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Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Sleeping Beauty

There are many passages in the Torah that are difficult for the modern person to relate to.

For some people these passages serve as a convenient rationale for rejecting strict observance with an untroubled conscience. But even for those who are genuinely interested in the Torah point of view, the understanding of these passages often requires a willingness to adjust to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world which fly in the face of standard modern attitudes and what is considered politically correct.

We shall attempt to bring one of these seemingly bizarre passages down to earth in this essay. We advise the reader in advance that major readjustments in his or her thinking will be required.

When you will go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity; and you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife. (Deut. 21:10)

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, basing himself on the Kabbalistic writings of the Ari, explains the passage on three different levels.

Level One: The Surface Level

On the surface level, the passage describes a concession to the evil inclination (Talmud Kidushin, 21b).

It is a well-known phenomenon throughout history that soldiers, overcome by the blood lust of battle tend to go on the rampage. The Torah forbids the indulgence in this type of madness, but not entirely. Because of the irresistible strength of this human impulse, the Torah adopts a compromise position. Although the consent of the woman is not required, it is forbidden to simply rape her.

The soldier who wants to take her must be willing to contemplate making her a permanent part of his household by taking her for his wife. Thus he must bring her to his house for at least a month, and then decide if he wants to keep her for his wife or let her go. At this point, her consent is required.

Should she consent, and should he still want her, she is thereafter like every other Jewish wife with all the rights and privileges that pertain to this status. Should she not agree, or should he decide that he doesn't want her after all, he must release her unconditionally. During the waiting period relations with her are strictly forbidden.

This is the only case of an "irresistible impulse" legally recognized by the Torah.

The law of Yefas Toar, as this passage is known, is the only case of an "irresistible impulse" legally recognized by the Torah. The Torah does not issue commandments which are beyond the capacity of ordinary human beings to carry out. God is man's designer and knows exactly the degree of self-control that man is capable of. It is worthwhile to note that even in this case, the Torah informs us that while such an impulse is undeniable, its satisfaction is still subject to human control.

You cannot tell the soldier full of the blood lust of battle that he must entirely stay away from the beautiful woman, but you can set up strict parameters within which he must satisfy his base desire.

The elementary respect that is due a fellow human being would require obtaining the beautiful captive's full consent, even in the case of this provocatively dressed woman who was specifically sent to the battle zone in order to distract invading Jewish soldiers (see Rashi 21,13). Under circumstances when requiring consent is considered an impossible demand to make, it is still forbidden to treat any human being as an object that you simply discard after indulging your passion.

So much for the surface level of the law of Yefas Toar.

Rules Of Warfare

Before we can present deeper levels of understanding Yefas Toar, we must learn a few of the rules of warfare according to Jewish law. A detailed exposition of these laws can be found in the "Yad Hachazaka" of Maimonides (Laws of Kings ch.6)

It is forbidden to make war against anyone at all, including against Amalekites [with the obvious exception of defending the Jewish people against attack] unless you first offer peace. The terms of the peace package are two: 1) that the enemy people accept the obligation to abide by the seven Noachide laws, and 2) that the enemy people agree to subject themselves to the administrative rule of Israel and the due process of Jewish law.

If the enemy refuses to accept the peace package and elects to fight, Jewish law establishes a difference between a "mitzva war" and an "optional war."

(We are commanded to war against the Seven Nations of Cana'an, who inhabited the land of Israel at the time of the Exodus, and against the Amalekites. These are mitzva wars. All other wars are optional.)

In mitzva wars, we are not allowed to take any prisoners. The laws of the Yefas Toar, therefore, apply only to optional wars, in the context of which it is permissible to take prisoners.

This conclusion leads us directly to another. These laws are not addressed to ordinary soldiers, but only to ones who are real tzadikim. While all Jews without exception are commanded to partake in mitzva wars, only the greatest tzadikim among the Jewish people participate in optional wars.

The Kohen that accompanies the Jewish army on its campaign in optional wars delivers a well-known speech before a battle is joined:

Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart (Deut. 20:8)

The Talmud (Sotah 44a) interprets this speech to mean that people who have transgressed in any way and are burdened by even the tiniest sins (and are therefore justly afraid of facing the Divine attribute of Justice), should return home and not participate in the battle.

The Ohr Hachaim therefore wonders how is it possible that people on such a lofty spiritual level should become subject to feeling such base desires? After all we are not speaking about ordinary human beings at all, but only tzadikim of the highest levels.

He proceeds to take us down to the next level of depth on the basis of his question.

