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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 wants 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 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 an 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. The commandments are 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 delivers them into your hand… 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? This question can be answered in two ways. On a deeper level, the Or HaChaim (21:11) quotes the Kabbalists who explain that the sin of Adam caused certain souls to be pushed into the realm of impurity. In the course of time, G'd will orchestrate situations that will give these souls an opportunity 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 wants to help bring it into the Jewish people.
On a simple level, Rashi quotes the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) that teaches that this is 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 served on the London Beis Din, learns from this an amazing insight. This, says Rabbi Abramsky, teaches us that it is within our ability to fulfill every single Torah law. G'd knows our strengths and weaknesses, and gave us no commandment that is too difficult. Sometimes people would like to become observant 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. They encourage their children and others 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 kind of 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 that is the case, only very righteous people, who never sinned, would be ready to go into battle in this kind of war.
Asks Rabbi Lopian, if only such righteous people went to war, why does the Torah need to be concerned that they cannot control themselves because they see a beautiful woman? He answers that the Torah here teaches us an important lesson about human weaknesses. No one is above an urge like this, that every man is created with. He quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbos 1:3) that relates 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 such a high level of purity that he did not need to worry about any temptations. He therefore 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. He immediately caught himself and was greatly pained. 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 go upstairs and start up with them. A little while later, one of the women passed by the space where the staircase had been, 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 upstairs. As he was halfway up the staircase, he got second thoughts, and with all his might he 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 the other rabbis entered his house and realized what was going on 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 an 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 self-control of every soldier, even if he is a righteous and pious person. We can gain an even better understanding from an additional insight in the Talmud. The Talmud (Succah 52a) teaches that 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, therefore 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.
Opportunities to amass merits
The commandments are 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 abundance." Similarly, every test and challenge we encounter throughout our life is giving us an opportunity to elevate ourselves to a higher level, and to help us reach our personal purpose and goal in life. If we manage to internalize this message then nothing will be too difficult, and rather than feel burdened and stressed we will accept whatever life brings us, and appreciate that our Creator blessed us with these opportunities.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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