"A Captive Woman"
"When you go out to war against your enemies, and HaShem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife." (Deuteronomy 21:10-11)
Thus begins this week's Torah reading of Ki Teitzei, as Moses continues to ready Israel for its new role as conquerers and eventual sovereigns in the land. Torah understands war as being sometimes a desirable and sometimes a necessary inevitability of nationhood. For sure, Torah embodies within its words the vision of Isaiah of a time when nations will not go to war against another, but until that day comes, war is a reality. As with all aspects of our lives as individuals and as a nation, Torah commands us to be fully engaged and to endeavor to sanctify every circumstance in which we may find ourselves. One such circumstance is war.
The above quoted verses are followed by others which set forth a series of rules governing a soldier's behavior in the situation described. Other laws concerning the conduct of soldiers as individuals and the military as a whole appear elsewhere in Torah. In spite of the fact that warfare would seem to contradict and confound every norm hitherto set out by Torah, Torah is determined to determine our conduct even in the unfortunate circumstance of war. It is little wonder that the Israel Defense Forces today strive to meet a most stringent standard of ethical conduct even while facing an enemy whose entire doctrine is to deny and destroy humanity itself, alongside the human carnage it aims to achieve.
Most of us, fortunately, will never know the terrors and temptations that are part and parcel of the battlefield. Without diminishing the specific battlefield context of our above verses, our sages over the millennia have traditionally expanded the context of the battlefield description to include even our own individual personal battles that we wage against our enemies. And as we all know, there is no enemy more persistent or more pernicious that our own evil inclination.
Two of our most celebrated and beloved commentators explain our verses in seemingly contradictory fashion. Rashi, the eleventh century commentator, expresses the widely held view that Torah is warning us against acting rashly in the heat of the moment. By prescribing a month-long period in which certain actions must be taken before the captive woman can become permitted to her captor, the Torah is basically pouring a cold bucket of water over the head of the captor. The Torah is, in effect, guiding his steps while at the same time "recommending" that he desist from attaining the object of his desire.
The Ohr HaChaim, the eighteenth century commentator, views the same situation differently. He perceives the battlefield warrior to have achieved a heightened state of righteousness and spiritual awareness by virtue of the fact that he has risked his life to successfully perform a commandment. In his heightened spiritual state, what he perceives on the battlefield is not a beautiful woman, but an inner spiritual beauty emanating from that women. The future steps Torah prescribes for him are simply to determine that his intentions are truly pure and to help him to refine his intentions. He is not a man who has succumbed to his physical desires, but a man who has been raised up by the profound G-dliness of his mission.
How can two distinguished commentators provide such disparate views on what Torah is describing? Actually, both Rashi and the Ohr HaChaim are saying the same thing. The conclusion that speaks to us is the one which we choose. The Hebrew words of Torah do not actually say, "a beautiful woman." What is stated is, eshet yefat to-ar, "a woman of beautiful description." The Torah testifies that she is indeed beautiful, but the source of that beauty is how we see it. Is her beauty only skin-deep? Then we should consider the warning implicit in Rashi's words. Is her beauty internal and spiritual, as understood by the Ohr HaChaim, who points out that the Hebrew vechashachta ba, really means "and you are desirous of what is within her," (and not the common translation, "and you desire her")? Then we should understand the Torah's instructions as a green light to further test and verify the purity of this desire.
As we approach Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, just like Israel in the desert preparing to enter the land, we are busily preparing at this time for the upcoming Days of Awe by taking a deeper look at our own selves. This is our current battlefield. Those weaknesses and temptations that continue to hound us and prey upon our shortcomings must be recognized as such and we, like the warrior of Rashi's description, must follow the necessary steps to wean ourselves of these personal pitfalls. But if we look honestly at ourselves we should also detect many spots of light which we should embrace. These spots of light within ourselves are the captive woman of the Ohr HaChaim's understanding, and we must take the time and make the effort to develop and fully realize these qualities.
Unless we take command over our personal battlefields we may end up captives to our own weaknesses. But if we strive and succeed in gaining dominion over our lives, we will liberate our own inner beauty in the process.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven ready themselves for spiritual battle and take aim at the enemy within as we rapidly approach the new year. The spiritually charged month of Elul affords us an opportunity to return to ourselves, to rid ourselves of all the useless clutter that we have created for ourselves throughout the year and to rededicate ourselves to our relationship with G-d. This is the opportunity that G-d has given us in advance of the awesome days of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The particular Torah readings from Deuteronomy that "coincide" with the weeks preceding Rosh HaShana are evidence of G-d's great love for us and the genius of the Hebrew calendar.