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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Confronting and Overcoming Human Weakness

Parshat Ki Teizei begins with the laws of yefat toar. In the context of war which may stir intense human emotions and passions, the Torah reluctantly and conditionally sanctions relationships that would otherwise be illicit. Rashi, citing the gemara (Kidushin 21b), explains this unusual allowance as a concession to human weakness ("dibrah Torah keneged yetzer ha-ra").

The Torah's perspective about the religious challenges of warfare is particularly significant when one considers that the ideal soldier according to Jewish law is one who is steeped in righteousness and Divine faith. According to R. Yose ha-Glili (Sotah 44a) one who is concerned about his religious stature is exempt from war ("yarei ve-rach leiv"). R. Akiva has a more inclusive stand regarding the piety of those who are qualified to fight, but also requires an advanced level of spirituality (at least according to Rambam's interpretation- Hilchot Melachim 7:15). The Baal ha-Turim links the last words of the previous parshah ("ki taaseh ha-yashar be-einei Hashem"), referring to the admirable implementation of Hashem's will, with the first words of Parshas Ki Tisah that discuss waging war because righteousness is a prerequisite for military conscription. And yet, despite the admirable character of the Jewish soldier, the Torah addresses and makes allowances for human frailty in the context of war. Apparently, the difficulty of maintaining spiritual equilibrium in the heat of battle, a time of intense passion and emotional stress, is a formidable one that tests even the most committed. Undoubtedly, the spiritual vulnerability of the pious soldier also reinforces the view expressed in Chazal (Sukah 52a) that great men are particularly challenged to maintain their high standards ("kol ha-gadol me-chaveiro yizro gadol heimenu").

While the laws of yefat toar demonstrate the Torah's realism in acknowledging and occasionally even providing outlets for human frailty, close scrutiny of the process that precedes the allowance of yefat toar (removing her from her indigenous environment, growing of her nails, shaving of her head…) unequivocally establishes that one is obligated to rigorously pursue any reasonable course to refashion one's emotional response to avoid even sanctioned halachic compromise.  By detailing this process, the Torah conveys that this rare and unusual concession should not be abused or misconstrued. The steps outlined for yefat toar also provide a model through which one can respond to human temptation and strive for ideal halachic observance. Neutralizing the initial superficial stimuli and utilizing the perspective of time and distance constitute instructive guidelines in the struggle to confront and overcome human appetites and temptations.

In addition to these steps to combat obstacles and difficulties once encountered, it is vital to anticipate personal vulnerability and spiritually fortify oneself in advance of halachically challenging events or environments. The Kli Yakar notes that the Torah refers to multiple opponents ("oyevecha") even though it speaks only of a single defeated enemy ("unetano Hashem …"). He explains that in order to succeed against the concrete enemy on the battlefield, one must first struggle internally to refine one's halachic values and vanquish the yetzer ha-ra that is accentuated by the passions of battle. This is accomplished by identifying and fortifying against one's spiritual deficiencies. Awareness that one confronts a second, highly personal front in all epic battles enables appropriate preparation for the dual struggle that may preclude the very problem of yefat toar! The role of intense Torah study is particularly crucial in confronting spiritual dangers, as Chazal (Kidushin 30a; Berachot 5a) viewed the internalization of Torah values and reinforcement of halachic perspective by means of study as an especially effective antidote to the yetzer ha-ra.

Chazal warn that marrying a yefat toar risks serious detrimental repercussions. Midrash Tanhuma (cited in Rashi) perceives the "hated wife - ha-senuah" and even the incorrigible or rebellious son ("ben sorer u-moreh") in the next sections of the parshah as products of this halakhically flawed, albeit legal union. Chatam Sofer (Torat Moshe, Ki Teizei) sharply rejects the implication that any halakhically sanctioned marriage could produce such suffering. He concludes that the full halachic allowance is extremely limited, as it is contingent upon maximal effort to neutralize one's improper obsession and skewed emotional state. In his view, the "hated wife" and rebellious son reflect the abuse rather than the proper implementation of yefat toar, although the marriage still stands. [Compare with Rambam (Melachim 8:2) and Ramban's (s.v. ve-chashaktah bah)] Chatam Sofer's perspective accentuates the obligation to strive for ideal halachic standards to avoid compromise.

It is conceivable, however, that the projected damage resulting from the yefat toar union depicted by Chazal does not constitute punishment but reflects the natural consequences of diluted and compromised standards of discipline, restraint, and mutual respect, cornerstones of the halachic vision of sanctity in family life. The origins and foundation of misplaced passion and obsession may easily produce a poisoned marriage (ishah senuah). The legality of the yefat toar marriage may be insufficient to foster an emotional and halachic environment that effectively inculcates the values of authority, restraint, and kedushah that safeguard against the development of a ben sorer u-moreh.

Directly and by hint, the Torah communicates through the halachot of yefat toar that one must strive mightily to maintain halachic standards and perspective even in the most challenging environments and circumstances. While conceding man's spiritual frailty, Chazal emphasize that one bears the potentially dire consequences that result from acquiescing to spiritual mediocrity. Our ultimate goal is to attain authentic kedushah which demands not only that we eschew halachic compromise, but that we conduct ourselves in accordance with Torah values that transcend strict obligation. Kadesh azmechah be-mutar lach.

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