Don’t Win the Battle
A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”
“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.
Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?
In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.
What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!
The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.
“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.
On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein
SEPTEMBER 5, 1997— So Where Are You?
AUGUST 29, 1997— What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?
AUGUST 22, 1997— Finding the AdultWithin
AUGUST 15, 1997— Make the Time Count
AUGUST 8, 1997— ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife
AUGUST 1, 1997— A Warning toRevolutionaries