Mayanot Parshat Ki Tetzei: The Spiral Staircase
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Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

The Spiral Staircase

By the time we read Ki Tetzei, we are well into the month of Elul. The scent of Rosh Hashana is in the air; the season of judgment and repentance is firmly upon us and our thoughts turn automatically to Teshuva, repentance. As all spiritual phenomena enter the physical world through the gateway of Shabbat, the Parsha we read invariably offers the information we require to meet the spiritual challenges of the season. 

LIFE AS WAR

Our Parsha begins with going to war: "When you will go out to war against your enemies..." In the opinion of the commentators, [see Ohr HaChaim] this passage is also meant to be understood allegorically as a description of man's life on earth. Earthly life is one long extended war with man's enemy, the evil inclination - a war that begins at birth and is waged without respite until death. "When you will go out to war" is a different way of saying, "when you are born." The Parsha offers several suggestions regarding strategies to employ in the conduct of this war. This essay will look at one of these suggestions in detail.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 6,4) [see Rashi 21,10 as well] uncovers two spiritual spirals that lie concealed in the order in which the passages in the Parsha are presented. The first subject presented is the topic of the beautiful captive, which the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) describes as a concession to the evil inclination. In the opinion of the Talmud, the Torah only allowed the taking of the beautiful captive because forbidding the action would have been ineffective; the evil inclination is rendered so powerful by the blood lust stimulated by a raging war that the average person does not have the spiritual fortitude to resist it. The evil inclination is the prime mover here; but it cannot be resisted.

The second matter discussed is the contentious household with two wives and two sets of children. One wife and one set of children are 'beloved', whereas the other wife and the second set are 'hated'. The Torah defends the rights of the 'hated' set. The third subject is the detailed description of how to deal with the problem of the wayward and rebellious son.

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

These three topics are arranged in this particular order because the matters they cover are all steps in a single developing situation according to the understanding of the Midrash. They exemplify the operation of a spiritual principle called "one sin drags another." The taking of the beautiful captive introduces dissension into the household - the taker will ultimately prefer his Jewish born wife and her children. His original wife is not likely to take kindly to the introduction of the beautiful captive into her home and the poisoned atmosphere in the house will yield its bitter fruit: some of the children will turn out wayward and rebellious.

The Da'at Zekenim Ba'alei Tosefot points to King David's life as a perfect actualization of this negative chain. David took Ma'acho, the daughter of the king of Gshur as a beautiful captive, (2-Samuuel 3:3) and Absalom was one of the children he had with her. This same Absalom brought strife in David's house [the saga of Amnon and Tamar, Samuel II 13]. He turned out to be rebellious as well - he led an unsuccessful rebellion against his father which was ultimately crushed only at the cost of many thousands of Jewish lives. Even a great and holy man such as King David could not break out of the chain described in the Parsha.

And yet it is difficult to understand how all this can serve as an expression of the principle of "one sin leads to another." No one sinned here at any stage. The person who took the beautiful captive did not commit a forbidden act; the Torah specifically allowed the action. The resulting dissension in the home did not arise out of any wrongdoing but was the natural outcome of an awkward situation. Finally, the wayward and rebellious son surely did not turn out as he did because of any evil intent on the part of his parents. His twisted character is a further unfortunate consequence of the awkward home situation. Where is the sin that triggered the chain of "sin dragging sin"? 

THE UPWARD SPIRAL

But at least the connection between the events is clear even if the relationship to sin is not. The same Midrash finds an illustration of the opposite principle as well: "one Mitzvah leads to another." In the merit of performing the Mitzvah of sending away the mother bird when appropriating the chicks (Devarim 22:6), a person acquires long life and gets to build himself a house and fulfill the Mitzvah of building a restraining wall upon the roof (Devarim 22:8). In the merit of that Mitzvah, he gets to plant a vineyard and fulfill the Mitzvah of not sowing in a mixture (Devarim 22:9). In the merit of fulfilling that Mitzvah, he gets to do the next one mentioned - he acquires a field so that he can fulfill the commandment of not plowing with a mixed team of an ox and an ass (Devarim 22:10). And finally, in the merit of fulfilling this Mitzvah, he gets to buy clothing and fulfill the commandment of not wearing shatnez [a material woven of a wool-linen mix] and the positive commandment of attaching tzitzit [ritual fringes] to corners of his new clothes (Devarim 22:11-12).

In this passage the Mitzvot are clear; it is the connection of the events to each other that is a mystery. For example, if the reward for fulfilling the Mitzvah of 'sending away the mother bird' is the acquisition of a new house, this is not an example of "one Mitzvah dragging another"; the acquisition of the house is a reward for the Mitzvah done. There is no clear connection between these Mitzvot and the rewards they engender or in the relationship of these Mitzvot to each other. How can we explain this seemingly unrelated chain of events as an illustration of "one Mitzvah dragging another"?

