Mitzvah Begets Mitzvah, Sin Begets Sin

A Midrashic Reflection on the End of the War in Afghanistan

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A Taliban Soldier

Many of us watch and listen in both despair and anger as events unfold in Afghanistan. In fact, this was a war that, for too many of us, has gone largely unnoticed for years, even as it maimed and killed tens of thousands on both sides. Three presidents, one Democrat, and two Republicans vowed to end the war, and in each case, other matters of natural interest took priority. When President Biden finally acted to withdraw American troops for that war-torn country, the complexity of extricating a massive military buildup over two decades began to unravel. The US-trained Afghan military summarily collapsed, its president fleeing the country, and the Taliban, who it now seems the military knew would eventually take over in any case, regained power almost without resistance. 

For obvious reasons, the tragic events became politicized, Republicans blamed Biden for a bungled plan, some even going as far as calling for his impeachment. Many Democrats also raised concern and criticism, noting that the White House was caught off-guard and did not adequately prepare for the contingency that unfolded. Pundits, policymakers, and military intelligence can debate who is at fault, if anyone, in this unfolding tragedy. Below I offer a set of observations drawn from scripture and rabbinic teaching in an attempt to dislodge the conversation from the present moment and look at the war in Afghanistan using a wider lens, and in addition, try to contextualize it in this season of repentance. This is not meant to accuse anyone in particular - or perhaps it is to blame everyone collectively. 

Deuteronomy 21:10 begins the weekly Torah portion known as “Ki Teze” (“when you go out to war against your enemies…”). The narrative begins by telling Israel that in a time of war if you take a captive woman, a beautiful woman (yafet to’ar), who you desire, you should temporarily diminish her beauty (“trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb”) allow her to mourn the separation from her parents and then, after a month, if you still desire her, you can take her as a wife. If, on the other hand, you decide not to marry her, you must let her go free and not sell her into slavery.

The story of the female captive is painful to read. Confronting how scripture treats women as chattel should shake us to the core and yet avoiding it, ignoring it, or even apologizing for it, diminishes the way scripture compels us to confront human nature in its most naked and horrifying suit. “Religious reading” as Paul Griffiths has taught us in his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion is about confronting the darkness, as well as the light, in holy writ, making reading a performative act of confrontation and struggle rather than amelioration and resolution. As Martin Buber taught, there are few things more dangerous than religion, in part because it reveals our best and worst instincts simultaneously. The irredeemable is as much a part of religion as redemption. 

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The rabbinic sages were also bothered by the story of the female captive, but not quite the way we are. They still lived in a world where women were primarily chattel, albeit they had evolved enough to question scripture’s seemingly unreflective assessment of certain human bodies as property. Their question was really more about the foreignness of the captive; that is, why would God so readily enable Israelite soldiers to bring foreign women into their midst? They wondered why God did not forbid Israelite soldiers from taking female captives in the first place. Here they offer a curious assessment that has implications far beyond this isolated episode. They suggest that sometimes the Torah “speaks to the evil inclination (yezer ha-ra),” that is, in the case of spoils of war, and perhaps beyond that, scripture recognizes human nature for what it is enough to know that if it had prohibited taking female captives, Israelite soldiers would have done so anyway, thus acting in defiance of divine will. Hence, scripture permitted such behavior but tried to mitigate the excesses of such actions, requiring a month-long “cooling off period” where the soldier could leave the battlefield, access his true intentions, and the captive woman could adequately mourn the loss of her family.

The scriptural narrative then continues in what is a seemingly haphazard way, not uncommon for Deuteronomy. We are quickly introduced to three more short vignettes. The story of a man with two wives, one loved and one unloved, the story of the recalcitrant rebellious son, and a morbid comment about prohibiting leaving a corpse of an individual on a tree that is hung by the court for reasons of transgression. The Torah mandates that the corpse be cut down and buried immediately in deference to the sanctity of the human body. The story of the loved and unloved wife recounts a situation where one’s firstborn son is born from an unloved wife who may want the father to deny him his first-born rights in favor of the son of the beloved wife. Not so, says scripture; if your first-born son is born from your unloved wife, he must receive all the privileges of a first-born. These are all disturbing vignettes which, as we will see, is precisely the point of its rabbinic interpretation.

The sages in the midrash are curious about these seemingly disparate and disconnected episodes and suggest a thread that connects them in a linear fashion. 

The midrash cites Mishna Avot 4:2, which states “A mitzvah begets (goreret) mitvah and a sin begets a sin, the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the reward of the sin, is a sin.” This somewhat opaque early rabbinic lesson, suggests the midrash, is how we can understand these series of verses in Deuteronomy 21. The midrash then follows with an elaborate exercise of tying together these episodes, suggesting that if, in fact, you take a captive as your wife, even though it may be permitted if the proper precautions are taken, you will end up with your first-born as the son of your unloved wife and then must give him first-born privileges even against your will. And then subsequently, you will be burdened with a recalcitrant son, a son so rebellious that you will have to abandon him to the courts. And the community will be in a situation that they had to hang a transgressor and thus be mandated to cut down the corpse and bury it. In other words, “a sin begets a sin…” one unlawful act will invariably bring about others. It is interesting that in this case, taking a female captive is not unlawful, that is, it is not itself a sin. Rather, it is a case when the divine acquiesces to the “evil inclination” of the solider, making it a lawful act yet one that still, in the eyes of the midrash, has negative consequences. If the soldier had a better moral compass, he wouldn’t take the female captive, to begin with.

