This week’s parashah presents some of the oldest-known rules of war. In asses-sing who is eligible to fight in battle, the Torah asks about unfinished business. The officers are to ask, “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him return home, lest he die and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another marry her” (Deuteronomy 20:5-7).
Before delving into the darker aspects of this parashah, we may delight in the picture of a military officer dismissing a soldier from duty in order to experience the pleasure of sex! But the text taken as a whole is a moment of extreme realism; it pulls the veil we hide behind so we will ask ourselves the uncomfortable yet inevitable question: If tomorrow were my last day alive, what loose ends would I need to tie up? What would I not want anyone else tying up for me?
Elul, the Hebrew month we entered last week, is the month of tying up loose ends. Its arrival means that in a few weeks we enter the High Holy Days. We spend this time preparing ourselves so we aren’t jumping in cold to the most intense spiritual experience of the Jewish yearly cycle. But we are also preparing ourselves for our deaths. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own end so that we can go on living with a renewed sense of self, purpose and relationship to God. We refrain from giving our bodies what they need for just one day: food, drink, sex, comfort. We even wear a kittel, the shroud we’ll be buried in. We chant the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, which acknowledges that some of us will live this year, some of us will die, and the only power we have over any of it is the way we live each day we are granted. We get as close as we can to our mortality, as if we are actors in a morbid play — but it’s not a farce. The holidays acknowledge what we already know at a deep level: What lies around the corner is a mystery.
Our parashah acknowledges that same reality, and asks us to think about what is left undone. It speaks literally of going off to war, which is, unfortunately, not just a theoretical question for some of us today. But whether we are soldiers facing battle right now, we always are facing the unknown. Our battleground could be anywhere at any moment. Even at a movie theater.
This piece of Torah closes with one more question: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him return home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his” (Deuteronomy 20:8). The Babylonian Talmud reads the rules in this parashah as actually providing cover for the one who is afraid he will die in battle because of his sins. He can walk away from battle, and his compatriots will attribute his departure to one of the many types of routine unfinished business, such as dedicating a home (Sotah 44a-b).
We may be uncomfortable with the concept of retribution theology, that a person dies in battle as a punishment for his own sins. But perhaps we can relate to the underlying idea that in a life-or-death situation, the unfinished business that matters most to us are the sins and regrets we carry. So we need to return home and ask, “Who do I need to talk to in order to clean that slate? The person I wronged? God? Myself?”
Those loose ends need to be tied up, and Elul is the time. What has been left undone? We aren’t meant to live in this question year round, but we are invited, even required, to visit it for a moment even if we are petrified by it. As we tie up our loose ends, we acknowledge the fragility of life, not so we are debilitated by our impermanence but to become free from its hold, ready to enter a new year fully present.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.