Parashat Ki Tetzeh
Dedicated Le'Ilui Nishmat Abraham Ben Esther by His Son Joey Gindi
Parashat Ki Tetzeh
This week’s parasha starts off with the passuk, “Ki tetzeh lamilhama al oyvecha untano Hashem elokecha beyadecha veshavita shivyo — If you go out to war against your enemy, and Hashem, your G-d, delivers him into your hands, and you take his captives.”
The Zohar Hakadosh interprets this passuk as referring to the internal war a person wages on a daily basis with his yetzer hara (evil inclination). In this reading, the passuk can be seen as saying that if we are truly sincere in trying to defeat our yetzer hara, then Hashem will help us, and we will triumph!
The Yetzer Hara
In parashat Vayishlach, when Yaakov fought with the angel, Yaakov asked it, “Now tell me your name (32:30).” The angel replied, “Why is it that you ask for my name?” Rashi comments that the angel didn’t have a set name, because his name kept changing.
The yetzer hara, too, comes in many different forms and is called by many names. It can be called “money,” or “Internet.” It can also come in the form of an addiction, like gambling, drugs, alcohol, or cell phone addiction (even on Shabbat). The number of hours that the youth and even adults spend playing these games that they are addicted to is scary. They can’t stop! It’s exactly what avodah zara was in the old days. Whatever the yetzer hara disguises itself as, its goal is to do whatever it can to bring us down, has veshalom. These are all lifelong battles that we all have with our yetzer hara, which we must continue to fight and strive to overcome!
Our job in this life is to do our best to avoid this evil inclination and to run away from sin. But the yetzer hara is very cunning and is constantly trying to find different ways to make us fall. It will work on us 24/7, so it’s our job to outsmart the yetzer hara and avoid its clutches. The yetzer hara is the Satan and the Mal-ach Hamavet all rolled into one. It first causes us to sin, then it’s the prosecutor that wants to throw the book at us, and finally it’s the Mal-ach Hamavet that wants to kill us.
The biggest enemy of the yetzer hara is Torah learning, and it will try in every way possible to stop us from learning Torah. There is good news, though, for as it says in the fifth perek of Masechet Succa: “Barati yetzer hara vebarati torah tavlin.” Hashem is saying to us “I created the yetzer hara and I created the antidote — Torah!” So if the yetzer hara grabs hold of you, just drag him to the bet midrash where you will be protected.
In parashat Vayeshev, we learned how Yosef Hatzadik escaped the clutches of Potifar’s wife when she grabbed his garment as she tried to seduce him. Yosef ran from her, as it says in the passuk, “Vayazov bigdo beyada — He left his garment in her hand.” This was not easy to do, but that’s one of the reasons that he’s called Yosef Hatzadik — because he was able to conquer his yetzer hara!
The question may be asked, why didn’t he just go back to get his garment so he wouldn’t be accused of anything? The answer is that he was afraid if he went back, he might fall and sin! As it clearly says in the fourth perek of Pirke Avot: “Ezehu gibor hakovesh et yitzro.” Which means, “Who is a hero? One who conquers his evil inclination!” Although the test was very great, Yosef’s reward was greater. He became viceroy of all of Egypt, which gave him and all his family wealth for the rest of their lives.
The Woman Captured in War
The following three decrees are the opposite from above because they show the negative consequences of a man’s actions that are the result of following his yetzer hara. The first one discusses the procedures that must be followed if a soldier desires a beautiful woman who had been captured in war (because the yetzer hara got hold of him). The Torah instructs him that it is permissible to take her for a wife, but there are several hurdles that she must first pass: shaving her head, letting her nails grow, then sitting and weeping for her parents for thirty days. Only then can he finally take her for a wife. We see from this that the Torah understands human nature.
By the time the soldier followed through with the Torah’s instructions, he might have found that it was no longer worthwhile to marry her. But once he follows through and goes through all these procedures, the Torah is decreeing that ultimately, he will end up hating her. The second decree is that when he has a son from the hated wife, he will be a bechor so he will be obligated to give the son a double portion of the inheritance. The third decree is that the son from that marriage will grow to be rebellious.
