We all regard death as particularly tragic when it takes someone before they have had a chance to have a “normal” life. Our sense of what is “normal” is, of course, subjective and variable, but every culture has certain basic expectations. The prophet Jeremiah gave voice to these expectations for his own time and culture when he advised the exiles in Babylon to settle down and lead “normal” lives:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . . (29:5-6)
Our parsha imagines officers addressing their troops before a battle and sending home young men who have commenced these activities but not completed them: “”Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? . . . Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? . . . etc.,” and finally, “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” (Deut. 20:5-7).
The admonition to leave the army to marry one’s betrothed is echoed in a later law; there, however, the deferral is given not for the sake of the soldier, but for the sake of the bride: “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married.” (Deut 24:5)