Level Two: The Soul Level

Adam had a composite soul. As the first man, he was the embodiment of the entire spiritual potential of mankind, as well as being its physical progenitor. When Adam sinned, this spiritual potential separated into two parts. One part was withdrawn back to God into the repository of souls, while another part fell with him. The withdrawn portion of the spiritual potential of mankind descends to the lower world as the spiritual component of the descendants of Abraham. The part that fell with Adam is distributed through all his descendants, the nations of the world.

The spiritual potential of mankind descends as the spiritual component of the descendants of Abraham.

Once again, we are in the realm of the politically incorrect. We are claiming a spiritual superiority for the Jewish people in the name of the Torah. Therefore, we need some background to better understand what is meant by mankind's spiritual potential.

Let us begin by looking at a few indisputable facts. While the archeological record demonstrates human habitation of our planet by homo sapiens for hundreds of thousands of years, it also shows that through all this time, man lived in the most primitive conditions. He did not fashion sophisticated pottery, there are no relics of developing architecture, there is no indication of systematic cultivation of the soil, there is no evidence of sophisticated political systems or large population centers of any kind. Homo sapiens lived in pretty much the same primitive conditions wherever we encounter any trace of him on the planet.

This was the situation until 5,000 years ago when, exactly as the Torah would suggest, practically overnight the trappings of sophisticated civilization appeared out of nowhere. Their first known manifestation was in Mesopotamia and from this single location civilization spread out to the remainder of the planet. Henceforth, this region was regarded with good reason as the "cradle of civilization."

We have archeological records of sophisticated pottery and complex agriculture, we have writing, we have the appearance of large cities, records of complex laws and religions. Yet, the skeletal remains of homo sapiens appear no different than the remains from earlier eras. Man did not develop increased brain size or any other physiological change that can account for the sudden surge in development.

In The Image Of God

It is not man's I.Q., or his "hardware," that is responsible for the advances of civilization. Indeed, the Torah tells us that God injected "software" into man roughly 5,000 odd years ago, namely His breath. (Genesis 2:7) Civilization is clearly software, not hardware. [For a detailed discussion of this concept and the Biblical sources on which it is based, see "Genesis and the Big Bang" by Gerald Schroeder] In other words, when we look at civilization, we are not looking at the results of complex wiring in the human brain. It is "information" we are looking at. This application of information is spiritual potential actualized.

What was the purpose of the injection of this spiritual potential into man? Was it to allow man to enjoy a better standard of living in this world?

Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. God injected this software because He could only relate to man in His image. Only civilized man lives the type of moral, intellectually- directed, cultured life that could allow man to be regarded as a being cast in God's image. This explains the division of man's spiritual potential into two parts following Adam's sin.

After Adam's fall and his severance from his relationship with God, part of his spiritual potential remained in the world to insure that man would organize himself into civilizations and thus retain the ability to re-establish his relationship with God. Another part was withdrawn, to be injected again only after the relationship was re-established.

Thus, it is quite understandable that only after Abraham re-established the human relationship with God, as the Torah describes, did man's spiritual potential begin to come down to the world once again in full measure.

Another way to view the difference between these two spiritual potentials is through the window of the commandments. The Divine commandments which express the spiritual potential needed to establish civilization are the seven Noachide laws. Man's full spiritual potential can only be expressed through the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.

Spiritual Potential

The Ohr Hachaim explains that the true beauty in the world is only to be found in this spiritual potential, not in the physical body. In the context of a war waged entirely by tzadikim, where God is present, the Jewish soldier is drawn to the beauty of this spiritual potential.

As we have explained, a part of mankind's spiritual potential was distributed among all civilized nations. At times, this potential guides people back to God all by themselves, and some even find their way to the Torah and convert. But in other instances, the spiritual potential is too weak. In these cases, it is considered to be in a state of captivity, and it seeks to escape to a place where it can once again participate in helping to lay the groundwork of a relationship with God.

The spiritual potential is considered to be in a state of captivity.

This is the second level of the Yefas Toar according to the Ohr Hachaim. Guided by the inspiration of God's holy presence in their midst, the tzadikim who participate in the optional war experience an irresistable attraction to the beauty of the spiritual potential in the collective soul of the conquered nation which finds its expression in the captive woman.

Sometimes the connection causes a transfer of the spiritual potential to the Jewish people leaving the captive woman an empty husk spiritually. In this case, the tzadik will lose his desire for her and will choose to let her go. If his feelings of attraction survive the thirty-day wait, this indicates that the spiritual potential remains an integral part of her being, and he should therefore marry her.