The Rebellious Son
The Torah then discusses the ben sorer umoreh, or the rebellious son, which would be the result of marrying a woman that was captured in war. The passuk says, “If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother and they chasten him and still he does not listen to them, his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city.” The Torah then goes on to instruct the parents to tell the elders that their son is wayward, a glutton, and guzzler. Such a son must be stoned to death.
However, the Talmud explains (Sanhedrin 71a) that there never was and never will be a son who qualifies as a ben sorer umoreh. There are so many conditions that would have to be met, that such a situation could never actually arise. It is therefore theoretical. However, the Torah discusses this case because it wishes to emphasize how damaging the yetzer hara can be, and how it can affect our neshama for the rest of our lives, thus killing us spiritually if not literally.
Blowing Our Potential
In the eighth chapter of Sanhedrin the Talmud explains that this is a very exceptional situation. The parents notice a trend in their young son’s spiritual development that will almost inevitably lead to a lifestyle involving robbery and perhaps even murder. Therefore, the Torah advises that he should be put to death “at the stage in life when he is still innocent,” rather than allowing him to mature to a point where he will be fully deserving of death.
The question that’s begging to be asked is: Why are we killing him now because of the potential that he might become a murderer in the future as an adult? The penalty for murder is death by the sword, but the penalty for a ben sorer umoreh is by death by stoning, which is a much more severe penalty. So why are we giving him the penalty of stoning when he might become a murderer, when an actual murderer gets the lower penalty of death by the sword?
The answer is that the Torah is teaching us that every child has the potential to be great. But the ben sorer umoreh blew that potential. The Torah wants to teach us that blowing our potential in life is worse than whatever actual crimes we commit!
Rav Dovid Feinstein makes an interesting linguistic inference from the wording in this chapter. When the Torah originally describes the situation of the ben sorer umoreh, it states “He did not listen to the voice of his father nor to the voice of his mother (Devarim 21:18).” However, when the Torah describes the testimony of the parents in bet din, there is a subtle change of language: “He does not listen to our voice (Devarim 21:20).”
There are no secret formulas to raising good children. Raising children is the most difficult job in the world. However, there are clearly certain things parents should try to avoid. Parents should always present their children with a single message. When a child hears mixed messages — one thing from the father and another thing from the mother — that is a garden in which weeds can grow.
Rabbi Frand elaborates that when the child hears mixed messages, he follows whatever he thinks is right. Since one parent says one thing and the other parent says another thing, “let the third passuk come and reconcile between them.” And even if the parents present a unified approach as to what is good and what is not good, what can be done and what cannot be done — there is still no guarantee that the children will come out perfect. But at least the parents have removed one of the greatest reasons why children go astray.
Therefore, the Torah stressed at the outset that the parents were not of one voice and one opinion. The child did not listen to his father’s voice, and independently he did not listen to his mother’s alternate voice. Only subsequently, when the child has already left the tried and true path, do the parents come and sadly tell the elders of the court: “Now we are together. We have a unified voice and we know that what our son is doing is wrong.” Unfortunately, by then it is too late.
Parents may have disagreements among themselves as to what is the proper course in raising children. But those disagreements need to be decided among themselves. When parents come before their children, they need to articulate a clear, decisive, and uniform position. When they reach the status of “our voice,” rather than “the father’s voice” and “the mother’s voice,” their chances for success will be much greater.
The Torah wants to also teach us that if we become addicted to desires at a young age, then we may lose our freedom of choice and our ability to do teshuva. Rabbi Twersky writes in his book that when he worked with addicts, they continually said, “When I needed drugs, I did things that I never thought myself capable of doing.”
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman was in Deal one Shabbat a couple of years ago and in one of his talks to us he said, “When we’re eating food that’s not healthy for us, like sugar products — do we listen to our pancreas or our kidneys or our liver or our colon that are all disgusted by most of the products that we put into our bodies? The only organ that craves those detrimental products is our tongue, with its few hundred taste buds that yearn for these bad influences on our body! It’s the yetzer hara that tries to convince us constantly, ‘It’s only one cookie,’ or ‘just one piece of candy...just eat it and enjoy!’ These cravings overwhelm our freedom of choice. The addict, in his desperation, is capable of eliminating anything that stands in the way of gratifying his needs and desires.
