I like to have guests at my Shabbat table, and depending on the themes of the weekly Torah portions, the table discussions can get a little heated. If you are apt to read the Torah in order to be offended, to find evidence of misogyny, and/or general “political incorrectness”, then welcome to this week’s Torah portion, “Ki Teitzei”.
“Ki Teitzei”, meaning, “when you go to war with your enemies” opens with the rules a man must obey when coming across a “beautiful woman on the battlefield.” The Jewish People were getting ready to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land, where they would be engaging in battle for years to come, and this was a very likely scenario. So what were the rules? Could he rape her? No. Could he sell her as a slave? No. Could he keep her as a slave? No. Could he cut her head off and tweet the video? Definitely not.
So what could a man in those circumstances do? He could leave her where she was, or, if he desired her, he had to bring her home, wait for a cooling off period where the enticement of her looks would wane, and then, if he still desired her, he had to marry her – or else he had to set her free and compensate her for her “ordeal.”
“But what if the woman doesn’t marry the guy? She doesn’t have a say in the matter? And she has to sit in his house for 30 days while he makes up his mind? This is sexist and horrible for women!” Such are the reasonable reactions I hear, since forcing a woman to marry against her will or without her input into the decision-making process is unquestionably offensive.
One response is to put this in the context of the ancient world. According to commentators, women would put on finery and make themselves beautiful in order to entice Jewish men, because winding up with a nice Jewish husband was a heckuva lot better than their other choices. Also, compared to the battle ethic of the ancient world (rape, murder and pillage) the Torah scenario is positively enlightened and compassionate. Thanks to ISIS, and their ilk, I no longer have to contextualize this. Has anyone noticed that the “ancient world” is not so “ancient” anymore?
But there is a more profound response to these objections. The major theme of “Ki Teitzei” really has to do with emotional mastery, to having deliberate and reasoned responses to emotionally charged situations. And so a deeper read of “when you go to war with your enemies” can be this: “when you go to war….with yourself,” meaning those aspects of you that are base, unbridled and unbounded.
The purpose of the laws of “the beautiful captive” is not to result in an orderly marriage; rather, they are to prevent the marriage to begin with. They are meant to give the guy time to see the woman – not as a mere beautiful object – but as her authentic self. He has to be able to see her as the mother of his children and someone who will be by his side for the rest of his life. He has to see her as compatible with his Jewish values and lifestyle. He has to see her as not just satisfying his desire for instant gratification in the immediate present, but as a total commitment to the future. And if she is not to be a full-fledged wife, then she can’t be something other, like a slave. She must be a compensated and set free.
In the last few weeks of his life, Moses was cramming in his final words of advice and so the laws of Ki Teitzei come one after another. As slaves in Egypt, the Jewish People were not free to say “no” to the Pharaoh, and thus they had little to no free will. In the desert, the Jewish People lived with “strict justice” meaning that punishment was quickly and visibly meted out. While they had free will, they also had the clarity of cause and effect, and so if you said “no” to God’s laws, you weren’t going to be around that long to brag about it.
Once the Jewish People would leave the desert, however, and live in the Land, it was going to be a completely different story. They would not be slaves to anyone, nor would they live with “desert clarity.” They would have to figure out on their own how to say “no” to that which should be negated in their life. And that is where emotional mastery comes in.
Torah doesn’t permit us to have whatever we want, just because we want it. Each person and each situation has its carefully circumscribed boundaries of protection. Understanding and respecting the sensitivities, the boundaries and the proper uses of all things – whether human, animal or even vegetable – is the basis of mastery over those emotional urges which could cause us to violate someone or something else.
So the battle really is between you – and you – to develop a healthy way of dealing with exclusion. Certain things, certain people, and certain situations simply do not belong in our lives, nor do they belong with each other. It’s understanding the “Law of Exclusion” and going to war against that which blurs our boundaries.
A slave cannot say “no.” Only a human with free will can say “no.” And that is precisely what makes a “yes” so powerful, so meaningful. Think about it. If I cannot say “no” to you, then what is the value of my “yes?” Everything has a flip side. Therefore, saying “no” to that which will bring you down is saying “yes” to that which can elevate you, make you grow, and sanctify your life. And that is certainly worth fighting for.
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, may we examine our own “no’s” and “yes’s” and make sure that we’re fighting the right battles with the right enemies.