Parashat Ki Tetzeh
Dedicated for the Refuah Shelemah of Moshe ben Rachel, Yehudah ben Rachel, Miriam bat Rachel, Leah bat Rachel, Daniel ben Rachel, and Rav Eliyah Dov Ben Chavah Esther
Parashat Ki Tetzeh
“Ki tetzeh lamilchamah al oyvecha untano Hashem Elokecha beyadecha veshavita shivyo — If you go to war against your enemy, and Hashem, your G-d, delivers him into your hands, and you take his captives (21:10).” The Zohar Hakadosh interprets this passuk as referring to the internal war a person has with his yetzer hara—evil inclination. As we learned in Shoftim, the parshiot read in between Elul and Yom Kippur allude to one’s battle with his evil inclination. The first passuk in this parasha says that if one is truly sincere in trying to defeat his yetzer hara, Hashem will help him be victorious.
“Ezehu gibor? Hakovesh et yitzro—Who is truly strong? One who conquers his evil inclination (Pirke Avot 4)!” In Parashat Vayishlach, when Yaakov fought with the angel, “Yaakov demanded, ‘Tell me your name,’ and [the angel] said, ‘Why is it that you ask for my name (Bereshit 32:30)?’” Rashi comments that the angel didn’t have a set name because it kept changing. He comes in many different forms and is called by many names, like yetzer hara, Satan, and Malach Hamavet. He can also be called money, Internet, or jealousy.
The yetzer hara can also manifest itself as an addiction, whether it’s to alcohol, drugs, or smartphones. People of all ages spend an insurmountable amount of time scrolling social media. They can’t stop! Social media is comparable to avodah zarah in the old days. The evil inclination’s primary goal is to drag a person down, chas veshalom. Fighting and overcoming him is a lifelong battle to which everyone is subjected. The yetzer hara is very cunning and constantly tries to find different ways to make someone fall. He will work 24/7, so it’s our job to outsmart and avoid his clutches.
The yetzer hara does the first job by causing a person to sin. Then he becomes the Satan who goes to Hashem and acts as the prosecutor. After that, lo alenu, he morphs into the Malach Hamavet to do his duty. The yetzer hara has a chink in his armor, though, and his weak spot is Torah. It says in the first perek of Masechet Kiddushin, “Barati yetzer hara vebarati torah tavlin.” Hashem says,“I created the yetzer hara, and I created Torah as the antidote!” So if the yetzer hara grabs hold of you, drag him to the bet midrash where you will be protected.
A famous Russian chess player, Garry Kasparov, was brought to the United States in 1996 to play chess against an IBM supercomputer. Kasparov beat the supercomputer in six games and was a revered hero when he returned to Russia. A year later, IBM brought him back for a rematch called The Man vs. The Machine, which Kasparov lost.
When asked in an interview following the match how he lost, Kasparov replied, “IBM didn’t build the computer for chess; they built it for Kasparov.” The team at IBM had studied hundreds of videos of games played by Kasparov and learned all his tactics and strategies to create another Garry Kasparov, effectively making him play himself.
The yetzer hara is every person’s worst enemy because it is a programmed yetzer hara that knows every strength, every weakness, and every aspect of each person to get him to fail. It’s our job to do everything we can to fight it; even if we fail, the challenge in the fight will make us stronger.
Challenge is Strength
Moshe Sananes spoke about a phenomenon he heard from Charlie Harary that shows how important it is to challenge our human nature. Sushi is a delicacy in Japan that has created a vast and lucrative industry. There’s a particular fish in significant demand, but it can only be found in very deep waters. When it was first discovered, the fishermen chartered a large boat to catch a lot of this fish, but by the time they brought it back to shore, they found that it wasn’t fresh and therefore lost its taste. So, on the next trip, they froze it to keep the freshness, but they found the taste of frozen fish was not the same. On the following fishing round, they put these fish in water tanks on the boat. When they got to shore, they noticed that the fish looked near dead, without any of their vibrancy or freshness.
Finally, the Japanese fishermen put a small shark in the tanks with these fish to simulate their natural habitat. On the way to shore, the fish thrashed around, constantly on the move. They maintained their freshness, were extremely tasty and were therefore sold at a very high price. The fish needed to be challenged during the trip back to shore. The fear of the small shark in the pool gave them that challenge.
Although comfort and contentedness seem desirable, a life without challenge is dull and tired. If you reflect on your life, you’ll notice that nothing was accomplished in your comfort zone. Great things only happen when we go through adversity. Challenge is what keeps us alive. It’s the same with a lion in the zoo. The lion becomes lazy and indifferent in captivity, loafing in his limited cage. But in his natural environment, the lion is the king of the jungle, a fierce animal that’s active, 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 human beings. 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 continually growing and learning, which helps him in all aspects of his life. Hashem gave us our yetzer hara to test us daily, to continuously challenge us, and the antidote of Torah to help us grow and have a fulfilling and productive life.
