resort. In the sages’ words, “When a man divorces the wife of his youth, the altar itself sheds tears.”42 Thus, despite the broad range of legal grounds for divorce, divorce has historically been relatively rare in Jewish life. This is largely due to the innate resilience of the Jewish marriage, which, in addition to being attributable to the Torah’s guidelines for human behavior in general, is largely attributable to the laws governing the periodicity of marital relations.43

If, however, divorce is determined to be justifiable, the Torah attaches no stigma to it; it is considered a perfectly legitimate release from an unviable relationship.

Chapter 25


[5-10] Levirate Marriage. It is clear from these verses that ideally, performing levirate marriage is preferable to avoiding it by means of the shoe-removal ceremony (termed chalitzah [“removal”]) described herein. Nonetheless, the Mishnah, conscious of the decline in the spiritual stature of the Jewish people in its day,44 already notes that “formerly, when they performed [levirate marriage] with the sole intention of fulfilling God’s commandment, the rabbis held that levirate marriage takes precedence over chalitzah. Nowadays, when it may no longer be assumed that they will perform it with the sole intention of fulfilling God’s commandment, chalitzah takes precedence.”45 Since marrying one’s sister-in-law is otherwise forbidden, the concern was that if the brother-in-law would marry her with anything less than pure intentions, it might undermine the validity of the marriage, rendering any children born through it of doubtful legitimacy.

In any case, once polygamy was abolished for Ashkenazic communities by Rabbi Gershom ben Meir in the 11th century, levirate marriage could only be practiced in these communities if the surviving brother was single. Nevertheless, levirate marriage was practiced in Ashkenazic communities under certain circumstances until approximately the 12th century, and in some Sephardic communities until relatively recent times.46

17 You must remember what Amalek did to you: When we feel inspired to elevate ourselves beyond the limitations of physical reality, our evil inclination (here personified by Amalek) rises to distract and discourage us. The antidote to Amalek is to “remember”; to keep the holy words of the Torah in the forefront of our consciousness.47

In the beginning of the parashah, the enemy’s intrinsic might—enabling it to capture parts of reality—was contrasted with our inherent advantage as Jews over our enemy. Here, too, the ability of Amalek to contend with the Jewish people and “cool off” our relationship with God is contrasted with the commandment to wipe them out and the implied assurance of our ability to do this.48


[19] Man, woman, child: The Jews were commanded to take revenge against the Midianites49 as well, but in that case, they were not commanded to kill the young girls, and even the women were killed only because they were guilty of having corrupted the Israelites, or likely to do so. The difference, as stated, is that with regard to Amalek, the commandment is not only to take revenge against them but to annihilate any entity that could cause someone to think about them (other than for the purpose of doing just that).50

Nowadays, this commandment is no longer relevant literally, since, as pointed out above,51 King Sennacherib of Assyria mingled all the nations together in the era of the First Temple (6th century BCE). It is therefore no longer possible to definitively determine who is an Amalekite; thus, all non-Jews are presumed to be one of the majority of gentiles, who are not descended from Amalek.52