Let us begin with a consideration of "one sin drags another." 

SINS OF CHARACTER

A person should not think that repentance is only necessary for those sins that involve deeds such as lewdness, robbery or theft. Rather, just as a person is obligated to repent from these, similarly, he must search for the evil qualities that he has. He must repent from anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of money and honor, the pursuit of gluttony and the like.

These sins are more difficult [to repent] than the ones that involve deeds. If a person is attached to these it is more difficult for him to separate himself... (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch.7,3)

There are two types of sin. One sort is clearly defined, consisting of the performance of a Torah forbidden behavior such as lewdness or robbery. Whoever commits this sort of sin knows very well that he is doing wrong even as he is busy committing it. When a person can clearly recognize that what he is doing is wrong, repentance is relatively easy.

But most behaviors in life are not so easy to define. What is considered eating moderately and at what stage does further indulgence turn into gluttony? When is expressing anger justified, and when does such expression constitute a demonstration of a negative character trait? At what point does healthy competition turn into negative envy? At what point does healthy ambition turn into pursuit of money and honor?

Because the actions associated with these sins are not forbidden acts per se - indeed they are only wrongful deeds when they are expressive of negative character traits - the same actions may even constitute Mitzvah behaviors in other circumstances. For example, showing a child that you are angry when he did something wrong is appropriate behavior; expressing cruelty when punishing the wrongdoer is inappropriate.

The moral ambiguity inherent in these types of actions make them difficult to abandon. It is all too easy for the person who is guilty of committing them to put himself into a state of denial. "I need to spend eighteen hours in my business to support my family! I am not pursuing money for its own sake! I am lowering myself by flattering all sorts of people I really don't hold of in pursuit of a partnership in my firm not because I crave the honor. As a partner I will have more influence and be able to improve things for everyone!" There is no need to go on. We are all too familiar with these sorts of rationalizations in our own lives. 

SIN DRAGGING SIN

The taking of the beautiful captive is precisely such a sin of character. It may be impossible to resist the temptation in the heat of battle, but there is a thirty day mandatory cooling off period before the marriage to the beautiful captive becomes final. During this time, even the most besotted person should be able to devote some thought to the effect his indulgence in this 'permissible' behavior will have on his family. Does it not constitute a betrayal of his wife? Can she be expected to welcome the foreign woman into her home? Can his children accept this behavior and still maintain their respect for him?

Any act that is fundamentally fueled by the evil impulse, even if it is permissible, is fraught with danger. It invariably expresses a negative character trait and therefore constitutes a forbidden act on the grounds of indulging in evil character traits. The person who surrenders to his negative character trait of self-centeredness and indulges himself in apparently permissible ways at the expense of members of his family destroys the harmony of his home forever. Dissension enters his home and envy and resentment the hearts of his children.

It is no doubt true that everyone has free will and his wife and children could possibly have risen above the negative situation and preserved the harmony of the home. Nevertheless, the one who created the destructive situation is at least partially responsible for all the negative consequences to which it gives rise.

The first teaching of our Parsha concerning the 'war' of life is the proper understanding of the principle of "sin dragging sin." The Torah teaches us that this principle does not restrict itself to acts which are forbidden outright and are clearly sins, but is also triggered by activities which may not be sinful in themselves but are the expression of negative character traits, especially those actions that harm others.

Let us now consider the example of "Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot." There is something startling about the order of the passages. 

MITZVOT DRAGGING MITZVOT

Intelligent procedure dictates that a person find himself a trade that will provide him with a source of income and only afterwards buy himself a house and only then marry ... the fools marry first, then try and buy a house and only look for a source of income later on in their lives... (Maimonides, Laws of Ethics, Ch.6,11)

Yet if we study the order of the passages that teach us the concept of 'Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot' according to the Midrash, they clearly follow the backward, 'foolish' order. The person of our passage first merits a house, then a vineyard, whose purpose is to supply him with wine, a source of ease and pleasure but hardly a necessity of life, and only merits his field as a third step. Can this backward order be coincidental?

The Maharal offers the following explanation. Nachmanides discusses the purpose of the Mitzvah of sending away the mother in great detail and one of his suggestions is that the Mitzvah is a demonstration of Divine concern for the preservation of the species. If you take both the mother and the nestlings you destroy two generations; if you only take the nestlings, the mother is free to bring forth another batch to replace the ones taken. The person who performs this Mitzvah is therefore occupied with ensuring the continuance of the world.

In terms of the contribution they make to the continuance of the world the passages are presented in their correct order. The first one involves a house. A house is where the next generation of mankind is born and raised; the Mitzvah associated with the house concerns the protection of human life.

