Parashat Shoftim – Deut 16:18 – 21:9

D’varim/Deuteronomy 20:5-7  Who is the man who has built a new house and not dedicated it? … And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not made it common? … And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not taken her? Let him go and return to his house …

shoftim-13-2a shoftim-13-2b shoftim-13-2c

These beautifully written and sounding verses come near the beginning in Moshe’s instructions for summoning the army – the fighting men of Israel – and conducting a campaign against a town or city outside the land of Israel. The three verses are delightfully formulaic and vary by only three or four words in each (quite long) verse. Even the trope marks on the verses are almost identical so that they sound alike except for the highlighted differences. The repeated formula goes like this: “Who is the man who has started an important job and has not been able to finish it? Let him return home now, lest he be killed in the battle and another man have to finish the job.” The three tasks are: building a house, planting and establishing a vineyard, and taking a wife in marriage. We should notice that these are three critical life stages, on which society depends – having somewhere to live, having a means of generating income and being able to start a family for the next generation – for continuity of the people and the L-rd’s mandate and vision for His people. Rabbi Hirsch explains that “the Torah lays value on these peace-time tasks being accomplished by every individual personally and hence, for one who has just engaged in the course of carrying out any of these tasks … has precedence over the call to army duty.”

Who Is Abravanel: Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508 CE), Statesman and biblical commentator; born in Lisbon, died in Venice; wrote commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures

Abravanel offers an alternative view, that “really these three categories all refer to someone who would be prevented from fulfilling a commandment: building a parapet, offering firstfruits, being fruitful and multiplying.”

Examining the detail of the first task, Rashi looks at the undedicated house and comments that the man has not yet lived in the house he has built. The Bechor Shor says ‘house’ means “anything big enough to require a mezuzah on the doorpost.” To have another man dedicate and then live in the house would be matter of sorrow.

What Is Gur Aryeh: The Gur Aryeh (lit. ‘Young Lion’) is a super-commentary on Rashi’s Torah Commentary, written by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1520-1609), widely known as the Maharal of Prague.

The Gur Aryeh offers a psychological twist: “‘Lest he die in war’ in and of itself is not sufficient reason to send a soldier home from the ranks, for soldiers face the possibility of death courageously. But contemplating the prospect that another might dedicate his house could depress a person and thus adversely affect his ability as a soldier.” Gunther Plaut adds that the instruction, “Let him go back”, was taken by tradition “as a command: he had to go back, for his anxiety would prove infectious. Also, most men in such positions would be too embarrassed to exercise their option.” Considering the effect upon the rest of the troops if such a man stayed to fight and was then killed, the Sforno points to a verse in the middle of the list of curses using exactly the same three terms, that will befall Israel if they do not obey HaShem and follow His commandments – “If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it” (D’varim 28:30, JPS) – so that the whole army might think they were all cursed and so panic.

Several commentators talk about the middle task – planting a vineyard – and point to the verses at its foundation: “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the L-RD; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit” (Vayikra 19:23-25, JPS). Jeffrey Tigay uses the word ‘desacralising’: “the fruit of a newly planted tree may not be eaten until the fifth year. It is dedicated to G-d in the fourth year, and the fifth year, when it is eaten, is the first time it is put to non-sacred use. This could amount to a five-year deferral from the army.”

A connected text – “When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married” (D’varim 24:5, JPS) – is brought to bear on the third task. In our original text, the marriage has been arranged and the bride-price has been paid, but only the betrothal has been carried out – the marriage has not been consummated. The deferment is given, Tigay explains, “because of the feeling of the soldier” whereas in the latter verse, “it is for the sake of the bride.” The Mishnah, which makes the deferment in our text partial, in that it only exempts the men from fighting, while still expecting them to render service behind the fighting line, bringing up provisions, repairing the roads, etc., makes the exemption of newly married men total: “they were completely free from service of any kind for one year” (m. Sotah 8:2-4).

Linking our text with a verse in Proverbs, the sages of the Talmud taught a lesson about the order in which these three actions should be carried out: “Our Rabbis taught: [The order of the phrases is] ‘that has built’, ‘that has planted’, ‘that has betrothed’. The Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, plant a vineyard and then marry a wife. Similarly Solomon declared in his wisdom, ‘Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house’ (Proverbs 24:27, ESV) – ‘prepare your work outside’, that is, a house; ‘get everything ready in the field’, that is, a vineyard; ‘and after that build your house’, that is, a wife … Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Jose the Galilean says: ‘Prepare your work outside,’ that is, Scripture,Mishnah and Gemara; ‘get everything ready in the field,’ that is, good deeds; ‘and after that build your house,’ that is, study and research [in the Torah] and receive the reward” (b. Sotah 44a).

Jeremiah mentions exactly the same three activities in the very same order in his letter to the Judean exiles in Babylon – “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:5-6, JPS). These were the pillars of normal life – and G-d’s people were to engage in them and enjoy their fruit wherever they might be. Ezekiel too touches upon two of these expectations for life when G-d has brought His people back from exile once more and they dwell in the Land: “they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely” (Ezekiel 28:25, ESV). At a stretch, we could consider that the third is included by implication, as “dwelling securely” must surely look to the next generation, thus implying families and children.

Luke reports Yeshua using a similar three-fold reference in a passage that is usually considered to be speaking about the cost of discipleship: “As they were traveling on the road, a man said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ Yeshua answered him, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds flying about have nests, but the Son of Man has no home of His own.’ To another He said, “Follow Me!” but the man replied, ‘Sir, first let me go away and bury my father.’ Yeshua said, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God!’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow You, sir, but first let me say good-by to the people at home.’ To him Yeshua said, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and keeps looking back is fit to serve in the Kingdom of G-d'” (Luke 9:57-62, CJB). Yeshua’s first response matches our text, talking about houses, the second could also match if taken as needing to secure his income or property upon his father’s death and might have a similarly long time-window as establishing a vineyard. Another set of three, the unsatisfactory excuses offered by the banquet guests – “The first said to him, ‘I’ve just bought a field, and I have to go out and see it. Please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to test them out. Please accept my apologies.’ Still another said, ‘I have just got married, so I can’t come'” (14:18-20, CJB) – also offers a degree of match with our text.

In both cases, Yeshua is critical of those who are trying to avoid the call of G-d on their lives. They are citing what appear to be valid reasons for not responding, or not being called, but Yeshua says that these excuses are just that: excuses for not recognising and obediently answering the call of G-d. There are times when G-d-given obligations and responsibilities rightly prevent us from taking a front-line position in the kingdom, even if work in support and logistics is still expected. There are also times when we have to put down whatever else we are doing and respond to the front-line call for active service.

Further Study: 1 Kings 19:19-21; Haggai 1:1-6

Application: Are you currently set aside, deferred from active service in the kingdom, or are you simply using deferral as an excuse for not engaging with the work you know you have been called to do? Consider your position with the Commanding Office today and make sure you are in the right place.