Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Y'fas Toar - Avoiding the Temptation of Sin
"Ki seitzei lamilchama 'al o'y'vecha, v'ra'isa bashivya eishes y'fas toar, v'chashakta bah..." -- "When you go out to war against your foes, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her" (D'varim 21:10). With these words, the Torah opens the parsha of the eishes y'fas toar, a unique leniency, applying only to the extreme temptations inherent in a time of war, through which the Torah seeks to keep the Jewish soldier within moral boundaries that can be reasonably demanded of him. "'Lo dib'ra Torah ela k'negged yeitzer hara' -- 'the Torah [allowed her] in recognition of the Evil Inclination,' for if it did not, he would marry her in a prohibited manner" (Rashi 21:11 from Kiddusin 21b). On an allegorical level, many Jewish thinkers (for example, Rabbeinu B'chaye 21:13) see within these verses a reference to the battle of every Jew against his most formidable "foe," the Evil Inclination within, and interpret the above phrase as "the Torah is speaking about the Yeitzer HaRa." The subsequent p'sukim, then, describe one of the methods to achieve victory against this most insidious of enemies. (See R. B'chaye for a different interpretation from that presented here.)
Ben Azzai states in Pirkei Avos (4:2): "hevei ratz l'mitzva kala, uvoreiach min ha'aveira, shemitzva goreres mitzva va'aveira goreres 'aveira..." -- "run toward an easy commandment, and flee from sin, for one mitzva leads to another, and one sin to another...." Questioning the first part of the Mishna, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, one of the foremost disciples of the Vilna Gaon, notes that it seems to contradict the principle of b'chira chafshis, or Free Choice. If the individual must pursue mitzvos, the implication is that, by default, Divine commandments are "running away," or are not attractive. On the other hand, if one must flee sin, the implication is that ordinarily sin "pursues" Man such that he must run away to save himself. Indeed, the human experience bears witness to this very point. Chazal additionally note that the Evil Inclination is placed within Man before the Good Inclination (see Sanhedrin 91b, Avos D'Rabi Nasan 16, also B'raishis 6:5). Would it not be more consistent with the principal of Free Choice for Good and Evil to be equally desirable?
Rav Chaim's explanation, which is alluded to in the allegorical reading of the section dealing with the eishes y'fas toar, provides a piercing insight into the essence of the human personality. The life spirit, the eternal aspect of the human being is the soul, in the words of the Kabbalists, "a piece of the Divine." Naturally, the soul desires only the "cleaving to G-d" through the contemplation of the Divine accomplished through the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot, Divine commandments. Chassidic Masters have noted that the word "mitzva" is also derived from "tzavta," company, connection, as mitzvot are all vehicles with which to connect to the Root of the Soul, the Creator of All. The body is merely a tool in which the soul is able to function in This World, having no independent existence at all. In light of this, the battle between Good and Evil would automatically be won in favor of the Good as this represents Man's existential essence. In order to "even out the odds" and allow Man to choose between Good and Evil and thus earn eternal reward, Hashem caused the psychology of Man to be such that mitzvot appear at first less attractive and 'averios seem at the outset more desirable. Or, in an allegorical sense, sins are as sugar-coated poison appearing attractive but ultimately deadly to its consumer, whereas Divine Commandments are like tarnished gold guaranteeing reward for those patient enough to polish it and reveal its true splendor. Therefore, we are charged by Ben Azzai, "Run after mitzvot!;" do not be fooled by the appearance of their initial unattractiveness for that is what G-d ordained concerning the human experience in order to provide challenge and choice. "Flee from sin!;" do not be taken in by its lure and promise of temporary satisfaction. Once one follows this path, the Mishna continues, this leads to a chain reaction. After the person follows the Good, has tasted spiritual pleasure and has overcome the desire to follow first appearances, one mitzva follows another, and he is ready to move up a rung in the ladder of Divine Service whereby he sees mitzvos as vehicles of eternal, transcendent pleasure and happiness. The opposite is true with sin. The more one pursues this path, the more "real" and seemingly lasting the fake pleasure of sin becomes, and the person becomes more greatly entwined in its web.
It would appear that the very structure of all of physical pleasure, whether permissible or prohibited, has been fashioned to teach us this very lesson. The last few generations have become ever-conscious of the fact that in the realm of diet, those items leading to immediate satisfaction, appearing so tantalizing, are usually the least nutritious or satisfying in the long run and are often harmful. Those items perhaps less tasty at first, lead to greater nutrition and long-term health. The same is true regarding other human pleasures.
The Torah directs us in our parsha: when you see the eishes y'fas toar, when you encounter Sin and you desire it, wait, do not give in to the momentary passions. "vahaveisa el toch beisecha, v'gil'cha es rosha ... v'heisira es simlas shivya mei'aleha," "bring her into your house, and she shall shave her head.. and change her [attractive] garments" (21:13). Contemplate that sin is nothing more than a fleeting image of satisfaction and ultimately leads to disappointment, frustration and a distancing from the Divine. Then, the individual is in a greater position to utilize his b'chira well and choose Life.
As we experience the days of Elul, the days of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, may we all recommit ourselves to 'avodas Hashem as we realize that ze kol ha'adam, for this is the essence of Mankind.