Word of Torah: Parashat Shoftim
Written by: Rabbi Emily Segal
A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook that contained the thought that while we are so often looking over the fence at the greener grass on the other side, what we should really be doing instead is watering the grass we are standing on. “The grass is always greener on the other side” is such a common aphorism that we may not even really think about it, but it is insightful; we as humans are so prone to making comparisons and it is so much easier to focus on what we feel we lack than what we perceive ourselves to have. Our infinite wants will always surpass our limited, finite possessions.
I love the idea of ceasing the idle wishing or complaining or hoping without action and, instead, taking action and watering the grass we stand on.
Our Torah portion this week, Shoftim, comes from the book of Deuteronomy. It is an incredibly rich Torah portion, with foci ranging from how justice should be created and pursued and preserved to the command not to cut down a fruit tree in a time of war that has become the basis for the Jewish value, or really the command, Baal Tashchit—do not destroy, to avoid needless waste or destruction.
One series of commands in our Torah portion this week speaks to this idea of watering the grass we are standing on. Among many rules connected to war and engaging in battle, we find a list of life circumstances that would make someone (really, an Israelite man) exempt from battle when he would otherwise have been required to fight. These are: one who has just built a home, recently planted a vineyard, or has recently been engaged or married. The sages of the Mishna (Sotah 8:2) elucidate further these exemptions; anyone who has not only recently built a house but purchased or received a home is exempt; not only were you exempt if you had recently planted a vineyard but also if you had planted a group of at least five fruit-bearing trees; fiancés not only of young women but divorcees and widows were exempt from service, as well as every man within his first year of marriage (also referenced in Deuteronomy 24:5 with the reason given: “to give happiness to the woman he has married”). The sages also note the order of these exemptions: first the home, then the vineyard, and then the wife. The rabbis of the Mishnah (Sotah 44a) teach that this demonstrates that things should be done in a particular order; first one should build a home, then acquire a vocation that could support a family, and then take a bride.
I believe that in these categories of military exemptions, the Torah is teaching us that we need to be certain to water the grass we stand on. To nourish a new marriage, to water and tend a new vineyard to see it to harvest, to settle into and dedicate a new home—these take care and time and focus on one’s own life and relationships and endeavors and surroundings. Going to battle in the ancient days of our people was not only compulsory for all able-bodied men of military age but was viewed as an essential part of masculinity and communal action. To exempt someone from battle, the reason had to be of vast importance. Nourishing ourselves, watering the grass we stand on, is essential—and our Torah portion teaches us this lesson.
This past Sunday was the first day of the month of Elul, the month on the Jewish calendar that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Jewish tradition asks us to spend this month, as well as the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as a period of special reflection and introspection. We consider our lives--who we are, who we want to be, and the path we can take to become our better selves. Part of this process of Teshuva is noting the ways in which we have missed the mark, making apologies to those we may have wronged, and resolving to not make the same mistakes in the future. But an equally important part of the spiritual process of the month of Elul is to nourish the soul. In this time we must also consider whether we are tending to our own needs, what our hopes and dreams and goals truly are, and whether we caring for ourselves and our relationships, our bodies and our homes. We cannot simply look over at the fence and wish we could be better, or more like those we admire. We need to water the grass in our own yard before we can see the lush and vibrant results of our efforts.
In the coming week, and through the rest of this month of Elul, let us not simply admire the grass on the other side of our fence, but let us be certain to water our own as well.
Rabbi Emily E. Segal