This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah. Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today. It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.
Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place. In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.
Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels. Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given. The Torah is a very old book. Ancient social norms were vastly different. We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.
The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition. It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.
Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.
The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind. The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors. At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.
If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her. Instead, he must bring her into his house. She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days. Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible. Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her. If not, she goes free.
The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times. Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.
The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.
Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621. He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism. As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah. The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.
In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.
But that is not what interests him. The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being. The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage. It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.
The Shlah tells a story:
There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies. With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.
He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils. Now prepare for the big war!”
“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack. “What are you talking about?”
To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”
The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges. Those urges are hard to resist. They lead us down paths of self-destruction. The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.
In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender. But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles. That is the great war which all of us wage.
The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us. We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex. The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately. The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair. In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.
The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good. For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)
To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.
Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.
The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.” (BT Berachot 34b) The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.
It is the middle of the month of Elul. We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur. This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.
Where am I in life right now?
Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?
Did I make promises that I have not kept?
Have I gone astray in other ways?
In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.
My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others. My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.
Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us. What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?