UNIVERSAL TORAH: KI SEITZEI
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: KI SEITZEI, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.
Haftara: Isaiah 54:1-10.
WINNING THE PEACE
On first examination, our parshah, KI SEITZEI, may appear to be a collection of many apparently unrelated commandments in a wide variety of different areas. It is not immediately clear in what way the opening words of the parshah — “When you go out to WAR” (Deut. 21:10) — set the theme for the whole of the rest of the parshah. The question is sharpened by the fact that in the previous parshah, SHOFTIM, we already had a Torah section beginning with precisely the same words: “When you go out to war against your enemy” (Deut. 20:1). As discussed in the commentary on SHOFTIM, it is in that section that the Torah sets forth the main laws relating to the conduct of actual war. Our present parshah of KI SEITZEI begins with a mitzvah that applies after the battle is already over — what to do with a beautiful captive. Yet five verses later, the Torah turns to the laws of inheritance, education of children, lost property and other areas that have little apparent connection with war.
There are indeed a few more references to actual war later on in our parshah. The Israelite camp must be pure (Deut. 23:10); a newly married man is exempt from military service (Deut. 24:5); and at the end of the parshah, we are commanded to remember the first war against Israel, that of Amalek. However, the greater part of the parshah deals with laws that relate not so much to war on the actual battlefield as to life on the home front. In the home itself, in social life and in business, out and about in the town, out in the field and out in the wilds of our own hearts, we confront a different enemy: the Evil Inclination. It is against this enemy that we must learn the stratagems of warfare and battle. “The Torah speaks against none other than the Evil Inclination” (Rashi on Deut. 21:11).
Many of the situations we face every day confront us with choices. These include difficult choices between what reason, intuition and conscience may be telling us to do, and what our more impulsive side is pushing us to do. In parshas KI SEITZEI, the Torah provides us with guidance in making the right and good choices when fighting the battles of daily life in the home, at work, in business and in many other contexts.
The opening mitzvah of the parshah, that of the beautiful captive, addresses a fundamental issue facing all who seek to observe the Torah in the fullest way possible. Since the Torah regulates our interactions with the outside world down to the very food we take into our mouths and the clothes we wear, what, if anything, are we allowed to take from the alien cultures around us? The beautiful captive embodies all that is most alluring and enticing in the alien culture. The Torah tells us to “let her hair grow long and her nails grow like claws”: instead of allowing ourselves to jump at surface attractiveness, we must take a little time to discover how quickly this fades and turns ugly. The Torah teaches us not to fall for immediate surface appeal but to consider the longer term consequences and ramifications of the choices and decisions we make. The beautiful captive may turn into a hated wife who bears a glutton, drunkard son. The Torah sees to the end of the matter.
One bad choice can lead to a lot of evil and suffering. On the other hand, a single good choice, even over something tiny, can lead to amazing goodness — in this world and the next. What could be more insignificant than walking on a road somewhere and happening to find a bird’s nest with a mother and eggs or fledglings? How can it be that sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs or fledglings (it costs you nothing) guarantees long life in this world and the next? (Deut. 22:6-7). Only the One who is above time and Who sees from the beginning of a thing to the end knows what are the long-term consequences of our actions in this world, for good or for bad. It is precisely because we do not see the long-term consequences of our actions that we need true guidance in making our choices. The commandments contained in TI SEITZEI give us practical guidance in our home and family life, in making a livelihood and doing business, in how we talk and many other areas “in order that He may bestow good on you and you will lengthen your days” (Deut. 22:7).
Each of the commandments in the parshah must be taken on the level of PSHAT — the simple meaning — and each one involves detailed binding laws, as discussed in the relevant sections of the Talmud and Codes. At the same time, each word of each verse contains the deepest levels of SOD — secret meaning — so that when we fulfil these laws in practice, we even unknowingly create configurations of G-dliness and goodness in the world around us and in our own hearts and souls. In the following discussion of the commandments contained in our parshah, they are discussed not in the sequence in which they appear in the parshah but under themes.
