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D'varim/Deuteronomy 23:10 When a camp goes out against your enemies, you shall keep yourselves from any evil matter.
The first two words echo the opening words of the parasha; taking the meaning 'when' and the verb root meaning "go out". There, the verb is the Qal 2ms form, "when you go out"; here, it is the Qal 3fs form - "when she goes out". The second verb in the verse - , the Niphal 2ms form of the root , to guard or keep - is preceded by , 'and', which is omitted in our translation, but has an implied 'then' meaning following the 'if/when' at the start of the verse. The Niphal voice here gives a reflexive quality: "you shall keep yourselves".
TheRamban, writing in the 13th century, comments on the way that armies typically behave the world over: "The well known custom of forces going to war is that they eat all abominable things, rob and plunder, and are not ashamed even of lewdness and all vileness. The fairest of man by nature comes to be possessed of cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy." He concludes that "Scripture is warning of a time when sin is rampant." Six centuries later, Rabbi Hirsch speaks about the changes in behaviour that can occur when the conventions of normal society are set aside: "When you have left your homes and the restricting influence of ordinary family and social life and find yourself in a military camp set out for war against an enemy ... where the ordinary restrictions of morality and decency become so easily loosened, and the purpose of the war itself could tend to foster unrestrained coarseness and brutality, you are not to loose your self-controlling inner inspection and keep yourself on guard against everything bad."
What might "everything bad" entail? TheBaal HaTurim explains that the gematria of is equivalent to that of , "from the shedding of blood", to , "from cursing the [i.e. G-d's] name", and to , "one should not look upon a woman at all." Since the process of warfare necessarily involves killing one's enemies, "the shedding of blood" in the Tur's comment must refer to killing one's fellow soldiers as a result of bickering within the camp or jealousy and arguments over the spoil. Sifrei says that "when Scripture states [thing or matter, but literally 'word'] it includes 'evil talk'" (Sifrei Ki Tetze 254). The rabbis of the Talmud considered sexual issues to be particularly important and offer a remedy: "Our Rabbis taught: The words, 'You shalt keep yourself from every evil thing', mean that one should not indulge in such thoughts by day as might lead to uncleanliness by night. Hence Rabbi Phineas ben Jair said: Study leads to precision, precision leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to meekness, meekness leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the [possession of] the holy spirit, the holy spirit leads to life eternal (, literally 'the resurrection of the dead'!)" (b. Avodah Zara 20b). Many will have seen pictures of Israeli soldiers in off-duty moments, wearing their prayer shawls and studying in between times of fighting; they are literally putting these words into practice: studying to keep their minds pure and uncontaminated by the horrors of the war they must fight. This is one reason why the Israeli Defence Force is a uniquely humane and compassionate army: not raping and pillaging as other modern armies do and, on the contrary, providing food, fuel and hospital treatment for the women and children caught up in the conflict.
Jeffrey Tigay points out that Moshe uses the same phrase - - a few chapters earlier when talking about sacrificial animals: "You shall not sacrifice to the L-RD your G-d an ox or a sheep that has any defect of a serious kind, for that is abhorrent to the L-RD your G-d" (D'varim 17:1, JPS). He suggests that this phrase can be linked with "Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption or a discharge and anyone defiled by a corpse" (B'Midbar 5:2, JPS) to imply that people with defects or abnormalities as well as skin conditions or genital discharges would be excluded from serving in the army. The Qumran War Scroll explicitly excludes those with permanent bodily defects and defiling skin eruptions, while the Temple Scroll calls on the army to avoid all types of impurity, sexual crimes and every type of sin and guilt. This might also be paralleled with the sin of Achan, who expropriated some of the forbidden spoil from Jericho (Joshua 7:19-21) and so weakened the army of Israel that they were defeated when they first attacked the city of Ai.
Rashi makes one of his typically cryptic comments to this verse: "The Accuser, ha'Satan, prosecutes at a time of peril." This sounds like Peter's warning that "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8, ESV). The enemy of our souls is looking for those that he can pick off from the group: the vulnerable or the weak, the isolated or stragglers, the young or newborn. This is exactly the situation in nature where jackals, lions and other predators follow a herd of wild animals. They will not openly attack the leaders of the herd, but will wait for a vulnerability to occur at the side or rear, then they will then rush in and pick off their prey without interference from the herd as a whole. Yeshua uses the same picture: "Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather" (Matthew 24:28, ESV). Vultures will not bother a strong and healthy human or animal, but once it has died and can no longer defend itself or fight them off, then they gather to devour the corpse.
It is when we are vulnerable that Satan attacks us: at times of stress or challenge - if we have been made redundant or are unemployed, when we are sick or ill, if going through relationship difficulties or breakdown, when putting in extra hours at work, approaching final examinations, if suffering financial trauma or those major family lifecycle events: births, marriages and deaths. At all these times - when we are already running at or beyond full capacity, when we are tired and stressed, when we are tetchy and irritable, when we may not be sleeping well, our resources are low and our guard is down - he pounces on us and takes advantage of our weakness to press home his attack and devour us. We find ourselves pushed into some kind of sin - some major, some minor - followed by guilt and concealment, until we feel ourselves to be estranged from G-d and our faith and relationship with Him have been destroyed.
What can we do to keep ourselves strong? The first thing must be the start of Rabbi Phineas' advice: study. We must immerse ourselves in the Word of G-d, studying the Scriptures on at least a daily basis. With a regular diet of Scripture, "taking up the sword of the Spirit which is the word of G-d" (Ephesians 6:17), then we can not only build ourselves up in the L-rd, but defend ourselves against the attacks of the enemy. The shield of faith "to extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one" (v. 16) is fed by reading and meditating upon the Word. The second thing comes at the end of Rabbi Phineas' list: the Ruach. We must cultivate the presence and power of the Holy Spirit within us: seeking Him, listening to Him, working with Him and allowing Him to direct us. Prayer is a vital component of both, for how can we study without prayer; how can we engage with the Spirit without prayer? Prayer - talking to G-d, listening to His voice, opening our hearts to Him and being aware of His presence - is our very breath; it is how we breathe in the spiritual world, the flow of life-giving heavenly oxygen into our spiritual lungs. Staying firmly in fellowship and accountable to others is a critical process as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, "let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV). This is a process of mutual encouragement and joy as we spur each other on, call each other to higher places and lift the body of Messiah up as they lift us.
And what about others? How can we help others who are on the edge of the crowd and may drop out of fall away? Firstly, we have to care for others; Yeshua's summary of the law "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39) needs to be put into practice, as James explains: "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" (James 2:15-16, ESV). Secondly, we have to be prepared to lovingly confront or correct people whose behaviour or attitudes are marginalising them from the group: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15, ESV). As we encourage ourselves to meet together, don't forget to include those on the fringe and draw them into the group and meaningful fellowship. There is much to be done and many ways to assist the vulnerable of the flock.
Further Study: Joshua 6:17-19; Romans 13:8-10
In the heat of your daily battle today, are you keeping yourself from every
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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