Thursday, August 30, 2012 | return to: columns, torah


Torah: Lessons of warfare — along with rules for marriage, divorce

by rabbi shlomo zarchi

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Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (54:1-10)

In a military class the professor asked the students, “What is the difference between an engagement and a battle?” No one offered an answer.

Finally, one guy piped up.

“An engagement comes before marriage,” he said, “while the battle is what follows it.”

rabbi shlomo zarchiIt’s curious, perhaps ironic, that the laws and traditions governing Jewish marriage are mentioned in a Torah portion that begins and ends with battle. The portion begins with instructions of how Jewish soldiers are to conduct themselves in warfare and ends with our obligation to do battle with our eternal nemesis Amalek.

In addition, the verses that discuss marriage are the very same that contain the laws of divorce. What possible message could the Torah be conveying by merging marriage and divorce amid lessons of war?

The Kabbalah teaches that the relationship between God and the Jewish people is best understood as a marriage. Indeed the whole book Songs of Songs is a description of the perseverance and commitment of a bride and groom to each other through the peaks and valleys of a lifelong relationship. And what a strange marriage it has been: For more than two millennia, we, the bride, have had to endure battle after battle.

We may have been married, but it felt more like we’d been divorced. We tried our best to remain faithful to God, yet our “portion” has been one war after another. From our beginning even until now, Amalek and his cousins were seeking our destruction. Meanwhile, our groom instead of protecting us was seemingly elsewhere. Indeed, the Jewish nation challenged God; this has been more of an estrangement than a marriage. We have been apart longer than together, and yet the story of Jewish history is that we never gave up on the relationship. When faced with choosing divorce over remaining in the marriage, we have consistently opted for reconciliation.

I believe this message is especially relevant today in our own relationships, when sadly divorce is winning the war. Statistics show that more marriages end than survive. Is it possible that because divorce is so prevalent, people entering marriage have ceased seeing it as a lifelong commitment, and instead view marriage as an attempt at commitment? “Let’s give it a shot and see what happens?”

That difference of initial attitude makes all the difference. Perhaps one more Jewish rule of war can help.

Maimonides states that when one surrounds a city to lay siege to it, it is prohibited to surround it from four sides, only from three. One must leave an opening for inhabitants who wish to flee to save their lives.

Nachmanides explains the directive: It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion, even with our enemies, even at a time of war. In addition, by giving our enemies a place to flee, they will charge at us with less force.

His first point shows the moral genius of Torah. The second shows its psychological genius. When you’re forced into a corner, and there’s no way out, you are bound to give your greatest fight. You will summon your deepest powers and quite possibly prevail over your opponent, whose dominating status may leave him complacent, or at least not inclined to access all his strength.

You make your adversary infinitely stronger by closing him in.

The same can be said regarding relationships. If you’re in it for the long haul, if you lock yourself in, there’s a greater chance of success. If your mindset is “I’m committed,” not “I’ll try to commit,” you’ll be able to access a reservoir of inner fortitude that will enable you to overcome challenges that might otherwise seem impossible. In situations where others might throw in the towel, you’ll find yourself gearing up for another round. If, however, divorce is even a distant option, a bit of distance has already been created.

So if you think: “Love is a battlefield,” Torah allows for an escape route. But if you want an eternal marriage, remember to close that last door when getting married, and you’ll find that many new doors will have opened.


Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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