Belated Social Observation/Dvar Torah on Shoftim/Ki Tetze

The Laws of Warfare are spread over the parshiyot of Shoftim and Ki Tetze, primarily. Though there are sections in Bamidbar and later in Ki Tetze, the primary locus spans 4 consecutive segments, but is interrupted by the laws pertaining to a corpse found near a city, otherwise known as eglah arufa. The question arises, why does this segment occur right smack in the middle of the laws of warfare?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered this question twice; once in the drasha of a local Rav, and once in a D’var Torah by R’ Samet (which can be accessed in translation here, though there’s more in the published Hebrew version). The local Rav was saying that these laws were there lest one think, reading the laws of warfare which includes the command to utterly annihilate the 7 native tribes of Canaan, that the Torah doesn’t value life, we see the lengths that the Torah goes to in the case of a single mysterious death. We therefore can’t say that the Torah isn’t being compassionate when demanding genocide; we simply don’t see the whole picture. But we know from experience that sometimes what looks like compassion results in cruelty. Kol ha-merachem al ha-achzarim, sofo le-achzer al ha-rachmanim.

R’ Samet (with whom I identify strongly on this issue) takes an almost opposite approach. He reads this entire segment as a form of protest against warfare, an implicit precursor to Micha’s idyllic prophecy (4:3) of a world where ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’. Each of the sections about warfare, R’ Samet shows, is designed to sublimate, refine, and protect against the inevitable moral deterioration of the military, and to keep perspective of the things that are truly important. Eglah Arufa, he suggests, is a hedge against the inevitable outbreak of violence which occurs when soldiers return home from war. A greater sensitivity to acts of violence will prevent the returning soldiers’ temporary depravity from penetrating the rest of society, and assist them in their re-integration to normal life.

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