In terms of ensuring the continuance of life, the provision of food is the next necessary step. This is expressed in terms of the vineyard that doesn't need to be plowed with work animals. The Mitzvah associated with the vineyard involves the preservation of God's demarcation between different species; avoiding tampering with the way He arranged life forms and species. Life must be nourished, but in the way that God dictates.

The third step is the harnessing of other life forms to man's service and improving his quality of life. Therefore it refers to fields because it is fields that must be plowed with the help of work animals to make their cultivation profitable; the Mitzvah associated with this stage is again symbolic of the requirement to preserve the separation of life forms as God intended. 

LIFE AS A SPIRITUAL EMANATION

In other words, the steps in the upward spiral are related through the human inputs required to keep civilization functioning. As we have explained many times in these essays, the ultimate source of all inputs is the Divine energy constantly supplied by God in the form of spiritual inputs into man's soul. The person who applies effort to the preservation of God's world by fulfilling even an easy Mitzvah, like sending away the mother bird when he takes the nestlings, is attaching himself to God. His attachment provides a human highway along which the spiritual emanation of continuance that issues from God and sustains the world can travel.

This emanation flows outwards from the doer and gradually spreads out over the world like the ripples set off in a pond by the splashing of a stone. In terms of spiritual emanations the house comes before the farm, because it is more directly associated with the survival of civilization through the development of the next generation of humans.

A process of ascent that begins in the physical world must follow the logical order of Maimonides. First you need the field, than the vineyard and only finally the house. But in terms of spiritual emanations that issue from God and descend to the physical world, the house initiates the ripple in the pond of life from which the waves of human energy emanate.

There is a startling discovery to be made in this explanation of the upward spiral of "Mitzvot dragging Mitzvot." It turns out that in terms of connecting to God, the size and importance of the Mitzvah through which one establishes his connection is of no importance. Any Mitzvah can serve as a means of connection. Any Mitzvah automatically associates the doer with the flow of Divine energy into the world that passes through that Mitzvah. 

CONTRASTING UP WITH DOWNWARD SPIRAL

If we now contrast the downward spiral of "sin dragging sin" with the upward spiral of "'Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah," the following points emerge. The downward spiral of spiritual descent is initiated not by acts that the Torah defines as sinful. It begins with acts of gross self- indulgence, permissible in themselves, but which can only be executed at the cost of inflicting pain and mental anguish on other people, especially those who are closest. The outward signs of spiritual descent are strife, mental anguish and children who turn out wrong. The pain and suffering people inflict on each other destroys the loving environment that encourages the development of healthy, well-adjusted human beings. The infliction of such pain is the very antithesis of maintaining the world. It is the sin that kicks off the chain of spiritual decline summed up in the concept of "sin dragging sin."

In contrast to the downward spiral which is presented in terms of the accelerating negative psychological effects of sin on human beings, the upward spiral of "Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah" is presented in terms of physical possessions; houses, vineyards, fields and domestic animals. The physical world becomes an expression of spiritual emanations; possessions are there to provide the opportunity of doing Mitzvot. People who draw their sustenance from the spiritual emanation of Mitzvot find themselves in situations that are considered unlikely according to the rules of good husbandry.

In the physical world the size and importance of causes are commensurate with their effects. But when this world becomes a reflection of spirituality and follows the rules of Mitzvot, size and importance recede into the background. A minor Mitzvah such as sending away the mother bird can cause an amazing transformation in the quality of life. As the Mishna teaches, "Be as scrupulous in performing a 'minor' Mitzvah as in a major one for you do not know the reward given for respective Mitzvot."(Avoth 2:1) 

BACK TO ELUL

These thoughts contain an important message regarding the teshuva that is expected to be our focus in the Jewish month of Elul. Levels of observance differ. If a person who was born observant, who knows the rules of the Torah and who believes in the truth of the Torah deviates from observance in the slightest particular, he is committing a sin and launching himself on the downward spiral of "sin dragging sin." But for the person who is slowly approaching observance, the adoption of any Mitzvah, no matter how minor and unimportant it may seem, even if he or she is not yet ready to accept all the Mitzvot, constitutes an attachment to the spiritual emanation of God and will inevitably transform the quality of his or her life. Any attachment to God places a person on the upward spiral of "Mitzvah dragging Mitzvah."

On the other hand whether one is observant or not, the negative spiral of "sin dragging sin" must be avoided. We must make ourselves aware of the effects of our acts of self-indulgence on others, especially our spouses and our children. If these acts of indulgence cause dissension and mental anguish, if they introduce jealousy and resentment into our homes, they place us on the downward spiral of 'sin dragging sin' and cut us off from being able to connect to God and the world of spirituality. Regardless of the rung on the ladder of observance we have reached, we must teach ourselves to avoid such acts at all costs.

Published: August 10, 2002

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