I heard a story about the late, great comic actor Tim Conway(Conan O’Brien interview with Bob Newhart, Tim Conway stories begin about 26:15 mark). It turns out his father was quite a character. One time, the family drove from Ohio to visit Tim’s older sister in New York. When they got there, they could not find a parking space, so Conway’s dad turned the car around and drove back to Ohio. Conway’s dad also considered himself to be quite a handyman. One of his home projects was installing a new doorbell, but something went awry with the wiring. The doorbell chimed all of the time, except when someone pressed the button. When the house fell silent, that was when his dad would say, “I’ll get it!” One can only imagine how such a childhood shaped the mind of a budding comedian.
This doorbell story made immediately brought to mind two important Shabbat ideas. The first comes from a teaching that tells of a fan approaching a great pianist. He asks, “How do you play the notes so well?” The pianist answers, “Anyone can play the notes, but the pause between the notes, that is where the art resides.” The lesson continues, “great art inspires great living. One of Judaism’s contributions to the art of living is Shabbat, the pause between the notes.” Shabbat is a break from the noise of the workaday week, and furthermore, an opportunity to hear something arriving at our door, a chance to shout, “I’ll get it… which leads to the second Shabbat idea, a metaphorical image more than anything.
We envision Shabbat as a bride about to enter our sanctuary. When the calm of Shabbat approaches, not only must we be aware of her arrival, but we also are supposed to open the door to let her in. At the end of the Shabbat Song lecha dodi, the congregation collectively rises and says, “Bo-ee challa, bo-ee challah. Enter o bride. Please enter.” This teaches us three important lessons. First, just as we anticipate Shabbat, we also must anticipate that there will be a break from the noise in our world. We should see it as an incredible gift and celebrate it. Second, we learn that the break will only be short lived unless we run to the door to greet it, invite it in, and do what we can to make it stay for a while. Third, the unfortunate thing we have to be aware of is that, just as Shabbat ends, the moments of peace will come to an end, but unlike Shabbat, we can work to make them last indefinitely.
This third lesson comes from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze. It says, when you go out to war against your enemy. It seems like so much of the Torah is about war, especially in Deuteronomy as the Israelites are getting ready for the wars in the book of Joshua. War it would seem is an ever-present theme. Maimonides even included the laws of war as a section of his legal writing, Mishneh Torah. So, the art of war, as much as we hate to admit it, is a significant part of Torah learning. However, our Torah portion, which speaks of war, is actually, upon closer inspection, trying to promote peace. The parasha says, “after God has delivered the enemy into your hands.” So, the Torah is talking about what happens after the war. The following instructions are about how to live in peace time, the pause between wars.
Now I will be honest, I really do not like what comes next. The Torah begins explaining how to treat prisoners of war, including how to make a captured woman your wife. It sounds kind of caveman-ish. “When you see a beautiful woman you desire and would take her for a wife.” Thank goodness for the midrash. The midrash in Deuteronomy Rabba actually tells us this is not the right thing to do. In fact, it tells us we are commanded to trim her hair and cut her nails, basically do things that will make her less attractive to your eyes so you won’t want to do a detestable thing. There is so much about this that is wrong for the 21st century, but if we read on in the midrash, we can appreciate where it is going. It is going to tell us, if you ignore the instruction here and keep her anyway, against her will, another sin will come your way. Here it says, you will have a wayward and defiant son. So, the lesson is one sin will beget another sin. Conversely, the midrash offers, “a mitzvah draws another mitzvah in its train.” They actually compound 1, 2, 3 mitzvahs or more may follow.
At the end of the day, the Torah portion, through the lens of midrash is telling us to make the most of the time between wars, and to do everything in our power to make that peace last as long as possible. If this were only about war, it would not be interesting. War is a symbol for noise and chaos in our lives. And peace stands for the moments of quiet, the pause between wars. Therefore, what we can take away from this passage of Torah is that we must take advantage of those moments when the noise stops, and then we must strive to make those times last as long as we can.
Shabbat is a good, though imperfect example for this. You get roughly 24 hours that are chalk-full of mitzvot. Theoretically, they compound our enjoyment. But eventually the sun will set on Saturday, and we re-enter the ordinary days of the week. Our Torah portion, however, wants us to imagine a sun that never sets on the Sabbath, to imagine, a time during which we compound our mitzvot to keep the sun shining brightly on our world, and when we maintain peace that cannot be threatened by terrible noise.
In our non-Shabbat lives, we hear time and again stories from people who discover the joy of helping out someone in need. Teachers can often trace a time when they connected with one student and chose to devote their lives to doing that as much as possible. Medical workers find reward in saving lives, and they work daily to keep doing the same. People who volunteer to feed the hungry or house the homeless often get hooked on the good feeling they get from improving lives. Doing good in our world can be addictive. Doing one mitzvah can lead to another and another. And the good we can do is infinite. We may not be able to keep the sun from setting, but through the good we do, the longer we can maintain moments of peace as we hold back the noise.
The Torah wants us to be addicted to doing good. It also wants us to be a bit like Tim Conway’s dad, knowing that when the noise stops, that is our opportunity. That is the time when shout, “I’ll get it.” And then by performing mitzvah after mitzvah, we can keep the noise away, and can make peace last.