I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading. It was used as the title of one of the chapters. “Castrametation.” Does anyone know what it means?
Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp
Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.
And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside. And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement. For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you. (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)
On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized. Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself
The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity. When Israel goes to war, God is with them. Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf. For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp. It is not about germs. It is about holiness.
As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives. Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.
The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness. The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)” The Gemara asks what abirim are. Eventually, it suggests that the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.” The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies. There was no waste whatsoever. How convenient!
If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement? After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:
After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].
So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness. At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem. But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient. Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.
Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness. But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes. At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home. After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.
The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality. That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.
The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves. Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.
Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.” “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha. Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.” This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.
We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis. I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah. Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.
Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about. The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder. And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.
According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.
These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves. God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.
A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani. In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.
כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ
For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.
The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.
Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives. What sins are we carrying from the past year? Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other? What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?
Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people. He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.
Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community. God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities. But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.