THE HOME AND THE FAMILY
The opening mitzvah of the parshah, that of the beautiful captive, takes us directly inside the home, which is where the captive is taken to “grow her hair and nails”. Life in the home and in the family is a central theme throughout the parshah. Immediately following the law of the beautiful captive comes a hint of marital discord (the hated wife), followed by the Torah law of family inheritance and the birthright. This is followed by the law of the gluttonous son, whose penalty is to be stoned to death. The requisite amounts of meat and wine the gluttonous son would have to imbibe were so gigantic that in practice no one would ever fulfill all the conditions that would make them liable to the death penalty. The Torah does not want to kill the son, but rather to teach the essence of good parenting, from childhood onwards and especially during puberty and adolescence. Children need not be given everything they want. They must be taught to listen to the voice of mother and father, wisdom and understanding.
The education of girls for the life of Torah and the holiness of Israel is no less important than that of boys. The stoning of the girl whose new husband found her to have been unfaithful after their betrothal is not only a terrible punishment for the girl. It is a bitter lesson for her father, outside whose house the execution takes place. “See the offspring you have raised” (Rashi on Deut. 22:21). The holiness of the Israelite home and family is based upon KIDDUSHIN, the act of betrothal whereby husband and wife sanctify and dedicate themselves to one another. In bringing up a new generation, the parental duty is to ensure that girls understand the holiness and seriousness of marriage and of marital fidelity. They must understand what is happening to their pubescent bodies and the attendant dangers in the outside world and from the lurking Evil Urge. This education is particularly important today, when the world is flooded with a culture that encourages teenagers to think of nothing but sexual attraction and romance all day every day. The laws of rape and seduction in our parshah underline how carefully parents must protect their daughters (and sons). Protection must start by lovingly teaching our children about the uniqueness and holiness of Israel and the special level of conduct required of BNEY MELACHIM, children of kings — “for your are children of HaShem”.
Our parshah contains the laws of marriage and divorce that make up most of SEDER NASHIM, the Order of the Mishneh relating to these areas. These include the laws of YIBUM, the Levirate marriage, and CHALITZA, the ceremony for nullifying it, with all their many secrets. Many of the basic laws of KIDDUSHIN and NISU’IM, betrothal and marriage, are learned from verses in our parshah, as are the laws of the GET, “bill of divorce”. The prohibition against a divorced woman who married another man from subsequently remarrying her first husband sets Israel apart from the alien culture that licenses switching back and forth from one partner to another. The holiness of the bond between husband and wife is founded on its exclusiveness. In the realities of life in the world we live in, divorce is sometimes necessary and must be carried out with the proper procedure. However, there is no doubt that the Torah prefers not to license divorce (which “makes the altar-stones weep”) but rather that man and wife should joyously build their home together to fulfil “and your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23:15) for many long, good years. The first year of marriage sets the foundation for all that follows. In that year the groom is commanded that “he make joyous his wife that he took” (Deut. 24:5). The surest foundation for joy in the home is the study and practice of the Torah.
Bound up with the laws of marriage are the laws relating to personal status and those entitled to enter the community of Israel. The community excludes male Ammonites and Moabites (though King David himself was descended from a Moabitess), and Egyptians and Edomites to the third generation. A different status is that of the MAMZER, who as the child of an incestuous relationship of Israelites is also inherently flawed and may not marry into the community. The purpose of these laws is to protect the purity of the Israelite family.
The home is a private domain — so much so that even a creditor may not enter to take a pledge but must wait outside for the debtor to bring it out. But while the home is private, it must be a place of dignity so that G-d’s holy Presence may dwell there. Dignity begins with personal hygiene and cleanliness, which is why the Torah commands us to attend to our physical needs “outside the camp” and properly cover the waste. Within our homes, we are free to do all that the Torah permits, but we must keep our eyes open and take precautions against potential dangers. “Make a parapet for your roof”. The law to make a parapet to prevent someone falling off the roof is the foundation of the general Torah law that potential hazards of all kinds should be removed (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat #427). Not only does the Torah govern how we build our homes. It even governs the clothes we wear: we may not wear mixtures of wool and linen, and men must wear Tzitztis. The Tzitzis are the first line of defense against immorality (which is why the commandment of wearning Tzitzis immediately precedes the laws of the betrothed maiden). A man must not wear women’s clothes or ornaments and vice versa.