The Ari explains that this phenomenon operates in the opposite direction as well. We find an example of this in the irresistible attraction felt by Shechem the son of Hamor for Dinah, Jacob's daughter. (See Genesis 34.) In the speech delivered to persuade the inhabitants of Shechem to agree to a confederation with the Jewish tribes, Hamor and Shechem said the following:

These people are peaceable with us; let them settle in the land and trade in it, for see, there is ample room in the land for them. Let us take their daughters for ourselves as wives... (Genesis 34:21)

The Ari tells us that the spiritual potential for Rabbi Chanania ben Traddyon (one of the Ten Martyrs slaughtered by Titus) was buried in the soul of Shechem. Shechem himself could not have been induced to move towards the light, but this potential was trapped, imprisoned in the darkness of Shechem's soul. When it saw a chance to escape it jumped on it. The result: Shechem's irresistible impulse to mate with Dinah at all costs. It took 2,000 years of purification for this injection of spiritual potential transferred from Shechem to Dinah to produce this great tzadik, who was only born at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. But in matters of the spirit time is not of the essence. All the spiritual potential injected by God into man will eventually be used as intended ― to establish and to strengthen the connection between man and God. Human history will continue for as long as it takes to complete this process. The actualization of human spiritual potential is the material out of which time is fashioned.

Level Three: Battle With Evil

The third and deepest level of Yefas Toar is the internalization of the first two levels. On this level the phrase in our Torah passage ― when you will go out to war ― is a reference to being born, and the war is the battle with the evil inclination, the yetzer hara.

Hebrew has two words for enemy, oyev, (the term employed by our Torah passage) and soneh.

The soneh is an enemy who hates me because I have something he wants. Theoretically, it is possible to reach some sort of accommodation with a soneh. But the oyev hates me for who I am, not for what I have. With him it is never possible to arrive at a modus vivendi; the battle is joined till death. The Nazis were an oyev; they were interested in extermination of the Jewish people as an end in itself.

The evil inclination is an oyev. The field of battle with him is this world of ours; it is only while we are alive that we are vulnerable to his attack. The war with this enemy which begins at birth is unceasing; it fills all the days of a human life and only ends with death.

The spiritual potential is the Yefas Toar. Like the woman who was created as Adam's helpmate (Genesis 2:18), this "captive woman" was injected into man as an extra dimension, a Divine image that enables him to form his relationship with God. Just like a woman, it is a helpmate that props up all existence, because without it, all existence is purposeless. Whoever gets a hold of it has a firm grip on life. In its absence, existence is transitory at best.

The evil inclination also desires life; all its energies are focused on taking the "captive woman."

The evil inclination also desires life. All its energies are focused on taking the "captive woman."

In every drawn-out war, some battles are inevitably lost. Every human being has parts of his spiritual potential ― his Yefas Toar ― held captive in the grip of the evil inclination.

If we manage to glimpse the beauty of our lost spiritual potential and desire to get it back, God gives us a guarantee that He will help us. We can rejoin the battle with the evil inclination and rescue our Yefas Toar from captivity. This special assistance God offers us is called teshuva.

When we rescue the Yefas Toar, she once again becomes our helpmate and we regain control of our own bodies. Doing teshuva is thus described as bringing the Yefas Toar into our house.

But the spiritual potential thus reclaimed is soiled by warped ideologies and burdened with the weight of wrong actions. After the initial victory of teshuva which is Divinely inspired, we now have to go through the painful process of cleaning up our act, referred to as "cutting the hair" and "clipping the nails." But once again God assures us that he will help us to accomplish this in a single month. That month is the Jewish month of Elul, the month we are in now.

Victory in the war of life is achieved when we manage to establish a marriage relationship with our Yefas Toar. Only when we achieve a loving intimacy with our own Yefas Toar do we fully actualize our spiritual potential.

The word Elul is also an acrostic: Ani ledodi vedodi li "I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me" or "my beloved and I only exist for the sake of each other." May we all succeed in reclaiming our Yefas Toar in the course of this Elul.

Published: August 25, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Avi Keslinger, August 20, 2010 11:47 AM

Mitzva Wars

According to Rambam a defensive war is also an obligatory (mitzva) war. Acccording to Ramban (Rambam's position is a mattter of discussion) a war to conquer Eretz Yisrael is also an obligatory war in our time.

(3) Anonymous, August 17, 2010 6:34 PM

Ancestor of Rabbi Chananiah ben Taradyon

This is a beautiful and facinating article! One question of detail..does this mean that Rabbi Chananiah ben Taradyon is a decendent of Dinah or that Shechem's potential, through Dinah, entered the Jewish people?

(2) Yossef, August 16, 2010 8:17 PM

Excellent Discussion of the Kabbalistic View

This is a very comprehensive and clear discussion of the Kabbalistic view of the difficult topic of Yefat Tohar; I learned a great deal from this essay. Thank you!

(1) Anonymous, August 26, 2001 12:00 AM

haven't read it yet.

printed it for easier reading. Thanks for addressing this topic. It has been the subject of many discussions.

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