Etz Chayyim Hee. The Torah is a Tree of Life. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peaceful (Proverbs 3:17-18). These are the words we say each time we return the Torah to the ark. But sometimes it can be hard to believe that the Torah is so pleasant and peaceful when we read certain troubling passages found within it.
Take this week’s Torah portion, for example. The opening of Parashat Ki Teitzei is pretty grim. In the first few verses alone, we learn that the Israelites were permitted to take women as prisoners of war and forcibly marry them; that it was normal for men to have multiple wives, one of whom he could love at the expense of another; and that criminals were executed through impaling on a stake.
All its paths are peaceful? Doesn’t seem like it.
Of course, the Torah is a text that is of its time, written in an era where the norms of society were quite different than they are today. Women were fair game as war captives, multiple wives were commonplace (Jewish law only forbade polygamy in the 10th century), and children were seen simply as adults in small bodies… child development would not even begin to be understood until more than 2,000 years after this text was written.
When we read these challenging texts of the Torah through our modern lens of morality, fairness, and ethics, we might want to discount its teachings. However, if we are willing to understand the Torah on its own terms, we will see how the instructions it gives are principled and just.
When the Torah tells Israelite men that they are permitted to take enemy women as captives, it instructs them to take the feelings of the woman into account: “She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that…she shall be your wife” (Deuteronomy 21:13). In other words, this woman cannot be expected to become her captors’ wife immediately; she must be given time to mourn for her family.
When the Torah discusses the estate of a man who has two wives, one of whom is “loved” and one of whom is “unloved,” it forbids him from favoring the child of the wife he loves. Instead, he must leave his estate to the eldest child, even if the eldest happens to be the son of the unloved wife.
When the Torah discusses capital punishment, it teaches that the body of the executed person must be treated with respect. The corpse cannot be left out overnight. Instead, it must be buried on the day of the execution.
All of these instructions in the Torah, though given in the context of circumstances that we find abhorrent today, serve to place an important check on human instincts. A man might want to take a woman captured in a war as his wife, but she must be given time to grieve her old life beforehand. A man might want to favor the child of his beloved wife, but his obligation to his eldest comes first. A person might want to leave the corpse of a criminal to rot and decay overnight, but, perhaps counter to instinct, it must be treated with dignity and buried properly.
While the context is different, we can also follow the Torah’s instructions to ensure that our own lives are filled with empathy, concern, and care for others. That’s what the upcoming High Holy Days, and Hebrew month of Elul, are for. While we certainly aren’t taking anyone captive and marrying them, we can give our loved ones the time and space they need to grieve when they mourn a loss. We can fulfill our obligations to our children no matter how hard that may be. And we can treat all people with dignity and respect, even if they have been labeled as criminals.
The scenarios outlined in the Torah might be of their time, but the lessons of the Torah are eternal. Human instinct is often to take the easy way out, to do what is most convenient for us at the time, and not to consider the feelings of others when we act. The Torah cautions us against this, and teaches that acting with fairness and justice is the most important commitment we can make.