The point here is that the sages suggest that the consequences of one’s actions, individual or collective, create a kind of web of causality that extends beyond the agency of the individual. This biblical/rabbinic causal chain, not only for sin but also for mitzvah, is admittedly not very compelling to a modern sensibility, but I think there may be something that can learned from it, even if we do not accept the direct causality the rabbis suggest. In fact, we all experience this kind of casual web in myriad ways; the way one lie begets another and creates a false narrative, a “web of lies” as they say, whereby one cannot find an exit of truth without acknowledging the original lie. We have all made bad decisions that led us down a path of other bad decisions that we wouldn’t have made had we not exhibited poor judgment at the outset. This is all quite natural to human existence. And it has collective implications as well. And in this season of repentance, it is suggestive that we not only focus on specific behaviors but also look backward to reflect on seemingly appropriate decisions that may have led to inappropriate ones.

As I watched the horrors at the Afghan airport and then the political wrangling of who is at fault and why, this rabbinic teaching came to mind. If we step back, I suggest we can see the entire Afghan war was an example of “sin begets sin.” Why did we go to war in Afghanistan? We were angry and we were vindictive after 9/11. That was totally understandable. But the Taliban, who you will recall in the late 1980s many celebrated as Afghani Freedom Fighters against the Soviets, were not the perpetrators. And neither was Saddam Hussein. We did eventually un-seat Saddam and we did kill Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan. Were those wars illegal? That depends on how you understand the legality of war. In any case, though, Iraq and Afghanistan were certainly wars we did not need to fight, but wanted to fight. Were some objectives met? Certainly, wars often meet some objectives, even those we lose. But again, it was never quite clear what the objective was in Afghanistan, which may be a modern case of what the sages called “speaking to the collective evil inclination (yezer ha-ra).” Did the very impetus to go to war in Afghanistan presage its outcome? 

The rabbis suggested that when we are confronted with the disastrous situation of the recalcitrant son, a child so dangerous that the Torah mandates the court end his young life (whether or not this ever took place is irrelevant here), we should look back to the taking of female captives, an act that the Torah reluctantly permits, but does not promote. Here too, when we witness the debacle in today’s Afghanistan perhaps we should look back to why we waged this war to being with? To liberate the women of Afghanistan? Yes, certainly, the Taliban’s behavior is, and remains, deplorable. But the Taliban are not the only bad actors in the world and not only do we not attack all of them, we even support some of them. Even more so, we engage in some horrible behavior of our own, at home and abroad. Democracy? Liberty? Sure, but did we really think we would achieve that in Afghanistan? 

Reflecting backward, perhaps it is better to begin with the naked truth. We waged a war in Afghanistan because we were angry and because 9/11 presented an opportunity for us to vent that anger. That too is human nature, even as it may have been an expression of our evil inclination (yezer ha-ra). Can that be likened to a solider cutting the hair of the captive woman and waiting a month to marry her?  That is, it may be a permissible way to do things but it also may begin a chain reaction whose consequences will only be felt later. 

Could the evacuation have turned out better? Probably. But how much better, really? And what would be the bar of acceptability? When a country attempts to extricate itself from a foreign land occupied for two decades, and when those who you attempted to eradicate are still there in force, waiting for you to leave to re-take the country, and those you trained do not really have a deep national allegiance, what are the chances of any peaceful or even normal transition?

Finger-pointing and casting blame is understandable; that is the behavior of the loser. And here we are the losers. There is no doubt we lost this war. Who is to blame? Maybe no one in particular, maybe all of us. But blame should not be isolated to a momentary frame. The end result of Afghanistan has to extend back to the very beginning. Like the soldier who captures a woman in the height of battle, under certain conditions the Torah reluctantly permits taking her as a wife, but the rabbis counter that it comes at a price and the price may not become apparent until later on. 

Teshuva requires first acknowledging wrongdoing. But if the captive woman teaches us anything constructive, it is that wrongdoing is a complicated thing. And sometimes understanding why something has gone terribly wrong requires us to gaze back through the labyrinth of seemingly justifiable behavior. Put otherwise, no sin exists in a vacuum. “Sin begets sin.”  

We can, and should, mitigate the damage to all, but we can and should also recognize the wisdom of the sages here. Choices are interconnected with other choices, not inextricably so, we can also reverse course, as teshuva teaches us, although it is difficult to achieve and even more so to sustain. But causality needn’t be absolute to still be relevant.

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Shaul Magid is the editor of Jewish Thought and Culture at Tikkun Magazine, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and a senior Kogod Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest book is Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish radical with Princeton University Press. A version of this was delivered as a sermon at the Fire Island Synagogue, August 21, 2021 

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