"And you see among the captives a beautiful woman..."
War... victory... POWs... a beautiful woman... The opening verses of this week's Torah reading , Ki Teitzei, read like a movie trailer to Hollywood's latest blockbuster. Or do they? The answer depends on how we read them. One prevalent interpretation of our sages is that Torah, understanding the ambivalence of human nature, realizing that base passions can be aroused by the chaotic, life or death exertion of warfare, presents a way by which the triumphant warrior can channel his instincts. By following the path prescribed by Torah, rather than commit a grievous sin, the warrior, now citizen, can be directed back to his pre-battle upright life. Understanding the verses in this light is a great testimony to the Torah's holistic approach to man, and the dignity with which it regards man, after all, the magnum opus of G-d's creation.
Another approach chartered by the beloved sage, Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, otherwise known as the Ohr HaChaim - the Light of Life - describes not an outward battle, but an inner one. For the soldier fighting in G-d's army, risking his life to defend the land of Israel, is not simply engaging in a mundane war, but is performing with all his being a great commandment of Torah. And as with all commandments, the fulfillment of the commandment bestows upon the performer of the commandment a heightened spiritual awareness. So it is that our heroic warrior, having engaged his entire being in the performance of G-d's commandment, has been blessed with a spirit of prophecy and a sharpness of vision. It is not the captive woman's outward beauty that he sees, but her inner beauty, the pure spark of the Divine that is captured within her. It is this that his soul longs for, as the Hebrew reveals: "Vechashakta bah," "and you desire what is [contained] within her." (ibid)
The Torah goes on to prescribe a month-long process of testing the purity of this attraction, and only after fulfilling the conditions set out, does the former warrior, if his desire has proven to be of the highest spiritual motivation, as we suspect, take the woman for his wife.
We may not all have the privilege of being real-life warriors defending the land of Israel against her enemies, but we all do have the privilege and responsibility to perform those commandments that are within our grasp. By doing so with the same intensity and passion as the righteous warrior of our Torah passage, we too can heighten our spiritual consciousness and increase our awareness of the holy sparks entrapped within our own souls and the holy sparks entrapped within others. We can then redeem and liberate these sparks within ourselves through discipline, hard work and sincere effort, and help others to recognize their own inner beauty by treating them with the same patience and respect prescribed by Torah for our warrior.
Every day of our lives we are engaged in a battle against our lesser natures, and every day our efforts to seek out the holy within ourselves and within others are rewarded with an enhanced attachment to G-d. Perhaps the month of Elul is best seen as the final engagement before the beginning of the new year. By mustering all our spiritual forces we can surely conquer our own inclinations that keep us distant from G-d and blind to His honor in this world. By storming the enemy within we can release our our own captive souls, set them free and let them shine.
Tune in to the week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the "woman of beautiful form," the righteous warrior, the marriage ceremony, King David and the great horned beast - the fantastical re'em - and the unexpected twists and turns that sometimes await us as we ascend the Temple Mount today.