Don’t underestimate the power of the yetzer hara. No one can say “it won’t affect me,” or “I can handle it,” because its only goal is to bring us down, and it won’t stop till it succeeds!
A student of Rav Lopian once asked the Rabbi if it was okay to go to a function that was not going to be so modest. Then the student answered his own question, “I think I’m strong enough to handle that test.” The Rabbi replied, “You’re strong enough? I’m 96 years old, I have one bad eye, and my yetzer is weakened, and still I’m worried that I won’t be able to control it!”
The Butterfly Effect...
The Torah wants to teach us the Butterfly Effect in this parasha. “If you see a bird’s nest and send away the mother bird, and then take the young for yourself, it will be good for you and it will prolong your days. That will lead you to build a new house, which will lead you to put a fence on your roof so you will not have blood on your hands.” The Torah continues, “You should not sow your vineyard with a mixture which will produce seed that’s forbidden. And you shall not plow an ox and a donkey together, and you shall not wear combined fibers wool and linen. Then you shall make for yourself twisted threads on the four corners of your garments with which you cover yourself.” All these things show the positive effects of following the mitzvot from the Torah and how one mitzvah leads to another.
Why We Need Challenge in Our Lives
Charlie Harary spoke about a phenomenon, which was told over by Moshe Sananes, that shows how important it is to follow our human nature. He said in Japan, sushi is a big delicacy that has created a tremendous thriving industry. There’s a certain fish in big demand, but it can only be found in very deep waters. When it was first found, the fishermen chartered a large boat to catch a lot of this particular fish, but by the time they brought it back to shore they found that it wasn’t fresh, and therefore lost its taste. So, they decided on the next trip to freeze it in order to keep its taste, but it still wasn’t fresh. Then they tried to put them in a pool of water on the boat when bringing it back to shore, but they noticed that the fish in the pool looked dead, because they weren’t moving around. When they got back, the fish was still not fresh. Finally, someone had the idea to put a small shark in the pool with these fish to simulate their natural habitat, and it worked! The fish was very tasty when they brought it back to shore. The reason it was so good was because the fish needed to be challenged during that trip back to shore. The fear of the small shark that was in the pool with them gave them that challenge.
We learn from this that although we just want to be comfortable and content, that’s not good for us. Because if you think back on your life, nothing was really accomplished from a comfortable state of mind. Great things only happen when we’re challenged and go through adversity in our lives! This is what is keeping us alive. Like the fish in the pool with the shark, it’s the way Hashem created us.
It’s the same with a lion in a zoo. In captivity, the lion becomes lazy and indifferent, loafing in his limited cage. But the lion in his natural environment is the king of the jungle, a fierce animal that’s active and strong and fends for himself. He has to work hard in order to survive and maintain his status.
This phenomenon is even more true for a human being. If a person is handed everything on a silver platter, he has no incentive to work. Eventually he will become lazy and lose his talents. But if a person is constantly challenged, he’s always growing and learning, which helps him in all aspects of his life. Hashem gave us our yetzer hara to test us daily, and the antidote to it is the Torah, to continuously challenge us to learn every day, so we can grow and have a fulfilling and productive life.
We can also see this clearly in our governments today. A capitalist society can create tremendous success and entrepreneurship in all aspects of humanity. In just 250 years, America has become the greatest nation in the world, because it encouraged its citizens to build this country through the incentive of their own challenges, which lead to tremendous ingenuity and growth. This is also very similar to the very small and young country of Israel, which today is a leader in startup companies – despite their small size and limited population. Whereas a socialist society looks to give everything free to its people, which makes them lazy and unchallenged. There is no incentive, and therefore no energy, for growth or creativity to build a healthy society, which will eventually lead to anarchy.
May we all be aware that we all have a yetzer hara, which we live with every day of our lives. Hashem gave us this yetzer hara to test us so that we may earn Olam Haba. May we all recognize that the way to control this yetzer hara is learning Torah and doing acts of hesed. May we all take care to learn Torah every day and challenge ourselves, so that we may continue to always grow, which will enable us to ultimately conquer our yetzer hara! Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
Do we identify with our yetzer hara or yetzer tov? Whose side are we on?
Are we giving our kids mixed messages?
Do we constantly challenge ourselves in different aspects of our lives?
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