Man does this week’s parsha start with a troubling concept.
If you should go to war against your enemies and Hashem your God puts them into your hand, and you capture prisoners from them; and you see among the prisoners a woman of beautiful form; if you desire her, you may take her as your wife. (Devarim 21:10)
Wow. Just… wow. The atheists on Facebook really have a good claim on this one. How could the Torah, the document written from the truest holiest source of wisdom and goodness allow taking captive women from war as brides? It’s unconscionable! However if we were bothered by troubling things in the Torah, we’d have stopped learning and changed the name of the site to SixDegreesOfOscarMayerBacon.com long ago. But as I’ve said before, to be a Jew is to wrestle with God. Meaning that when something troubles us, we delve deep and actually try to understand what it is about, rather than absolving all halachic responsibility and turning to Buddhism.
Some Things to Consider
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s first make sure we understand the scenario.
For one, the Torah has two types of warfare. Milchemes Rishoos and a Milchemes Mitzvah. Loosely translated, the first (Rishoos) is an optional war. Not to say the Jews in the bible were going around starting wars because they wanted oil or someone tried to assassinate the king’s father. But this is opposed to the milchemes mitzvah (obligatory war) when the Jews have to conquer Israel as commanded by God. How do we know this wife taking warfare is a Milchemes Rishoos? Because, as Rashi points out, they take prisoners. Where, in a michemes mitzvah, the Jews don’t.
Second thing. Warfare was a little different back in ancient times. Women used to fight on the front lines… but not as the Amazon warriors you might expect ala the recent Wonder Woman film. But instead they were put out to distract the opponent. Talk about psychological warfare. So when the Torah says “and you desire her,” it’s not that the soldiers just got super randy. It is that they’ve already been tempted as a tactic of war.
Third. Going back to the two types of war. The reason why the distinction was important is because in a milchemes mitzvah, every Jew fights. But in a milchemes rishoos, there are a lot of exceptions. Most notably, from last week’s parsha, “The officers will further address the people and say, ‘Whoever is afraid or faint hearted, let him go and return home.’” Why would anyone be afraid? I mean, it’s only war. The Gemara in Sotah says, that a person would only be afraid because they made transgressions. When one is in a dangerous situation, that’s when the heavenly court sits down and goes through your file and decides if you’re getting out alive or not. So if anyone didn’t have such a good rap sheet, they were exempt from fighting in the war. That means the only soldiers fighting were people with no sins. Such as learned Torah scholars and tzadikim.
How are tzadikim, men of the highest stature, allowing themselves to be tempted by non Jewish women who were already married, and taking them as wives? And the Torah permits it!?
This speaks to the reality of war and the Torah’s understanding of human nature. War is such a removal from your normal state of being, to be surrounded by horrors and passions, most of us hopefully will never have to experience them first hand. But that being said, in order to do acts necessary, a person has to engage in a part of themselves they normally never would. And so because of this one situation, the Torah makes its only concession to the yetzer hara (evil inclination).
According to Rashi, if the Torah didn’t make this concession, the soldier (remember a holy and pure person) would engage in an illicit affair. So rather than let that happen the Torah creates a system where the man can bring her home, convert her, and marry her. But not before making the woman shave her head, grow out her nails, wear unflattering clothing, and wait 30 days in the hopes the man will come to his senses. And even though the Torah allows this, it even admits, very little good will come from the marriage. The very next topic the Torah details are about a hated wife and a tragically wayward and rebellious son. So Rashi makes the inference that the these following instances are reactions to this condoned marriage.
No Person is Free of the Yetzer Hara
So as always, what does that have to do with us? Hopefully none of us will have to fight a war. But even if we do (God forbid) none of us are tzadikim and we’re probably not going to be taking captive war brides anyway. Why should we care?
The Ohr HaChaim says that this whole discussion about war is also talking about our battle against our evil inclination. In some ways this war in ways is actually more difficult. In a regular war, the enemy is in front of you, or at least identifiable. However the war against the yetzer hara, it is everywhere and it is hidden. From the Mesillas Yesharim we learn,
The Holy One blessed be He Has placed man in circumstances where many factors can distance him from the Blessed One, these being bodily desires… The result is that one really finds himself planted in the midst of a fierce battle. For everything in this world, whether for good or bad, is there to test man… A person, thereby, finds himself at war both in front of him and in the rear. (Chapter 1)
And it that weren’t enough, a Pirkei Avos gives us another challenge. The fight never ends!
ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך Don’t trust in yourself until the day you die. (2:5)
It’s when you think you’ve beaten the temptation and you’re passed it, that’s when the yetzer hara gets you. That’s why the example from the Torah is of a tzadik. Because if they can fall, or someone in their ripe old age can fall, you better believe you can fall. It is important to stay strong and keep fighting the war. We all have our struggles. Remember, every test we pass results in growth. The harder the test, the more the growth. But it is no coincidence that this parsha, Ki Seitzei is read during Elul. In Elul, you have the upper hand as it is the month for growth. Set your goals, double down, and get ready to fight.
This post is dedicated to the refuah shlema of Tinook ben Rivka Shoshana HaLevi.
Many ideas of this piece were taken from a lecture by Rabbi Elyakim Rosenblatt.