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How does the message of the text in our sidra resemble the corporate slogan of the Internet search giant Google? They both say, “Don’t do evil.” Up to now the message of Deuteronomy has gone from the highest levels of faith: to love God, to observe His commandments, and to abhor idolatry, to the practical daily issues of political and religious structure: the role of the priest, the king, the prophet, and the judge. Now the text turns to issues of morality and social justice.
Our sidra contains no fewer than 74 mitzvot—greater than any other parashah—mostly concerning the interplay between the individual and society. One of the major issues discussed here is marriage, an important matter since it concerns both the individual as well as the community. The law provides special exemptions for the newly married husband:
When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married. (Deut. 24:5)
The newlywed is exempt from most anything having to do with a war effort for one year; the only exception is in the case of a war for the defense of the land (this is an interpretation of commentators). Most of the remaining issues dealing with marriage pertain to divorce. Since divorce virtually always leaves at least one injured party, these laws serve to minimize the damage caused by unjust accusations against the woman. Thus in Deut. 21:14, a man cannot sell as a slave a captive woman he has wed; in Deut. 22:13 a man who falsely accuses his wife of not being virgin when married is flogged, fined, and prohibited divorce.
The rights of the poor and indigent are also expressly stated. The wealthy are clearly restricted in the ways that they can treat the poor, even when they have legitimate claims.
When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you. (24:10–11)
This preserves the dignity of the borrower’s home. Also found here is the well known admonition not to take the garment of a poor debtor in pledge and keep it overnight (Deut. 24:13). In addition, many workers of the time lived a hand-to-mouth existence and depended for their survival upon daily payment for their work. To prevent the exploitation of workers by greedy employers, the law provides for immediate payment of wages.
You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt. (24:14–15)
Later commentators applied this verse to all workers:
From this verse [24:14], I only know that I am forbidden to withhold or delay payment of wages from the needy and destitute. How do I know that the same holds true for all workers? Scripture says “do not abuse”—this is a general command that applies to all. Then why does the verse specify the needy and destitute laborer? To teach that God requites abuse of the needy and the destitute with special alacrity. (Sifrei Devarim #178)
Protection of the tools that one requires for his occupation is another law given here.
A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be taking someone’s life in pawn. (24:6)
Feeding the poor is another social topic covered in this parashah.
When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, 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. (23:25–26)
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.... When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (24:19–21)
There are many additional mitzvot in this parashah, but their common theme is given by the statement that follows many laws: “Thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.” Or, as Google’s concise message puts it, “Don’t do evil.”
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