This is a basic overview of the parsha story in a format that can be adapted for a wide range of ages. Sources include parsha text, commentaries and midrash. When introducing midrash or other non-pshat elements, I use the words “some people think” or something similar. (find out why)
Only five more parshiyos in Sefer Devarim – it’s almost Simchas Torah!
We already know that bnei Yisrael are going to go in to conquer eretz Cana’an (which would become eretz Yisrael) and destroy idols there. But what if the soldiers see beautiful women there, and decide to marry them?
Do you remember the plan of wicked King Balak?
He tricked the men of bnei Yisrael into marrying women from Moav and Midyan. Those were not nice women, and when the Jewish men married them, it made bnei Yisrael weak. Pinchas finally killed Zimri and the Moavi woman he’d married, and they grew strong again. But now, if they marry bad women, they could become weak once more!
It’s very important to choose a husband or wife who will help you serve Hashem better.
Hashem said a soldier could marry any woman he wanted to in Cana’an. But first, he had to make sure the woman was a good person who would help him serve Hashem. She had to be beautiful on the inside, not just on the outside.
How could they tell if women were beautiful on the inside?
First, she had to shave her hair and grow her nails. Did you ever see a picture of a fancy, beautiful woman, maybe in a magazine or an advertisement or poster? Imagine what she’d look like without bouncy hair and makeup, without lipstick and nail polish and expensive clothing. She wouldn’t be ugly, but she’d look ordinary; just like a regular person. After a month, if the soldier still loved her, and thought she’d raise his children well, he could marry her right away.
MIXING: this parsha tells us some rules about things that cannot be mixed.
The Torah doesn’t give reasons why we should be careful about these, or why we are allowed to mix some other kinds of things. Some of these are chukim, rules with no reason – we do them because Hashem said so. Here are some examples: Don’t plant a vineyard with different seeds – you must grow only one thing or another there; Don’t hitch up a donkey and an ox to plow a field together, and don’t wear wool and linen (two kinds of fabrics) mixed together.
FAIRNESS: this parsha also tells us a lot about treating people equally, with respect.
Life in those days could be pretty harsh. This parsha teaches us how to behave better, starting with a pretty strange mitzvah: if you see a nest with eggs or baby birds in it, you’re allowed to take the eggs or babies – but first, send away the mother bird. This mitzvah is called shiluach ha-kan, and many people believe we do it so we don’t make the mother bird sad. And if we have to be careful about the feelings of a bird, well, we should certainly watch how we treat other people. Here are more rules that teach us about fairness:
- · Men in those days could have more than one wife. If a man’s favourite wife had a son, he could inherit more money or land than the other children (inherit means getting money or land when somebody dies). But the Torah says only the first son gets more, no matter which wife is his mother.
- · If a person did a very bad thing, they’d be hanged as a punishment. Sometimes, the body would hang for a long time to warn other people, and they’d make fun of the dead criminal. But the Torah says even a criminal must be buried right away and cannot stay hanging even overnight.
- · Back then, and even today, many people believed in the “finders, keepers” rule: if you find something, lucky you! But the Torah says you must try very hard to return the lost thing, whatever it is: an animal, clothing, or anything.
- · If poor people needed money, someone could make them pay back lots more than they’d borrowed (that happens nowadays, too). But the Torah says you must never ask for more back than the money you lent in the first place.
- · Bosses could pay their workers whenever and whatever they wanted. They’d always treat friends and neighbours better than strangers. But the Torah says every boss must pay workers on time, even those who aren’t Jewish.
- · Also, women couldn’t own very much and if a woman or child was left without a man in the family, they might be very poor; people would steal from them and treat them badly. But the Torah warns over and over to take special care of three kinds of people: widows, orphans and geirim (people who choose to become Jewish). It says not to take their clothing, and to leave grain and olives lying in the field so they can come get food if they need it.
- · One very strange rule about fairness: if a man dies before he has a child, his brother must come and marry his wife so they can have a child in the dead man’s name. (But if the brother doesn’t want to marry her, he doesn’t have to.)
But not everybody should be treated fairly, equally, or with respect!
This parsha also tells us about people who can’t be part of bnei Yisrael, and who shouldn’t be treated nicely. It’s tough to read about, because we believe listening to Hashem makes us kinder and better people. For example, we’re not ever to allow a man from Moav to join bnei Yisrael, because they hired Bilam and were cruel to us on our journey (however, Rus – the great-grandmother of of David HaMelech, was a princess from Moav; this rule is only for men). Another example comes at the end of the parsha with the story of Amalek, a nation who tried to sneak up and kill us on the road from Mitzrayim. What they did was so bad that we must never forget, and never, ever forgive them.
Hashem clearly wants bnei Yisrael to be a very special kind of people, as we’ll see in next week’s parsha…