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Parashat Ki Tetze 5773 — 08/14/2013

Parashat Ki Tetze 5773 — 08/14/2013

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your Gd delivers them into your hands, and you carry them away captive and you will see a beautiful woman among the captives…” (Deut. 21:10)

Our Rabbis taught: “The Torah only provided a concession to the evil inclination.” (Kiddushin 22a)

Yafet To’ar – “a beautiful soul” (Zohar)

There are any number of beautiful homiletic explanations of this rather puzzling law; some of them focus on the identification of the “beautiful woman” as the soul, which is “captured” in the material world.  From our quote from the Zohar, it appears that these explanations may be more literal than it first appears.

In our very scientific, materialist Western society we tend to associate the idea of reincarnation with “Eastern religions.”  In fact the idea that the soul, which is immortal, can inhabit a series of mortal bodies, is very much a part of normative Judaism.  In the recitation of the Sh’ma at bedtime we say Master of the Universe!  I hereby forgive anyone who angered or injured me or sinned against me … whether in this lifetime or in any other lifetime… .  [This prayer, by the way, is very liberating.]  What is the purpose of these multiple incarnations?

When Gd created the finite universe it was necessary for Him to “withdraw” from it as it were, in order to leave “space” for the finite values to exist without being overwhelmed by Gd’s infinite nature.  In the case of human beings, we experience this “withdrawal” (tzimtzum = “contraction”) as our having free will, the ability to choose to do right, and of course, the corresponding ability to choose to go in the opposite direction.  Gd also created a great deal of diversity in the world, especially a diversity of human beings – people with different languages and cultures, different body types and different ways of thinking.  According to our tradition, each individual – that is, each soul – has a particular role to play in the unfolding of Gd’s plan for creation; each soul has its own place and its own mission, and when all parts of creation are working together in perfect harmony, the purpose of creation is fulfilled.

Since we are all finite creatures, there is always the possibility that we will make mistakes and move the creation (and our own lives) in the opposite direction.  This disharmony shows up as ill-health and eventually, as death of the body.  In fact, it may be the case that our body becomes so non-functional that we cannot complete the particular mission that we have been assigned in Gd’s cosmic plan.  We are forced to leave this body and take on a new body so we can continue doing what we need to do.  It is as if we’re driving from NY to LA and somewhere in Kansas our car breathes its last.  We need to get a new car and continue our journey.  The vehicle may change, but the passangers in the inside of the vehicle do not.

In fact, with a new vehicle, the passengers are able to continue their journey, and eventually come to the fulfillment of whatever mission they were given.  Some say that every Jew must fulfill all the 13 mitzvot of the Torah before he/she can come to rest in the World to Come.  Now some of the mitzvot are incumbent on men, others on women, some on kohanim and some only on non-kohanim.  Obviously, one lifetime is insufficient to fulfill all the mitzvot!  Whether this concept is to be taken literally or not is way beyond me; but the point is, our mission may be something which it is not actually possible for anyone to complete in one lifetime.

Now it is also possible that, based on our actions and the choices we make in one lifetime, we will have issues that need to be worked out or rectified in another lifetime.  For example, Shimon, the second of Ya’akov’s sons, was the driving force behind the sale of Yosef to Egypt.  This was a pretty negative thing to do; even though Gd managed to work it out for the best, this does not absolve Shimon of his responsibility in the affair.  In fact, when Yosef is testing the brothers in Egypt, it is Shimon who is singled out for the most difficult test.  Our Rabbis tell us that the 10 martyrs whom we read about in the Yom Kippur liturgy (eleh ezkarah) are gilgulim (reincarnations) of the 10 brothers, and that their deaths at the hands of the Romans were rectifications of the brothers’ miscues 1500 years prior.  Shimon’s gilgul is said to be R. Akiva, the greatest of the Sages of the Mishnah, and the one who suffered the cruelest death – with perfect equanimity.

Apparently, in some cases a soul needs to take a detour in its evolution, either in order to rectify some sin of omission or commission, or to fulfill some piece of its mission.  By a detour, I mean that a soul that is supposed to be Jewish may wind up in a non-Jewish environment.  I believe that this is what the Zohar is referring to when it says that the Yafet To’ar is “a beautiful soul.”  We have to understand that a Jewish army is not like most armies in the world.  To join the US Army there are certain minimum requirements – a high school diploma, passing certain mental and physical tests, etc.  To join the Israelite army there were primarily spiritual tests.  Since the Jewish nation is, as Moshe Rabbeinu attests elsewhere, one of the smallest nations (even then, certainly now!), we cannot rely on our numbers to win our battles.  The Jewish nation survives based on its connection to Gd, and that depends on the level of its spiritual development.  We have seen clearly in our history that when our connection to Gd falters, disaster follows.  Next week we will read the Tochachah which describes this phenomenon in chilling detail.  Therefore, when the army is about to take the field, anyone who is not spiritually up to snuff is sent home.  Only the purest souls are sent into battle for the Jewish people, for only they are likely to be successful.

