When you go out to war on your enemies, the L‑rd your G‑d shall deliver them into your hands (Deuteronomy 21:10)
The Hebrew phrase al oyvecha, “on your enemies,” can also be understood in the literal sense of “on top of your enemies.” In every battle, the way to achieve victory is to gain the higher ground. We must never stoop to the level of evil to fight it on its own terms; in the words of our sages, “One who wrestles with a filthy person becomes dirtied as well.” Rather, we should rise above it, affirming our belief that there is no true existence other than G‑d, and that nothing contrary to His goodness and truth has any real power. When our going to war is in a manner of “on your enemies,” we are guaranteed that “G‑d shall deliver them into your hands.”
(The Chassidic Masters)
The Torah is speaking only to counter the yetzer hara (evil inclination). For if G‑d would not permit her to him, [the soldier] would take her illicitly. [In essence, however, the Torah views this as a negative thing, and] if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives, one beloved and the other despised] . . .” (verse 15). Moreover, he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these [three laws] are juxtaposed.
(Midrash Tanchuma; Rashi)
Sometimes a most holy soul is imprisoned in the depths of the kelipot (the “husks” which conceal G‑dliness in our world). Thus it comes to pass that the Jewish soldier is attracted to a captive woman, because his soul recognizes the “beauty” imprisoned within her. (This is why the Torah refers to her as a “beautiful woman,” even though—as the Sifri derives from the verse—the same law applies if one is attracted to a physically ugly woman.) Hence the Torah provides the procedure by which she is to be cleansed of the impurity of the kelipot and “brought into your house”—included in the holy community of Israel . . .
Also from one’s spiritual enemies one must “capture captives.” Anything negative in man or in the world can be exploited for the good, if one can derive a lesson from it in the service of the Creator.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
I learned seven things from the thief: 1) What he does, he keeps to himself. 2) He is willing to take risks to attain his goal. 3) He does not distinguish between “major” and “minor” things, but takes equally exacting care of each and every detail. 4) He invests great effort in what he does. 5) He is swift. 6) He is always optimistic. 7) If at first he fails, he is back time and again for another try.
(Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli)
The law of the “wayward and rebellious son” applies only if he steals [money] from his father and consumes at one meal a tartemar of meat and half a log of Italian wine. Rabbi Yossi says: A maneh of meat and a log of wine . . .
The wayward and rebellious son is executed on account of the future, as the Torah penetrates to his ultimate intentions. Eventually he will squander his father’s money, seek what he has become habituated to, not find it, and stand at the crossroads and rob people [killing them, thereby incurring the death penalty]. Says the Torah, “Let him die innocent, rather than have him die guilty . . .”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a, 72a)
Both his parents must bring him to the court. If his father wants [to have him declared a “wayward and rebellious son”] but his mother doesn’t want to, or if his mother wants to but his father doesn’t want to, the law cannot be applied . . .
Said Rabbi Shimon: Because he ate a tartemar of meat and half a log of Italian wine, his father and mother will take him out to be stoned? Indeed, [a case of a “wayward and rebellious son”] never was, and never will be. So why was it written in the Torah? So that it should be studied, and we should be rewarded [for studying it].
Rabbi Yonatan says: I saw such a case, and I sat at his grave.
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a)
This is a degradation of the divine King in whose image man is created, and the Israelites are G‑d’s children. This is analogous to a case of two identical twin brothers. One became king, while the other was arrested for robbery and hanged. Whoever saw him would say, “The king is hanging!”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 46b; Rashi)
Our masters taught: There was a “dealing stone” in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would go there, and anyone who found something would go there. This one would stand and announce [his find], and the other would stand up, give identifying signs and take it.
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 28b)
If one finds scrolls, he should read in them once in 30 days [to air them out]; if he can’t read, he should unfurl them. But he should not study something in them for the first time, or read from them together with someone else. If he found a garment, he should shake it out every 30 days, and spread it for its needs—not for his own honor . . .
If he finds wooden utensils, he should use them, so that they should not rot. Copper vessels can be used with hot food, but not over fire, which wears them out; silver utensils should be used with cold, but not with hot, which blackens them. Gold and glass utensils should not be touched until the coming of Elijah . . .