The Woman Captured in War
The parasha discusses three decrees which show the negative consequences of a man’s actions after following his yetzer hara. The first one concerns the procedures that must be followed if a soldier desires a beautiful woman who had been captured in war after the yetzer hara got ahold of him. The Torah instructs him that it is permissible to take her as a wife, but there are several hurdles that he must first pass: she must shave her head, let her nails grow, and sit and weep for her parents for thirty days. Only then can he finally marry her.
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 marrying her no longer worthwhile. But once he followed through with all these procedures, the Torah later decreed that, ultimately, the man would end up hating this woman. The second decree is if the hated wife would bear a son, the man will be obligated to give him a double portion of the inheritance, since he will be a bechor—firstborn. 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—the rebellious son, which would result from marrying a woman 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 (21:19-20).” The Torah instructs the parents to tell the elders that their son is wayward, a glutton, and a guzzler.
The parents notice a trend in their young son’s spiritual development that will inevitably lead to a lifestyle involving robbery and perhaps murder. Therefore, the Torah advises that he should be stoned 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, to save him from this destiny.
There are two questions here. Why are they instructed to kill him as a youth because he might become a murderer in the future? Additionally, the penalty for a murderer is death by sword, but the sentence for a ben sorer umoreh is death by stoning, which is a much more severe punishment. Why does this boy get a worse punishment for the potential of a murder than an actual killer?
Before answering, it’s crucial to mention that the Torah made so many conditions that would have to be fulfilled that it’s virtually impossible that a boy would ever qualify as a bona fide ben sorer umoreh (Sanhedrin 71a). For example, he must be at a very specific stage of early manhood—approximately between the ages of 13 and 13¼; he must steal certain quantities of meat and wine from his father, he must consume them away from home, both his parents have to turn him into the authorities willingly, the court had to have both warned and whipped him one time before he continued his behavior, and the parents must be similar in height, voice, and appearance.
This very explanation is the answer to our questions. The wayward son is a person who is pure evil. He is destined to stray so far as to become a thief and a murderer. He had already cursed his parents, stole from them, and disregarded the bet din. Though he never had and never will exist, the punishment is so severe so the rest of the nation can understand the consequences of destroying one’s potential.
Rav Dovid Feinstein makes an interesting linguistic inference from the wording in this chapter. When the Torah initially describes the situation of the ben sorer umoreh, it states, “He did not listen to the voice of his father nor the voice of his mother (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 (21:20).”
There are no secret formulas to raising good children. Raising children is the most challenging job in the world. However, there are certain things parents should try to avoid. Parents should always present their children with a single message. When a child hears mixed messages — one from the father and another 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 says another, he follows the third path. And even if the parents present a unified approach, there is still no guarantee that the children will be perfect. But at least the parents have removed one of the most significant reasons 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 path, do the parents come and sadly tell the elders of the court, “Now we are together. We have a unified voice, and 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. Parents must articulate a clear, decisive, and uniform position when they come before their children. When they reach the status of “our voice,” rather than “the father’s voice” and “the mother’s voice,” their chances for success in raising their children will be much greater.
“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 prolong your days.” Only two mitzvot in the Torah have the specific reward of, “It will be good for you and prolong your days.” The first, shiluach haken—sending away a mother bird to collect the eggs, is mentioned in this parasha. The second is kibud av va’em—respecting one’s parents.
According to the Vilna Gaon, these are two mitzvot that two different types of people can achieve. For a very compassionate person, shiluach haken can be considered a mitzvah that requires a little bit of achzariut—cruelty. This mitzvah can be very difficult for them, but they do it for no other reason than because Hashem said to. For others, this mitzvah is very simple. They take a broomstick, tap a nest, and do the mitzvah because Hashem said to.
With kibud av va’em, a person with much compassion might find this mitzvah very simple and logical. They can respect their parents easily, especially if they are elderly. This mitzvah is difficult for a person with less compassion, because parents and children have very complicated relationships.
Both mitzvot have the same reward because they are on opposite ends of the “compassion spectrum.” The person with a lot of compassion is challenged by the bird, but not by respecting his parents. The person who is a little more apathetic finds shiluach haken to be easy and kibud av va’em to be more of a challenge. Therefore, the Vilna Gaon says no matter what personality one has, he is given an equal opportunity to do the mitzvot in the Torah, because he is following Hashem whether the mitzvot suit his personality or go against his nature. That is why the reward is so great for these two mitzvot. They show that we serve Hashem because He gave us the Torah, not because we have a certain personality.
The Vilna Gaon furthered his point with another example. Avraham had a compassionate personality, so even if hosting guests after his milah had been easy for him, it was when he put aside his compassion to pick up a knife and sacrifice his own son that showed that Avraham did all this because he feared Hashem, not because it came to him naturally.
May we all be aware of our yetzer hara, which Hashem created to challenge us and keep us vibrant. May we all take care to learn Torah every day as the antidote to our evil inclination. May we raise our children with a unified voice. And may we always follow the mitzvot no matter our personality type and see great rewards in the future! Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey
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