The Strange Case of the Yefas Toar
This week’s Parasha Ki Seitse opens with a remarkable set of laws about the Yefas To’ar:
When you will go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity; and you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife. (Deut. 21:10)
The same Torah forbids having relations with any non-Jewish woman (remember the story of Pinchas who killed Zimri for that very reason?) and makes marrying a non-Jewish woman punishable by spiritual death. The same Halocho forbids premarital or extra-marital sex, Negiah or even Yichud, yet permits marrying a gentile woman under war conditions? Bizarre…
There are a number of explanations for this leniency and I’ll start with a story.
If the Torah Demands Something
While living in London, Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, zt”l, gave a shiur (class) every Friday night to non-religious young people. He invited them into his home and taught them the weekly Torah portion. When it came to this week’s parsha, Ki Seitze, he spent the entire week pondering how to explain the Yefas Toar — the law allowing a Jewish soldier in battle to take and even marry a female non-Jewish captive.
How was he going to put across this seemingly strange concept to his young pupils? Try as he might, he could think of no suitable approach. Friday night arrived, and still no explanation had materialized in his head. So he prayed that Hashem would put the right words into his mouth. Suddenly, during the Friday night meal, it came to him…
With his students seated around the Shabbos table, Rabbi Abramsky remarked, “Before we open the Chumash, I want you to know something: From what we are about to read we will see clearly how the entire Torah is obligatory upon us.”
From this week’s Parsha we learn that the Torah never demands that which is beyond a person’s ability: In a situation where it is impossible to hold back, the Torah permits us to follow our instincts!”
It must be then, that everything else the Torah demands of us is certainly within our capabilities, within our reach and obligatory upon us all…”
(Peninei Rabbeinu Yechzkel)
I’d like to add a thought within the context of Jewish Traveling.
Kings on the Road
In the introduction to Sefer Ahalech Be’Amitecha by Rav Betzalel Stern zt”l (his monumental work on the laws of travel), I read an interesting explanation to the following verses from the laws of kings and kingship:
And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write himself a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them (Deut. 17:18-19).
Rashi comments on the words “a copy of this law” to mean that the king should have two copies of the Torah in his possession; one in the royal treasury and one to carry with him wherever he goes.
Rav Stern zt”l comments that when one is on the road it is natural to seek leniency in the observance of Halacha. If on business and certainly on vacation, the tendency is to be more liberal and even lax in the code of behavior we take for granted at home.
I’m not referring only to severe infractions of Halacha, but even to minor changes in normative Jewish activity, whether by loosening up in dress standards, in what and where we eat, in visiting places one would never dream of doing at home (a mixed beach or non-Jewish houses of worship) and so forth.
Therefor, explained Rav Stern, the king carried with him an auxiliary copy of the Torah during his travels to remind him that the Torah is valid and obligatory wherever he goes. (I would add, if I may, that loosening up a bit on vacation is fine. After all you do want to relax. Otherwise stay home. It’s when one ends off transgressing the basics, then one is in trouble).
Jewish Damage Control
In my opinion, this is the message of the Yefas Toar. The Torah gives us a healthy framework for living wherever we are and whatever we are doing, irrespective if in normative situations or in extreme circumstances like war.
Even when one finds themselves beyond their ability to exert self-control and literally “lose it”, nevertheless they haven’t completely lost their connection to Jewish life and behavior. There’s a possibility of Jewish damage control. Slowing down the decline and getting back to their senses.
With bombs falling around you and bullets whizzing in your ears you’ve fallen in love with a beautiful non-Jewish girl? OK, here are the rules for stabilizing the situation, finding balance and remaining a good Jew.
So when you are traveling and find yourself doing things you might regret, don’t let go of it all. Hold on tight to any Halocho you can keep. Keep Shabbos, eat Kosher, put on Tefillin, wash Netilas Yodayim, say a Brocho before eating. Hold on to whatever you can. Eventually you’ll catch yourself, keep your Jewish identity and come out a stronger and better Jew in the end.