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 29b)
A man once passed by the doorway of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s home and left behind some chickens. Rabbi Chanina’s wife found them, and Rabbi Chanina said to her: “Don’t eat their eggs.” The eggs and the chickens multiplied and became a bother for them. So he sold them and bought goats with the money. One day the man who lost the chickens passed by, and mentioned to his friend: “Here’s where I lost my chickens.” Rabbi Chanina heard him, and asked him: “Do you have an identifying mark?” Said he: “Yes.” He told him the sign and received the goats.
(Talmud, Taanit 25a)
Alexander the Great came to the king of Katzya, and was shown much silver and gold. Said he: “I didn’t come to see your silver and gold; I came to see your laws and customs.” As they were sitting, two people came for litigation before the king. Said one of them: “My master, the king! I purchased a ruin from my friend. I demolished it and found a hidden treasure inside it. So I said to him: ‘Take your treasure. I purchased a ruin, not a treasure.’”
And the other one said: “Just as you fear the punishment for theft, so do I. I sold you the ruin and everything in it—from the depths of the earth to the heights of heaven!”
The king summoned one of them and asked him: “Do you have a son?” Said he: “Yes.” He then summoned the second one and asked him: “Do you have a daughter?” Said he: “Yes.” Said the king to them: “Let them marry each other, and the treasure shall belong to the two of them.”
Alexander was amazed. Said the king to him: “Did I not rule well?” Said he: “No, you did not.” Said he: “If such a case came before you in your country, what would you do?” Said he: “I’d cut off both their heads, and send the treasure to the royal palace.”
Said the king of Katzya to Alexander: “Does the sun shine in your country?”
Said Alexander: “Yes.”
“And do rains fall upon you?”
“Perhaps there are cattle and herds in your land?”
“Yes, there are,” said Alexander.
“By my life!” said king of Katzya. “It is for the sake of the cattle and herds that the sun shines for you and the rains fall upon you . . .”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 2:5)
One who says (in prayer), “Your mercy extends to a bird’s nest . . .” should be silenced . . . since this reduces the mitzvot to humane laws, when in truth they are divine decrees.
(Talmud, Berachot 33b)
Notwithstanding the above citation from the Talmud, both Maimonides (in his Guide for the Perplexed) and Nachmanides (in his commentary on the Torah) give logical and humane reasons for this mitzvah, and the similar commandment (in Leviticus 22:28) not to “slaughter an animal and its young on the same day.”
Maimonides writes that the reason for these mitzvot is so that “one should not kill the child in sight of the mother, for the animal has great pain from this. There is no difference between the concern of a person and the concern of an animal for their children, because a mother’s love and compassion for the fruit of her womb is not a function of the intellect or speech, but a function of the thought process that exists in animals as in people.”
Nachmanides takes issue with this explanation, arguing that if that were the reason, it should be forbidden only to kill the young before the mother, not vice versa. “It is more correct to say,” he writes, that the reason for these commandments is “so that we should not have a cruel heart that is devoid of compassion”—since, in any case, killing a mother and its young on the same day is an act of cruelty. He also offers another reason: “Because the Torah would not permit a practice that could cause the destruction of the species, though it permits the slaughtering of a single member of the species.”
Both Maimonides and Nachmanides point out that their explanations seem to contradict the above-cited passage from the Talmudic tractate Berachot, which warns against explaining the mitzvah of “sending away the mother” as deriving from G‑d’s compassion on the mother bird. Maimonides also cites Midrash Rabbah, which states: “Does it make a difference to G‑d whether one slaughters an animal from the throat or from the back of the neck? In truth, the mitzvot were given only to refine the human being.”
Maimonides explains that there are, in fact, two opinions as to the nature of the mitzvot: a) that the mitzvot are supra-rational divine decrees; b) that there are reasons for the mitzvot, even if the reasons for certain mitzvot have not been revealed to us. The passage in Berachot, says Maimonides, expresses the first opinion, “that the mitzvot have no reason other than that they are the divine desire, while we believe according to the second opinion, that every mitzvah has a reason.”
