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Parashat Ki Tetze 5780 — 08/29/2020

Parashat Ki Tetze 5780 — 08/29/2020

Deut. 21:10 – 25:18

When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your Gd, will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captives, and you will see among the captives a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, you may take to yourself for a wife. You shall bring her to the midst of your house; she shall shave her head and make her nails. She shall remove the garments of her captivity from upon herself and sit in your house and she shall weep for her father and her mother for a full month; thereafter you may come to her and live with her, and she shall be a wife to you. But it shall be that if you do not desire her, then you shall send her on her own, but you may not sell her for money; you shall not enslave her, because you have afflicted her. (21:10-14)

On the surface, this law is at once problematic and far ahead of its time. We know that rape is used all too commonly as a weapon of war – the Germans did it to the Soviets in WW II, and the Soviets returned the favor when the fortunes of war turned; the Japanese kept Korean “comfort women” as sexual slaves for their troops. Quite recently, UN “Peacekeeping” troops have been caught demanding sex in exchange for food relief they were charged with delivering.

Torah outlawed this kind of behavior 3500 years ago. On the other hand, it does allow a man to take the captive woman and marry her after she goes through the procedure outlined in the passage. In order for him to marry her she must convert, and this is something she can refuse to do. Rabbinic law provides that he must free her if she doesn’t convert in a specified amount of time. The commentators are divided as to whether the soldier is allowed to cohabit with the woman one time on the battlefield before taking her into his home, and they all point out that the effect of her shaving her head and mourning, is to make him want to let her go rather than keeping her.

Or haChaim, as you might surmise, sees much more going on beneath the surface. First, we must understand that soldiers in the Jewish army were supposed to be completely righteous men, worthy of Divine protection. Although the commentators generally agree that Torah here is giving an outlet to the passions that are aroused in battle conditions, it is assumed that the soldiers are, in general, people who have mastered their passions. They don’t need an outlet for purely physical lusts, and a woman who is merely beautiful on the surface would not be attractive to him. Why are these laws even needed?

Or haChaim gives two broad explanations. The first deals with the nature of the attraction of the soldier to the woman. A purely physical attraction and immoral relations are exactly the kind of things that distance a person (and the whole army) from Gd’s protection – why would Torah permit it?

However the foundation of this subject and its inner meaning can be understood with the words of the Sages of blessed memory who say that through the sin of Adam haRishon [the first man], many precious souls were taken captive by the “other side,” and these are the souls of proselytes. … I will reveal another secret to you; at times you will find that a pure soul is attached to an impure soul (in the body of an idolater) and the pure soul does not have the ability to influence the impure soul to become good, and it remains there until the time comes for it to be freed. … There may be a holy soul within the kelipah [“shell” – in this case the idolater’s body] that influences the heart of the person in whom it dwells to become good from its place, and these souls banish the element of evil or “sweeten it” (transform it to holiness).

What is happening with the woman of “beautiful form” is that the soldier sees past the physical form of the woman (that would be yefat mar’eh, “beautiful appearance” instead of yefat to’ar, “beautiful form”) to the holy soul that is entrapped in the woman. It is the soul that attracts him because of its (and his) level of holiness. The soldier is involved in a mitzvah (fighting this necessary battle), so he is attached to Gd, and through this attachment, his perception is refined enough to look past the surface and see the soul dwelling in and in-forming the person. By the woman’s association with her “captor” the holiness of the soul is drawn out and redeemed from its idolatrous shell. In the case where the holy soul is “stuck” to an impure one, once the holy soul has been drawn out, only the impure soul is left, and the soldier’s desire evaporates. He lets the idolatress go. If, on the other hand, the holy soul has “taken over” the woman, then the attraction remains (and is mutual), she converts and they remain married.

The second approach Or haChaim (and others) take is to view the “war” as a war between the soldier and his “evil inclination” – that part of his personality that drives him in the outward, physical direction, and away from Gd, away from the inward, spiritual direction. Significantly, Or haChaim labels this an allegorical approach:

Following the approach of remez, the passage may be explained as follows. … the proper conduct of the Jewish people is contingent upon their being victorious against the yetzer hara (evil inclination). The Torah comes to urge a person that when he “goes out” of the Upper World to come to this world, he should be prepared for battle (against his yetzer hara)… By saying “against your enemies” it conveys that this war is not like one in which a warrior fights to conquer a city, where, if he should become weary of the battle, he can turn and leave. Rather this is like where a person battles his mortal enemy, and if he should relax even for a moment the enemy will rise up against him and kill him.

The “woman of beautiful form” that he sees “among the captives” is his own soul, which has been captured by the yetzer hara. Every time one gives in to the evil inclination by prioritizing the material over the spiritual by an inappropriate action, the grip of the yetzer hara grows stronger, making the next slip easier, in a vicious cycle that needs more and more strength to be broken. This is something that we all should be able to relate to in our own lives. When the person vanquishes his yetzer hara he in effect reclaims his own soul from captivity, and brings it back to his own “house,” i.e. his body. The shaving of the head and the growing of the nails represent various aspects of cleansing the soul. After this cleansing, the person can “come to” the soul, which means to benefit from its light, now able to shine again in purity.

Naturally there is a great deal more detail and explanation in Or haChaim’s text, which I urge you to seek out and read if you are interested in deep insights into what Torah is really saying. The main comment I want to make is that Or haChaim generally gives what he considers the simple meaning of Torah (p’shat) before getting into allegorical interpretations (remez). That means that his whole discussion of pure and holy souls’ being held in bondage by the “other side” until rescued by the Jewish soldier is no allegory – this is what is really going on! It seems incredible to us, but the truth is, reality at the subtle level is always truer than reality at the grosser level. What we see as a purely physical attraction under extremely stressful circumstances is, in fact, a deep interaction of two souls reuniting in growing purity and harmony. This understanding, that we need to look for the inner reality behind the surface, material value, is something we can, and must, apply not only to our reading of Torah, but to the events of our life as well.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Ki Tetze
Where do we find Teshuvah in this parshah?

The parshah begins with “when you go out to war with the enemy….and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her….”.

It ends with “…you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under Heaven; you shall not forget.”

In between these statements are about 72 commandments, emphasizing kindness — for example, in the treatment of the captive woman and of the escaped slave who may not be returned — and purity — for example, in the requirement that we not be rebellious against our parents.

With so many commandments, it is easy to get lost in details and to forget the Oneness. But the habit of kindness and the habit of purity and respect tune us into the Oneness for it is from the Oneness that we draw our ability to be kind, to be pure.

From the side of Gd, the Oneness, Energy and Love are always flowing to raise us up, to return us, to dissolve the veils that hide us from Oneness, our own Self.

The haftarah for this portion, Isaiah 54:1-10, gives an example: “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed, but My Kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My Covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord who has compassion for you”. (Kabbalistic Bible, Rabbi Yehuda Berg).

This Kindness is always dissolving the veils that hide and revealing the Oneness that is Real, that is All. This Kindness is always creating in us:
Teshuvah. Returning.

Good thoughts to have as we come close to Rosh HaShanah, our New Year and Yom Kippur, our Day of At-Onement.

Baruch HaShem