If these highly spiritually developed soldiers encounter a beautiful woman on the battlefield, why would we expect them to succumb to their base instincts, to the extent that Torah needs to make a special set of laws for this situation?!  I think the Zohar is hinting at the answer – this particular beautiful woman is a “beautiful soul” imprisoned in an idolatrous environment, in the body of an idolator, waiting to be taken home.  This is what the soldier is able to perceive.  And in fact, this is what he is instructed to do – bring the woman into his home, instruct her in the principles and practices of Judaism, wean her away from her idolatrous ways of thinking and worshiping.  If she successfully navigates this process, she is integrated into the people of Israel – her soul has come home.

There is a tradition that before Gd gave the Torah to Israel, He offered it to the other nations of the world.  They refused it as being not in consonance with their national characters, whereas Israel wholeheartedly accepted it before even inquiring what was in it.  A number of years ago I heard the following exposition.  Although it says that Israel was unified when we received the Torah, it is obvious from subsequent developments that some members of the nation had their reservations (e.g. Dathan and Aviram, Korach, etc.).  On the other hand, although collectively the nations of the world rejected Torah, there must have been some souls in those nations who in fact would have been happy to accept it.  What happened to these souls?  The lecturer said that those members of the nations of the world that yearned for Torah became converts to Judaism, and vice versa.  The converts that I have known have almost universally mentioned that when they became Jewish they felt that they were finally coming home.  Perhaps this is why Torah is so insistent that we love the convert over and above our obligation to love all Jews (since we are all family).  They’ve had a longer and harder road home.

I am writing this shortly after Shavuot, and I heard the following drash from R. Frand (on Bamidbar).  The Book of Ruth (which we read on Shavuot) begins with a man, Elimelech, from Beit Lechem (Bethlehem) leaving the Land of Israel during a famine and going over to Moav (present-day Jordan).  Our Rabbis tell us that Elimelech was the leader of the generation, but that he apparently abandoned the people by leaving the country; this is apparently borne out by the fact that both he and his two sons died in Moav, leaving 3 widows: Naomi, Ruth and Orpah.  When Naomi sets off to return to Beit Lechem, she tells her two daughters-in-law to return to their own country and find new husbands and move on with their lives.  Orpah kisses her mother-in-law good-bye and takes her advice (and according to the Midrash, becomes the progenitress of Goliath).  Ruth tells Naomi “whither thou goest I will go, … and your Gd will be my Gd…” thus becoming the most famous convert in Jewish history.  She marries Boaz in Beit Lechem and becomes the progenitress of King David, and through him, of Mashiach.

R. Frand continues (paraphrase): Baal haTurim tells us there are only two instances in Scripture where the expression vayelech ish / and a man went is found.  One is at the beginning of the Book of Ruth: And a man from Beit Lechem in Yehudah went… as we just discussed, and the other is at the beginning of Shemot (Exodus): And a man from the tribe of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.  This is Amram, the father of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon and Miriam, the three leaders of Israel.  Now in the latter case, everyone agrees that what Amram did was meritorious – see what he produced!  In Elimelech’s case, it appears that his motivations were just the opposite.  However that is not the case.  Elimelech was the “great one” of his generation.  He knew by ruach hakodesh (a minor form of prophecy), that the spark from which Mashiach would come, was in Moav, waiting to be redeemed.  So he went, trusting that Gd would guide him in the right direction.  That spark was Ruth.

In truth, wherever we look there are sparks of holiness waiting to be redeemed.  Our mission as Jews is to redeem them.  Our method is to attune our minds, to the extent possible, with Gd’s Mind.  When we do that, we will naturally, effortlessly, uplift everyone and everything in our surroundings, allowing them to find their rightful places in the ideal structure of creation.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 21

[R. Tarfon] used to say: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

R. Lau treats this Mishnah as relating to Torah study.  The Torah is infinite wisdom, and it is impossible for anyone, even the most accomplished Sage or scholar, to master it all.  Nonetheless, everyone must make an effort.  And in fact, the more we toil at Torah, the more it opens itself up to us “far above our poor power to add or detract.”  We make an effort and the blessings flow from Gd.  (In physics this is called a non-linear response.)  Even if we don’t feel that we are making progress, we have to have faith and keep soldiering on, and the breakthroughs will come.  As our Sages tell us, Gd counts hours, not pages.  And as is the case with Torah study, so it is with the rest of our activity.  There are an infinite number of sparks of holiness to be redeemed.  Surely nobody can redeem them all, but neither are we free to desist from what we can do.