Living with the Reminders of Failure

When you go out to war against your enemies and Hashem will deliver them into your hand and you will take captives. (If) you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and take her as a wife … (Sefer Devarim 21:10-11)

1. The mitzvah of yefat to’ar and accommodating human frailties
Parshat Ki Tetze opens with a description of the unusual mitzvah of yefat to’ar – the beautiful captive. The Torah explains that inevitably Bnai Yisrael will be faced with armed conflicts and if the people are faithful to Hashem, then He will deliver their enemies into their hands. With victory will come captives. Among these captives there will be beautiful women. If one of the combatants wishes to take one of these captives as a wife, he is permitted to do so.

On the surface this does not seem extraordinary. The captive is required to adopt Judaism and has the rights of any wife in marriage. However, the Sages explain that, in fact, through this mitzvah the Torah actually abrogates normative practice. Exactly wherein the abrogation lay is a matter of debate. The most well-known view is that of Maimonides who bases his opinion of the Talmud Yerushalmi. According to Maimonides, the Torah allows the combatant to have initial intimate relations with the captive prior to her conversion and marriage.[1]

Why does the Torah allow the combatant to engage in intimate relations with a non-Jewish woman and outside of marriage? Our Sages explain that this mitzvah is an accommodation of the yetzer hara – the instinctual drives. What do the Sages mean by this explanation and why in this instance is such an accommodation appropriate?

2. War dehumanizes the victor and the vanquished
War is a dehumanizing experience. This is true for both the vanquished and the vanquisher. War and violent conflict bring out the darkest, most primitive elements of the personality. The higher elements of the human personality must be suspended if the warrior is to carry out the acts of violence required to survive and triumph. The experience of the battlefield calls forth from the warrior elements of the personality that would normally be suppressed and concealed even from his own awareness. The result is that the warrior acts on the battlefield and experiences an intensity of emotion that is alien to everyday life. These intense feelings do not dissipate immediately with the close of the battle. They subside with time. In the wake of battle the vanquished enemy is most vulnerable. He cannot protect himself and his opponent is now drunk with the intoxicant of his triumph and still possessed by the combination of fear, rage, and cruelty that were necessary in the just-won battle.

3. Moderation versus suppression
The Torah recognizes that an attempt to suppress these intense passions will be ineffectual. However, it is possible to regulate or moderate their expression. The Torah acts to prevent the combatant from engaging in an extended process of abuse and denigration of the defeated enemy. This should not be interpreted as only an expression of compassion for the vulnerable non-combatant. It is expression of concern for the welfare of the victor and potential abuser. He will be dehumanized by acting out his feelings of aggression and domination.

Therefore, the Torah allows the combatant to engage in intimacy with the captive. However, it requires that the woman be treated with dignity. He must bring the woman into his home and he cannot merely seize her and publicly humiliate her. If he wishes to continue the relationship, he must marry her. He cannot denigrate her but he must treat her with dignity and accept upon himself the full duties and responsibilities of a husband to his wife.

When a man will have two wives, one who is beloved and one who is disliked, and the beloved and disliked wife give birth to children for him; and the son of the disliked wife is the first-born… (Devarim 21:15)

4. The tragic destiny of the yefat to’ar
The parasha’s discussion of yefat to’ar is followed by the above passage. This pasuk introduces the laws concerning inheritance. The Torah explains that a father’s firstborn son inherits a double portion of the property of the father. This law applies even in the special case in our pasuk. In this instance, the father has two wives. One is beloved. The other is shunned. The father’s firstborn is the child of the shunned wife. The father cannot disregard the inheritance rights of this son. He receives a double portion. The father cannot transfer this right to a younger son from the beloved wife.

Rashi explains that this law is related to the previous discussion of yefat to’ar. The Torah first introduces the mitzvah of yefat to’ar and then discusses the status of the son of the shunned wife. The juxtaposition implies that the two discussions are related and the yefat to’ar is destined to become the despised wife.[2] Why will the husband come to hate this yefat to’ar?

5. The transformation of the yefat to’ar into the shunned wife
Rashi provides a hint in his comments. He precedes his explanation of the juxtaposition with the Sages’ comment that the mitzvah of yefat to’ar is an accommodation of the yetzer hara. Rashi is implying that the mitzvah’s fundamental nature as an accommodation is related to the yefat to’ar’s unfortunate destiny of being shunned by her husband. However, Rashi leaves it to the reader to identify the connection between these two phenomena.

Identifying the relationship requires an understanding of human nature. When the soldier entered into an intimate relationship with the captive without marriage and before conversion he was driven by overwhelming primitive passions. He was functioning in an altered mental state. He was acting in a manner that he would regard as shameful and absurd were he in his normative mental state. However, with time, this passion subsides. He returns to his normal, more sane state of mind.

With the return of sanity, he attempts to restore his self-image as a civilized and wholesome individual. He does not wish to be reminded of the violent and primitive component of his personality that emerged on the battlefield and possessed him in the aftermath of victory. To accomplish the restoration of his self-image, he must purge all memory and reminders of his previous embarrassing and even shameful behavior. If successful, he can again view himself as a sane, rational human-being.

However, the soldier who has married the yefat to’ar cannot effectively purge his memory of his shameful lapse in behavior. He is unable to completely restore a positive self-image. The presence of his yefat to’ar wife does not allow the husband to restore his cherished positive self-image. Inevitably, he will come to resent this wife. She is a constant indication of the base, primitive passions lurking just under the surface. He will resent the constant reminder of his downfall. The yefat to’ar will become the shunned wife.

According to Rashi, the Torah warns us that although it does provide an accommodation of the yetzer hara, this accommodation can have unpleasant consequences. Its very nature as an accommodation of the primitive and base elements of the human personality guarantees that the combatant who avails himself of it will later regret his behavior. As sanity returns, he will feel discomfort and shame regarding a behavior that he now recognizes as base and primitive.

Of course, Rashi’s insight can and should be generalized. Although most of us do not experience the intense and overpowering feelings of the soldier on the battlefield, every person sometimes acts out of passion. When in the grips of intense passion it is difficult to resist its powerful demand for satisfaction. However, often there remains a part of our mind that is capable to critiquing our behavior. If that critical faculty is to be effective, it must be able to bring to bear upon our consciousness considerations that can act as deterrents to acting out of passion. Perhaps, Rashi’s insight is such a consideration. If we can consider how we will feel about ourselves after acting on our passion, we may find an ally in our battle to resist its insistent call.

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:2.

2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:11.