Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Giving Tree....Not!

Many years ago there was a very popular children's book called "The Giving Tree". The book told the story of a tree, given a female identity, who gave her all to make life better for one growing person. In the early stages of the person's life the tree provided shelter and shade. Later she offered her branches to serve as posts for a swing and hammock. And still later she made the ultimate sacrifice, making her very trunk available so it could be used to realize the person's dream to own a boat. All the while the tree did not complain. Rather she cherished her opportunity to give...even, in the end, to her own demise.

To a generation focused on 'me' the book provided an important challenge. It promoted the value of selfless giving and encouraged generosity. It was hoped that children who grew up with the story might be motivated to embrace the call to make their lives about giving rather than taking.

It is in that context that I want to explore with you a passage in this week's Parsha. In the portion of Shoftim we are given a series of laws that apply to a time when the nation of Israel goes to war. There the Torah says that prior to battle the kohen is to address the soldiers. He is to tell them, amongst other things, that in three cases a person should go home from the battlefield. If he either built a house and has yet not dedicated it ( some say to mean lived in it for at least a year) or planted a vineyard and not yet consecrated it ( most interpret to mean brought the fruit of its 4th year, the first year they can be eaten, to Yerushalayim in gratitude to Hashem) or betrothed a woman and not yet married her, in each case he is sent home.

And the Torah gives the reason in each case...lest he die in battle and someone else get to live in the house, consecrate the vineyard or marry the woman.

At first read the Torah passage is surprising. We would expect if he was to be discharged in the cases above it would be so he would not die without having known the pleasure from these important personal investments. That however is not the Torah's rationale. Rather he is sent home lest he die in battle and someone else live in his home, harvest his vineyard or marry his intended. What is the meaning of this concern with an other.

Rashi understood the Torah to be concerned with the agmat nefesh, the suffering that the soldier would experience were he to be killed. His suffering would not so much focus on his disappointment in not enjoying what he felt meant for him but rather be focused on that angst that someone else would partake of what was rightfully his.

While Rashi's explanation is compelling it is not without some difficulty. The Talmud Yerushalmi understands that the exemption for one who builds a home only applies to one who built in Israel where there is a mitzva to settle and dedicate a house. If one built and did not dedicate a home in the exile he is not sent home. And the Rambam rules that way l'halacha. Yet if the exemption was based on the angst the soldier would feel that his home was going to be lived in by another what difference would it make where the house was...whether in Israel or outside the land...the angst is the same?

I would like to suggest another direction here, a direction which puts the Torah in contrast to the Giving Tree story with which we began.

The battle scene the Torah is talking about is a milchemet reshut, a voluntary war, where Israel sees some strategic advantage to fighting its enemy. We are not speaking of a war of self-defence or a war against Amalek which are milchemet mitzva, wars we are commanded to fight.
In each of the later two situations there are no exemptions for the home owner, vineyard farmer and betrothed. They too must fight with their brothers.

Surely even in the war of reshut there is a call nonetheless to be part of the community of Israel and fight for her agenda. While the cause for which we are fighting in the strictest sense may not be a mitzva, to join our brothers and support the cause is a mitzva and every one's responsibility. That's what it means to be a people. That's what it means to be mishtatef b'tzrat hatzibur to join the community in her time of need. In a time of war or communal crisis the individual and his needs become subordinate to the need of the klal.

Yet even here, even where the national agenda eclipses the personal agenda there are exceptions. There are situations where we need to claim our call to fulfill ourselves .
If in the three cases mentioned the persons were to die in battle and not fulfill their work, if someone else were to complete an agenda that was meant for them, it would be a tragedy, even if the reason for the tragedy was because they had decided to give their lives to support their people. Yes the people's agenda take precedence but not if the implications were to mean these people's personal life's calling were to get nixed should they die in battle.

The Giving Tree has it wrong. Yes we are meant to give to others. Yes we need to be willing to make sacrifices for family and community. But we also need to know we have our own work to do in life.We have our own agenda, our own house to build, field to consecrate, person to marry. No one can do that for us, nor should they. At times we need to subordinate our agenda to the agenda of others, but we must have an agenda, and in the end we must realize it. We cannot excuse ourselves for failing to fulfill our personal hitchayvut, responsibility to ourselves, by saying we gave to the cause of others. The Sages say that when the kohen tells those who have the home to dedicate, vineyard to consecrate or woman to marry to go home, they indeed must!
In their words "to decline to leave is to deserve to be killed".

I believe the message is clear for all of us. Give we must! Sacrifice we must! But we must be just as vigilant in our commitment to become who we need to become and to do what we are called upon to do! It is okay at times to suspend our personal agenda. It is not okay to forsake it!

Shabbat Shalom!

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