Shedding blood is most shameful

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

Laws of warfare presented in last week’s Torah portion are continued this week in Ki Teytzey. This parashah begins with the treatment of a woman captured in war (Deuteronomy 22:10-14), who must not be sold for money or enslaved — very different from the manner in which innumerable women and even girls are being abused and trafficked in many parts of the world today.

When we read on in our sidrah, we come to another section that focuses on matters martial. In Deuteronomy 23:10 ff., we learn: “When you go out to encamp against your enemies, you shall be on guard against anything wrong.” The reason given at the end of the passage: “For the Eternal your God goes about in the midst of your camp to protect you and to give up your enemies before you, so your camp must be holy; God must not see anything shameful in you and turn away from you.” [23:15]

This passage seems so incongruous! The anthropomorphisms assigned to God might be off-putting to many, and the chauvinism and the insistence on holiness in time of war are jarring to most. Yet there is a lesson here that must not be lost on any of us.

The Torah teaches that even in time of war, a military encampment must be holy. In his commentary, Jeffrey Tigay writes, “The camp had to be kept fit for God’s presence by avoiding all forms of impurity and defilement.” [The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, p. 430] Now, if a military camp in wartime must “be kept fit for God’s presence,” how much more is this so for a home, a neighborhood, a community, a city or a country, in peacetime or at any time?

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“God must not see anything shameful.” What might “anything shameful” be? Although the text in verses 11-14 is quite explicit — you can check Deuteronomy 23:11-14 for yourself – Tigay also writes that anything shameful “can refer to virtually anything offensive.” 

Despite the exactness and the explicitness of the Torah here, our sages offer several possibilities that go beyond the specifics of the text. The rabbis suggest various improprieties, such as lascivious speech and promiscuity. For me, the most powerful and persuasive notion is that Sh’fichut Damim (the shedding of blood) is the most offensive thing to God. 

“How? As it is stated [in Numbers 35:33], ‘You must not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land …’ This verse tells us that shedding blood makes the land impure and repels the Sh’chinah (the indwelling divine presence).” [Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yosey, Numbers Rabah 7:10]

How bereft of the Sh’chinah, how God forsaken is our camp, our land, our world! Blood, all too often innocent blood – like a 9-year-old child killed while doing her homework in her bedroom – is being shed. We have a long way to go until this shameful kind of thing ends. Yet end it must.

Please note that all this is not about believing in God. It is about making our camp, our home, our community, our country, our planet, fit for a presence that  is divine whether we are believers or not.

As a believer, I hope and pray that people of faith and people without faith – all people – can join and work together to make shedding blood, if not a thing of the past then a very, very, very rare occurrence indeed. 

May we have the strength and the will to make our camp holy. May we make it fit for the Sh’chinah

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which provides the weekly D’var Torah for the Jewish Light.