This week’s Parsha discusses the laws of inheritance for a man who has married more than one wife. The psukim read as follows, “If a man has two wives, one loved, the other hated, and both the loved and the unloved bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the unloved wife, then when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the beloved wife in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the unloved wife. He must recognize [the legal rights of] the firstborn of his unloved wife so as to give him a double share of all he has, for he is the first of his father's strength. The birthright is legally his” (Devarim 21:15-17).
Immediately, this verse raises many an eyebrow. Today, the concept of marrying more than one wife is certainly foreign; the idea of a man loving one wife and hating the other is the stuff of daytime television. While these specific laws may no longer apply since the Takkanah of Rabbeinu Gershom, which outlawed polygamy, the lessons inherent in these psukim are actually timeless.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that these laws at first glance appear quite straightforward: in a situation in which a man does have two wives, if he truly feels more love toward one than the other, his natural inclination would be to carry on her legacy and express his love by endowing the majority of his inheritance to her son. The Torah therefore makes the law crystal clear, expressly forbidding overlooking the true Bechor who is meant to inherit according to Halacha.
Furthermore, Rabbi Sacks explains that there is a purposeful wording in these psukim that alludes to an important story in Jewish history. The words of the Pasuk which refer to the two wives are “ahuva,” loved, and “senuah,” hated. Not coincidentally, these are also the words used to describe Rachel and Leah, Yaakov’s wives. In fact, it is because of Yaakov’s story that this law becomes especially important; Yaakov did, in fact, choose to allot the Bechorah, a double portion of inheritance, to Yosef, the son of his beloved wife, rather than to Reuven, Leah’s son and Yaakov’s actual firstborn. Importantly, God Himself willed this to be so, and Reuven lost the Bechorah through his own misdeeds. Even so, Rabbi Sacks explains that this law is meant as a means of correcting anyone who might think that Yaakov’s example can be followed.
Beyond a warning not to replicate Yaakov’s actions, however, the importance of this law and its relevance today is still essential to understand. The root of this law is the incredibly sensitive understanding of the Torah regarding the power of love. Many wonder - does the Torah, a book of laws, a code of conduct, have room for emotions? Does love have a place in Torah Judaism? Certainly family, marriage, community, and connection seem to have top spots in the Jewish communal arena, but what does love have to do with it?
Of course, it is actually quite easy to delve into Judaism and find discussions of and references to love. Take a look at the first paragraph of the Shema, the quintessential Jewish prayer, or the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Glance at Shlomo HaMelech’s famous Shir HaShirim, the first actual love song, read through the blessings given to a bride and groom, and think again before wondering if Judaism ever speaks about love.
As such, the very fact that we need to have laws that govern our actions when we feel love toward another underscores the degree to which God recognizes and understands the importance of love and its role in humanity. God not only anticipates that we will feel love, He commands us to, and expects us to! He also recognizes that love is powerful enough to sway our beliefs, to make us think about acting in ways that may not be in accordance with our values - as with every emotion, how we feel, or how intensely we feel it, may not always be effective. As Shlomo himself writes in Shir HaShirim, “Shecholas ahava ani.” It is possible to be lovesick, to make oneself literally ill – not because of stress or sadness, but because of love! If Western culture has taken any piece of liturgy seriously, it is that line from Shir HaShirim. Every great poem, every well-known piece of art, every famous song, every bestselling novel and #1 rom-com in existence has at its core a love story fraught with a fair amount of heartache.
Torah laws are therefore enforced to acknowledge the emotions involved while making it clear that the law must still be observed in spite of those emotions. Sometimes, we must act opposite to our emotions, even those which are positive and well intentioned. Even love, and kindness, must have limits. This is why the term in the Torah for adultery and illicit sexual behavior is “chesed,” because too much kindness, too much love and connection, can be destructive. Love, connection, and kindness must be appropriately directed and apportioned in order to be effective.
This is true in the case of overt sins, but also in a subtler manner: when our love for our children or students or peers stops us from being able to effectively teach, discipline, or set limits with them, we are stuck. When our feelings of love for others dull our senses and sensitivities and begin to blur lines that ought not to be blurred, we may begin to lose the sense of separateness and uniqueness with which we must carry ourselves. If love for someone who is not “good” for us leads us to continue carrying a torch for that person, and that person alone, darkening the rest of the world and blinding us to the possibility of loving another, this can certainly lead to the lovesickness the world is so fond of idealizing.
The laws governing the inheritance of the son of the hated wife teach us an essential lesson. The reason we need laws is because we have feelings, and these are both an asset and a tool for Avodas Hashem, yet at the same time, can be a stumbling block. The man who has these two wives feels strong love toward one, and his urge therefore is to give his inheritance to his son. But that is not the Ratzon Hashem - his inheritance is meant to go to his firstborn son, no matter his internal desires. While perhaps an extreme example, the idea of having laws to govern feelings, even feelings of love, is a means of helping us to act in line with our goals and values; it is not a matter of denying or rejecting or minimizing emotions, but rather of harnessing and challenging them effectively. May our feelings of love only ever contribute to growth and connection on every level!