Parashat Ki-Teseh: Eshet Yefat Toar – Reclaiming the Lost Sparks
Parashat Ki-Teseh begins with the perplexing law known as "Eshet Yefat Toar." This law applies when Beneh Yisrael go out to war and take captives, and one of the soldiers sees and desires an attractive captive. The Torah requires the solder to take her to his home, shave her head and cut her nails, and then wait one month. If he still desires her after a month, despite her unseemly appearance, then he is allowed to marry her.
This Halacha gives rise to several difficult questions. First, how is it possible that a soldier would experience such a base desire? In last week’s Parasha, Parashat Shofetim, we read that certain groups of people were exempt from participating in the nation’s wars, including those who were concerned about transgressions which they have committed. The Sages explain that this applies even to those who committed very slight misdeeds, such as speaking in between the laying of the Tefillin Shel Yad and the Tefillin Shel Rosh. And thus after the exemptions were issued, the only soldiers remaining on the battlefield were the righteous Sadikim, who had no sins on their record which they needed to fear. How, then, could the Torah be concerned that a soldier would feel overcome by lust upon seeing a captive woman? How could such righteous men fall to these base desires?
Secondly, why does the Torah require the soldier to go through this entire process of ruining the woman’s attractive appearance? And why would the soldier still be interested in marrying her at that point, if to begin with he was drawn to her only because of her beauty?
The Or Ha’haim Ha’kadosh (Rav Haim Ben Attar, 1696-1743) offers a deep explanation of these verses, one which exemplifies the depth with which the Torah must be studied to avoid reaching incorrect conclusions.
Tradition teaches that Adam Ha’rishon, the first human being ever created, possessed an extraordinary soul, one which contained within it all the souls of all people that would ever be created. When he committed the sin of partaking from the forbidden tree, this soul "burst," as it were, into countless "sparks" that were scattered throughout the universe. At that point, the Sitra Ahara ("Other Side," meaning, the Satan and forces of evil) grabbed many of those sparks and held them captive, so-to-speak, with him, in the side of impurity. Ever since, the job of the Jewish nation is to reclaim those sparks and bring them over to our side, the side of purity and sanctity. Some of these sparks exist in the souls of non-Jews, and these sparks are recovered through those non-Jews’ conversion to Judaism. And thus whenever a gentile converts to Judaism, we can rest assured that he or she possesses a sacred spark that was released as a result of Adam’s sin, and has now been recovered and rescued through that individual’s conversion.
With this in mind, the Or Ha’haim explains, we can begin to unlock the mystery of the "Eshet Yefat To’ar." As mentioned, the soldiers who went out to war were righteous and holy Sadikim, and thus when one of them felt attracted to a captive woman, there was good reason to suspect that this was due not to her physical appearance, but rather because of the spark within her soul. A military confrontation with a gentile nation brought these righteous soldiers into contact with non-Jews, some of whom may had been in possession of a holy spark awaiting its rescue from the clutches of the Sitra Ahara. And if, indeed, the woman in question possessed such a spark, then the soldier was encouraged to have her convert and marry her. Before he did so, however, he was required to first ascertain that his feelings of attraction were indeed spiritual, and not physical. The soldier would therefore bring the woman to her home and spoil her attractive appearance. If he still experienced desire for her, then it could be assumed that he was drawn to the spark within her soul, and he would thus marry her.
This reading explains the shift in the Torah’s terminology in describing the soldier’s feelings for the woman. First, the Torah writes, "Ve’hashakta Bah" – "You desire her." The word "Hashakta" refers to lust, a purely physical craving. But later, after describing the required procedure of bringing the woman into one’s home and having her cut her hair, the Torah says, "Im Lo Hafasta Bah" – "If you do not want her" – then she should be returned to her homeland. Here the Torah employs a different verb – "Hafasta" – which refers to a rational, genuine wish for something. This is not an irrational, physical attraction, but rather a wish borne out of rational understanding. If the soldier feels a genuine liking for the woman after her physical appearance has been tarnished, then we can rest assured that he is drawn to the spark in her soul awaiting its release, and he thus marries the woman. Otherwise, it is clear that he was drawn only to her physical beauty, in which case, the Torah instructs, "Ve’shilhatah Le’nafshah" – he must send her back home, and may not marry her.