Rabbi Michael Bernstein
Verses often appear next to each other in the Torah in almost bizarre juxtaposition; the stranger the juxtaposition the greater the pleasure and reward when we decipher the Torah’s hidden meaning. In these instances, the Torah’s very obscurity is often part of the message itself.
The Torah outlines three prohibitions in consecutive order (21:15-17), “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death. Whoever kidnaps a man and sells him, and he was found to have been in his possession, shall surely be put to death. Whoever curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death.”
One would have expected that the prohibitions against hitting a parent and against cursing a parent would appear right next to each other. Yet the Torah interposes between them the prohibition against kidnapping. This startling arrangement of verses demands an explanation. Why?
The essential evil in kidnapping is that the offender has the arrogance, self-importance and self-absorption to take possession of another human and exploit him; from the perspective of the kidnapper, no one exists other than himself. If he then sells his captive like a mere piece of chattel, his corruption is complete, and he deserves the death penalty.
Let us now consider the prohibitions against striking and cursing parents. It is a rare child who will be inclined to do so. Parents naturally love their children and provide for them, generating a natural reciprocal love. There are, however, unfortunate exceptions.
Occasionally, parents use their children to satisfy their own ambitions or resolve their own inner conflicts; they live vicariously through their children. A parent may push his son to excel in academic subjects or sports in which he himself was deficient. Or else, a parent may feel that a certain personality flaw has always held him back in life, and he tries to eradicate that flaw from his child, even though the child shows no signs of having it or being bothered by it. In essence, the parent who presses a child in these matters is using him to satisfy his own psychological needs.
In such cases, the child, although wanting to love his parent, feels trapped and used; he feels kidnapped. It is no wonder if he becomes so rebellious and angry toward his parents that he might even go so far as to strike or curse them.
The placement of the prohibition against kidnapping between the prohibitions against striking and cursing parents is yet another example of God’s infinite pedagogical wisdom. The strange juxtaposition calls out for investigation and explanation. This reinforces the concept that we must examine ourselves fully and honestly to see to what degree, however small, kidnapping may lie within our own child-rearing practices.
Let us consider three more consecutive verses that occur further along in the parashah (23:3-5). “Do not favor an unfortunate person in his litigation. When you happen across your enemy’s stray ox or donkey, you shall surely return it to him. When you see your enemy’s donkey squatting under his burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help him!”
At first glance, the prohibition against misplaced compassion in a court of law seems weakly connected to the next commandment that calls for helping an enemy. The Torah encourages us to make a connection by placing these two commandments together without any break. Upon deeper reflection, we find their connection in the conflict between emotions and justice. Although our hearts rightfully go out to the unfortunate, we may not subvert justice in his favor. Conversely, although we may hate our enemy, we may not allow him to suffer an avoidable loss through our inaction. This, too, is injustice.
The third prohibition would appear to be an extension of the second; help your enemy not only by returning his lost animal but also by lending a shoulder when he is struggling with a heavy load. Oddly, the Torah here separates these two prohibitions by a stumah, a mandatory gap of at least several spaces, the Torah’s equivalent of a paragraph break; the stumah encourages us to discover how these two seemingly similar laws are actually more different from each other than we might first imagine. What is the distinction between returning an enemy’s lost animal and helping him balance a heavy load?
The difference lies in the degree of the loss. In the first case, the enemy stands to suffer the loss of his stray animal, and understandably, justice demands that if are in a position to prevent the loss we should do so. In the second case, the enemy will suffer no loss even if he receives no assistance. Helping him alleviates his stress and weariness, an act that goes beyond justice all the way to friendship. This law directs us to change our relationship with him, to go beyond basic justice.
In the third verse, the Torah chooses the unusual words azov taazov imo to express “you shall surely help him.” These words ordinarily mean to abandon rather than to help. Targum Onkelos weaves a very illuminating comment into his translation. “Abandon the grudge you bear against him in your heart,” he writes, “and help him unload his animal.” The Torah is calling for more than justice. It is calling for the necessary underpinnings of a cohesive just society. It is calling for friendship.
Another interesting juxtaposition occurs with the following two verses (22:27-28), “Do not curse a judge nor malign a prince amongst your people. Do not be late with your first fruit and priestly tithes; give Me your firstborn sons.” The verses seem unrelated. How are cursing a leader and donations to the Kohein connected? Furthermore, the Torah doesn’t even place a stumah between the verses, suggesting a rather close connection.
Let us consider. Why would someone curse a judge or a prince? More often than not, it is because they are insecure in themselves and resentful of people in positions of power and privilege. Because of their own low self-esteem, they resent others whose status they covet. The Torah commands that one should not react to these feelings with verbal aggression; one should rather try to correct them as they arise.
Failure to deliver Temple donations and tithes may reflect mere indifference or indolence. But it may also reflect a deeper resentment against the Kohein, the privileged recipients of the donations and tithes. In this case, the resentment is expressed by inaction. In modern psychology, this is called passive aggression.
By its juxtaposition to the prohibition against cursing a prince, the Torah is signaling that this delay may be related, a kindred expression of resentment of another’s position. By doing so, the Torah not only forbids the aggression, it also encourages the violator to ferret out and correct the true feelings that may lead him to delay his tithe.