August 26, 2004
Want vs. Need
Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
Ki Tetze contains more commandments than any other Torah portion. Some commandments studding the text cause us to crinkle our brow. Rather than general ethical maxims, they are ethical baby steps -- commandments that seem to be trying to toddle away from Hammurabi's Code of Laws and more severe systems.
For example: When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house ... she shall trim her hair and her nails and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in your house lamenting her father and mother. After that you may come to her and make her your wife.
Imagine a warrior, victorious in battle, fresh dents in his armor, fresh bruises on his face and blood on his sword. He has just escaped triumphantly having fought hand-to-hand for his own life, for his people's life, for his country. At that moment he is heroic, on top of the world, a king, adrenaline coursing through him, invincible, powerful. And at that moment, among the conquered, he sees a maiden -- lovely hair. What does the Torah tell him to do? Take her home, have her shave off her hair, pare her nails and reside in his house mourning her family, crying and wailing in the room beside. Give her shelter, new clothes and, after a month's time, if he still loves her, even without her lovely hair, even with her eyes red from weeping and even having lived together for a month, then he may marry her.
By this time, the moment of lusting has past. The warrior is no longer fresh from battle, invincible and powerful. Chances are, this marriage will never be consummated. The Torah is making a discernment between want and need.
There is so much we think we need. Perhaps if we were to take the Torah's advice each time we think we need something, and wait a month to see if that desire survives, we would gain perspective.
Further in our Torah portion it is written: When you enter another man's vineyard, you may eat grapes until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel. When you enter another man's field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor's grain.
It is permissible to satisfy your immediate hunger. It is not permissible to take from your neighbor in case you should be hungry later. You are permitted what you need.
In the desert after the escape from Egypt, God tells the wandering Israelites that they may gather enough quail for one full day. Instead, they try to store the quail, only to find it heaped up and rotten.
Our Torah portion continues, by saying that before marching to war, the army commander should ask his troop: "Is there anyone here who has planted a vineyard but not harvested? Is there anyone here who has built a house but not dedicated it? Is there anyone here who is afraid and disheartened?" And only after those people have left, does the troop move on. Taking with them only the soldiers they need.
In your battle for happiness every day, what do you need to take with you? Health, love, friendship, purpose? Sofa, marble kitchen countertop, air conditioning, chandelier?
If we want joy, if we want security, what do we need to get it? Do we need to be in a relationship to be happy? Do we need stocks and bonds to be spiritual? Do we need the carpet in the formal living room to be stain-free or is this what we want? And to get it, sacrifice what we really need, which is that our home not to be off-bounds to our own family.
When it comes to something that is beautiful and luxurious, so often we want it to be ours so that we may tire of it. But what we really need is for it to just be, so that we may love it. The flower in the meadow doesn't need to be in our vase, but it does need to be.
It is written in Proverbs, "Wrath is cruel, and anger is overwhelming, but who is able to stand before envy?" Who can stand to see greener grass on the other side of the fence and not feel they need it to be theirs? Even God is jealous, as it says, "Do not worship other gods, for I am a jealous God."
So if we must be jealous of somebody, I suggest let's be jealous of the ant that we step on, who is so devotedly works to serve its community. Or let's be jealous of the swordfish that some of us eat, who mates for life. Or let's be jealous of the bird that we chase off our roofs, who is so confident in her craft that she puts all of her eggs into that one basket.
This year, may you be rich in that you are happy in your lovely lot, a grateful tenant in the garden of the abundant world.
Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.