PRISONER OF WAR
At first glance, the section recorded at the beginning of this week's Torah portion regarding the eshet y'fat to'ar (the beautiful gentile woman captured by the Jewish soldier in battle) seems entirely out of character with the overall message of the Torah.
At first glance, the section recorded at the beginning of this week's Torah portion regarding the eshet y'fat to'ar (the beautiful gentile woman captured by the Jewish soldier in battle) seems entirely out of character with the overall message of the Torah. Throughout the five books of Moses we read about laws emphasizing restraint and self-discipline, responsibility and control. Yet, in this week's Torah portion we discover the case of the eshet y'fat to'ar, when a soldier, in a time of war, is permitted to discard those lofty ideals and surrender to his desires. What message is the Torah trying to convey by apparently allowing Jewish soldiers to seize captive women at will without giving any thought to self-control?
However, before we pass judgment too quickly, we must first examine more carefully the verses which relate the proscribed course of action, as the Torah's consent to this rendezvous with a captive woman does not represent the end or even half of the story. In Deuteronomy 21:12 we learn that shortly after their initial encounter, the woman must shave her head and let her fingernails grow, certainly not an attractive sight. Verse 13 further explains that she must cry incessantly over her dead parents for a full thirty days, all in full view of her captor. Only after this month of mourning may they resume normal relations as man and wife. Surely after such a display, almost any man would become quickly uninterested in the very same woman who, only a short time ago, had so greatly stimulated his interest. Indeed the Torah, expecting such a response, proscribes the proper action which will cause the man to no longer desire this woman as his wife. Obviously, the Torah's apparent sanction of such carefree behavior is not so clear-cut; clearly, there is a deeper message here.
Let us consider for a moment the plight of the soldier in a time of war. Torn away from his wife and family for months on end, he is subjected to the harsh conditions of brutal confrontation. If that weren't enough, he must endure the temptations of the gentile women who have come to parade before the Jewish soldiers in their most alluring attire in order to divert their attention from the battle at hand. (In fact, for this reason the Torah requires that the "abducted" woman change out of her clothes of war upon entering the soldier's house.) The Jewish soldier in this predicament may find himself unable to control his emotions and consequently becomes ensnared by the traps set by the gentile women. What shall happen to this soldier - will he be condemned to eternal damnation for his crime?
Judaism says no. Hashem created Man as a physical being in a physical world with physical desires. Of course Man's mission in this world is to overcome his evil inclination which drives him to act upon those desires. However, a person cannot be expected to conquer his emotions overnight. It is a lifelong battle. Thus, the Torah is willing to concede that a person may find himself unable to restrain himself from the evils of sin. Nevertheless, he must not allow himself to remain in this depraved state. Granted he has failed this time, but he must take the proper precautions to ensure success the next time. Thus, the soldier must shave the woman's hair, allow her nails to grow, refrain from having relations with her, do anything to make the woman as despicable as possible. Hopefully, after thirty days have passed, his desire for her will also have passed.
Although most of us have never been faced with the exact same circumstances as the Jewish soldier described in this week's Torah portion, we nonetheless have had to endure our own share of temptations. Nobody can be expected to successfully deflect his cravings every time. King Solomon declared that long ago when he said, "There is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he always does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Everybody will at one point succumb helplessly in the face of his desires. The real question then becomes: What happens next? Will he surrender to his weaknesses, resigned to the notion that Man has no hope in the war against his evil inclination and that all is lost? Or will he arise with new resolve, determined that although he may have lost the battle, he can still win the war? Will he truly learn from his mistakes and take the proper precautions to ensure future victories? How one answers these questions determines whether one will allow himself to be held hostage by his emotions, or will be able to set himself free from the bonds of the evil inclination. With the commandment of the eshet y'fat to'ar, the Torah has provided us with the prescription for effectively treating the post-sin syndrome. Now it is up to us to make sure we take our medicine.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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