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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Seitzei: Human strengths and weaknesses
"You see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, and you may take her for yourself as a wife." The Jewish soldier sees the beauty of the woman's soul and desires to help bring it into the Jewish people. The laws concerning a captive woman in war are a special dispensation from the regular halacha. It is within our ability to fulfill every single Torah law. Only very righteous people who never sinned would be going into battle in this kind of warfare. The Torah here teaches us an important lesson about natural human weaknesses. "Better that you should be ashamed of Amram in this world, than be ashamed of him in the World to Come." Even the greatest and most pious have within them this evil inclination, and there are instances when it takes superhuman strength to control oneself. We are all being challenged in different ways with tests that are tailor-made to our nature and our capabilities. No one is tested beyond what he can handle. Every Torah commandment was given to us to supply us with opportunities to amass merits throughout our lives.
Captive woman in war
In the beginning of this week's Parasha, it says (Devarim 21:10-11): "When you go out to war against your enemies, and HASHEM your G'd will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, and you may take her for yourself as a wife."
Souls come back to holiness
Under normal circumstances, it is well known that it is prohibited by Torah law for a Jewish man to marry a gentile woman. Even if the woman is ready to convert to Judaism, it is not permitted if her conversion is for the purpose of marriage. So why does the Torah allow this union? Every Torah law can be understood on different levels. On a deeper level, the Kabbalists explain that the sin of Adam caused certain souls to be pushed into the realm of impurity. In the cause of time, G'd will orchestrate situations that will allow these souls to come back to the realm of holiness and purity. This parasha deals with such a situation. According to this, the Torah is talking about a Jewish soldier who sees the beauty of this woman's soul and desires to help bring it into the Jewish people (see Or HaChaim 21:11).
On a simple level, Rashi quotes the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) that teaches that the laws concerning a captive woman in war are a special dispensation from the regular halacha. The Talmud explains that G'd knows that the temptation for the soldier at war would be too great, and if it would not be permitted, chances are that this soldier would not be able to control himself and would take this woman in any case.
Ability to fulfill every Torah law
The famous Rabbi of Slutzk, Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, who later headed the London Beis Din, comments that this teaches us that it is within our ability to fulfill every single Torah law. G'd, Who created us, knows our strengths and weaknesses, and gave us no commandment that is too difficult. Sometimes people would like to strengthen themselves in their observance as they recognize the truth of the Torah and its commandments. But they feel that at their age it is too difficult for them to change their lifestyle. They encourage others, as well as their children, to embrace the Torah but claim that it is too late for them, as they are too establish in their way of life. Says Rabbi Abramsky, such an excuse is nothing but the evil's inclinations way of dealing with this person. Every Jewish person has the ability to live according to the instructions of the Torah. The Torah only demands of us what is within our capabilities.
Only conscript righteous for war
Rashi further explains that this Parasha is dealing with the warfare that is described towards the end of last week's Parasha (Devarim 20:1-9) where the Torah exempts anyone who is scared to go into battle. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 44a) that explains that this includes anyone who has transgressed a Torah commandment and does not feel secure that he will survive the war due to his sins. Says Rabbi Eliahu Lopian, if so, only very righteous people, who never sinned, would be going into battle in this kind of warfare.
Natural human weaknesses
Asks Rabbi Lopian, does the Torah need to be concerned about these righteous people that they cannot control themselves because they see a beautiful woman? He answers that the Torah here teaches us an important lesson about natural human weaknesses. No one is above an urge like this that every man is created with. He quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbos 1:3) where it is related about an elderly, pious sage who suggested a slight change in the words of the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:5). The Mishnah says, "Don't trust yourself till the day that you die." This great sage felt that he had reached a level a purity that he would not need to worry about any temptations, and therefore he read this passage as "Don't trust yourself till the day of your old age." This did not go unnoticed in the Heavenly Court, where the Accuser requested and got permission to dress up as a most beautiful woman and entered the study of this sage. When the sage looked up and saw this beautiful woman in front of him, he addressed her in a somewhat inappropriate way. However, he caught himself immediately and was greatly pained over this incident. The Heavenly Court took mercy on him and instructed the Accuser to reveal the truth to the sage, and to tell him that he was sent from Heaven to teach him that he should not change any word in the oral Torah for it is accurate to the minutest detail.
Rabbi Amram the Pious
The Talmud (Kiddushin 81a) relates an amazing story that happened to Rabbi Amram the Pious. A group of women had been taken into captivity and were redeemed by the Jewish community of Naharda'a. They were brought to the home of Rabbi Amram the Pious who gave them accommodation on the upper floor of his house. With the assistance of ten men he removed the staircase that led up to where they stayed so that no one should be tempted to start up with them. A little while later, one of the women passed by upstairs, and her beauty was so special that it seemed like a light lit up downstairs. This was too much even for the pious Rabbi. His adrenaline surged so much that he single-handedly moved the staircase back to go to the upstairs. As he was halfway up the staircase, he got second thoughts and with all his might stopped in his tracks and started shouting at the top of his lungs, "There is a fire burning by Amram." All the neighbours heard his call and came running to extinguish the fire. As his colleagues, the other rabbis, entered his house, they said, "You are making us ashamed." The Rabbi responded, "Better that you should be ashamed of Amram in this world, than be ashamed of him in the World to Come."
This is human nature. Even the greatest and most pious have within them this evil inclination, and there are instances when it takes superhuman strength to control oneself. At the time of warfare, G'd does not expect such a self-control of every soldier, even if he is a righteous and pious person. The Talmud (Succah 52a) teaches an additional insight. The greater the person, the greater is his evil inclination. Every individual is challenged on a level suited to his personality and greatness. This is why the halacha requires segregation of men and women as far as possible and prohibits a man and a woman to be on their own in a place where the presence of other people is not anticipated. The halacha takes no chances and teaches that these laws apply even with a young girl or elderly woman (see Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer 21-22).
This is a classic example of the famous saying, "An ounce of prevention is greater than a pound of cure." Once the damage has been done the people involved are scarred for life and every measure must be taken to avoid such a pitfall. Our sages explain that G'd does not expect of us more than we can handle (see Talmud Avodah Zorah 3a and Midrash Rabbah Shemos 34:1). This applies both as a general rule in Torah law as well as in any situation that an individual finds himself. We are all being challenged in different ways with tests that are tailor-made to our nature and our capabilities. No one is tested beyond what he can handle.
Opportunities to amass merits
The Torah commandments were given to us to supply us with opportunities to amass merits throughout our lives. As the Mishnah (Makkos 23b) says: "The Holy One … wished to bring merit upon Israel. Therefore, He gave them Torah and commandments." In a similar way, every test and challenge we encounter throughout our life is for the purpose of elevating us to a higher level, and to help us to reach our personal purpose and goal in life. If we manage to internalize this message then nothing will be too difficult for us to handle, and rather than feel burdened and stressed we will accept whatever life brings us in appreciation to our Creator Who blessed us with these opportunities.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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