Nachmanides takes a different approach, arguing that there is no contradiction between his explanation and the Talmud’s statement. The Talmud objects to explaining the reason for the mitzvah as G‑d’s compassion for the bird or animal; rather, it is to teach us compassion and prevent the trait of cruelty from taking root in our hearts. In the words of the Midrash, “the mitzvot were given only to refine the human being.” In this connection, Nachmanides also cites the verses (Job 35:6–7), “If you sin, how have you affected Him? If your transgressions multiply, what do you do to Him? If you are righteous, what do you give Him? What can He possibly receive from your hand?” The things that G‑d commands us to do are not anything that He wants or needs, nor are the divine prohibitions things that “bother” Him—He is above that all. The “reasons” for the mitzvot are the ways that they are beneficial to us, sanctifying our lives and refining our characters.
The Torah calls him “the falling person” because it was ordained from heaven that he would fall, in any case. Nevertheless, you should not be the one to bring about his death, for meritorious things are executed through meritorious people, while things of ill fortune are executed through guilty people.
There was once a man who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzitzit. One day he heard of a certain harlot overseas who took four hundred gold dinars for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold dinars and scheduled a day with her. When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her maid went and told her, “That man who sent you four hundred gold dinars is here and waiting at the door,” to which she replied, “Let him come in.” When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes of his garment struck him across the face, whereupon he slipped off and sat upon the ground. She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and said, “I swear by the Roman Caesar, I will not let you go until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”
“I swear,” the Jew replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one mitzvah which we were commanded by our G‑d, and tzitzit is its name. Concerning this mitzvah it is twice stated in the Torah ‘I am the L‑rd your G‑d’—‘I am the one who will seek retribution, and I am the one who will reward.’ Now the four tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth.”
“I still will not let you go,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name and the names of your city, your rabbi, and the school in which you study Torah.”
He wrote down all the information and handed it to her.
The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (as a payoff so that they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her—along with the silver and gold beds—and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabbi Chiya.
“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Chiya, “I would like to convert to Judaism.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Chiya responded, “you desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a Jewish man?”
The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information and related to the rabbi the miracle which transpired with the tzitzit.
“You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours [i.e. the right to convert],” the rabbi proclaimed.
She ended up marrying the man. Those very beds which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully. Such was his reward for meticulously observing the mitzvah of tzitzit.
(Talmud, Menachot 44a)
Our sages tell us that when the children of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, “G‑d held the mountain over them like a jar and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave’” (Talmud, Shabbat 88a).
But the Jewish people had already expressed their desire and willingness to enter into the covenant with G‑d. Why did G‑d coerce them? But perhaps G‑d desired to ensure that their bond would be eternal and irrevocable. By forcing Himself on them, He was binding Himself with the law that “he may not divorce her all his days.”
From here we learn that someone who causes a person to sin does worse to him than one who kills him, for one who kills him kills him only in this world, whereas one who leads him to sin removes him from both this world and the world to come. Therefore Edom, who came forth against them with the sword, was not [completely] despised. Similarly Egypt, who drowned them. The Moabites and the Ammonites, however, who caused them to sin (with the daughters of Midian—see Numbers 25), were completely despised.
Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: They all reverted back to curses, except for the blessing regarding the synagogues and houses of study. As it is written: “and G‑d turned the curse into a blessing”—“the curse,” in the singular, not “the curses.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b)
The School of Shammai rules: A man should not divorce his wife unless he discovers in her an immoral matter . . .
The School of Hillel rules: [He may divorce her] even if she burnt his meal.
Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than she.
Certain opportunities and potentials are so lofty that they cannot be accessed by the conscious self; they can come about only “by mistake.” An example of this is the mitzvah of shikchah, which can be fulfilled only by forgetting.
(The Chassidic Masters)
[The Hebrew word karchah, “he met you,” can also mean “he cooled you.” Thus the Midrash says:]
What is the incident (of Amalek) comparable to? To a boiling tub of water which no creature was able to enter. Along came one evildoer and jumped into it. Although he was burned, he cooled it for the others. So too, when Israel came out of Egypt, and G‑d split the sea before them and drowned the Egyptians within it, their fear fell upon all the nations. But when Amalek came and challenged them, although he received his due from them, he cooled off the awe in which they were held by the nations of the world.