MAKING A LIVING: BETWEEN MAN AND HIS FELLOW
Commandments relating to making a living — from plowing the land to loans and the money economy — also take up major parts of parshas KI SEITZEI. Just as the separation between Israel and the nations is part of G-d’s order, so is the separation between different species of animals and vegetables. One must not drive the plow with an ox and a donkey together. One may not plant one field with diverse species. What distinguishes Israel is the trait of kindness and compassion, which must be carefully cultivated. When harvesting the crops, gifts must be left for the unfortunate and the needy: the proselyte, the widow, the orphan and the poor. The farmer must even be sensitive to the feelings of his ox: while threshing, he may not muzzle the ox to prevent it munching on some of the produce while at work.
Relevant to all are the laws governing the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees. The employee must work industriously and may not abuse the privileges the Torah gives him. Having completed his work, he is entitled to prompt payment: now the mitzvah is on the employer. The laws in our parshah relating to the money economy include those of giving interest-free loans to fellow Israelites and the strict prohibition of taking interest (RIBIS). Business activity is to be governed by the laws of fair weights and measures.
Not only are we bound to conduct our business dealings with integrity. We are responsible for the property of others if they loose it — our parshah contains the laws of lost property. And if our friend gets into trouble — if his donkey can’t carry the load — we must help him rearrange the load.
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DOUBLE STANDARDS — AND AMALEK
The detailed laws in our parshah culminate in what on one level is a business law — the prohibition of keeping a big and a small weight: a big weight to use in weighing what one buys, and a small weight in weighing what one sells. We are to use one standard in our business dealings, and likewise, one standard in all of our judgments and evaluations: the Torah standard. We may not judge ourselves and those we like favorably while judging those outside our preferred circle unfavorably. We are to examine ourselves and others and everything in our lives with sobriety, carefully examining to see how things measure up according to the Torah standard. It is this that protects us from Amalek.
From the proximity of the prohibition of double standards to the law of remembering and wiping out Amalek, we learn that having double standards is what brings the scourge of Amalek. The war against Amalek is a theme during this month of Elul, just as it is in the month of Adar, which is six months earlier and diagonally opposite/facing Elul in the circle of the months. Just as fighting Amalek is necessary in Adar in preparation for Nissan, the month of redemption, so it is necessary as part of the Teshuvah process during Elul as we approach Rosh HaShanah and the Days of Awe.
Amalek “encountered you [KORCHO] on the way” (Deut. 25:18). The Rabbis stated that Amalek “cooled [KAR] you” — When the Israelites were flushed with joy and innocent fervor immediately after the Exodus, Amalek attacked with demoralization and despair. Amalek attacked with MIKREH, “chance” — the philosophy that there is no order in the universe and that therefore everything is permitted. Amalek attacked with KERI, the wasteful emission of seed through sexual permissiveness and immorality. These are the very opposite of the holiness that is the foundation of Israel.
The alien culture around us is now reaching its climax in the espousal of the unholy. The Torah states that a man shall not wear the clothes and ornaments of a woman, and vice verse. Yet the alien culture is obsessed with gender and cross gender issues, and has legitimized homosexual relationships — an abomination in the eyes of the Torah — to the point that the countries which consider themselves most advanced are those that have legislated to give homosexual couples the same rights and benefits as husbands and wives. The Midrash clearly states that giving sanction to homosexual marriages brings ANDROLOMUSIA — chaos in which the innocent suffer with the guilty. We can see with our own eyes how the very world that has sanctioned this mockery of marriage is reeling from the fires of war and terror, crime, violence, economic recession, disease…
The foundation of the holiness of Israel has nothing to do with this mockery of marriage, this vain emission of seed. The foundation of the holiness of Israel is KIDDUSHIN, the sacred bond of marriage and fidelity between man and his wife. This is the foundation of family, continuity, the education of children, refinement, modesty, compassion and all other good traits.
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum