by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
How important is it not to objectify members of the opposite sex?
How crucial is it that we preserve the intrinsic humanity of the other in spite of our drives which seemingly compel us to to view others as mere tools for our own self-gratification?
In our parsha this week, Ki Tetze (Deut.21:12) it says "...VE'ASTA ETTZIPARNEYHA...
"when you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and desire her you may take her as a wife...when you bring her home she must shave her head) AND DO HER NAILS."
What does AND DO HER NAILS mean?
Is that grow her nails or shave them? Some opinions hold one way. Some hold the other. Well, which could it be? If she's already shaving her head,then it might mean that she should also shave her nails - i.e., anything that's growing out of her body that could augment her beauty. On the other hand, it might mean to grow them, as Rashi holds, for growing them, in his opinion, would also detract from her beauty.
Well, fashions change. Depending on the person, on the generation and on the locale, definitions of beauty are very much plastic in nature, very much in the eye of the beholder. The Torah purposely didn't want to commit to any one set definition of beauty in as much as the Torah is an eternal, Divine document. Obviously the Torah has the vocabulary to indicate cutting or growing. Hebrew is a very rich language. But fashion is fickle. Why should the Torah commit to a particular fashion statement and thus artificially limit its applicability for all generations?
The thrust here is that the captive woman has just lost her parents. She is in mourning. Let her mourn! She is a living being with valid emotions. Do not objectify her as a sex object for your private lustings.
Then follows a seemingly disparate narrative that on the surface we find ourselves hard pressed to draw a thematic linkage:
In Deut. 22:6,7 it says:
"IF YOU COME ACROSS A BIRD'S NEST ON ANY TREE OR ON THE GROUND, AND IT CONTAINS BABY BIRDS OR EGGS, THEN, IF THE MOTHER IS SITTING ON THE CHICKS OR EGGS, YOU MUST NOT TAKE THE MOTHER AWAY WITH HER YOUNG. YOU MUST SURELY CHASE AWAY THE MOTHER, AND ONLY THEN MAY YOU TAKE THE YOUNG SO THAT YOU WILL HAVE IT GOOD AND WILL LIVE LONG."
Long life, orech yamim/arichat yamim (ve'ha'arachta yamim), if spelled with an ayin, would mean "a life of values." Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, as recorded in the talmud, witnessed the death of a boy who fell off a ladder in the midst of performing this great mitzvah. His belief thus shattered, he became an outcast among his people, to be known as "acher," the "other one," or one who consequently embraced an "other" philosophy.
One may be able to resolve this issue by understanding length of days to refer to the world of truth, olam ha'emeth, which is everlasting and seemingly at odds with the perceived realities of this world, olam hazeh, alternately called olam hasheker, the world of falsehood. But reading our text midrashically as "a life of values" speaks deeply to the truth of the Torah as a force for shaping a moral life.
The similarity in the Hebrew for both nails and birds brings the point home, that we should be sensitive to the feelings of all sentient beings, whether captives or potential "not-yet" captives (eggs and their mothers). Nails in Hebrew are called TZIPURNAYIM, related to the word TZIPUR, meaning bird. Birds typically have talons, or long claws, and fingernails in a sense are human talons. But because of the pointed ambiguity of the verb LA'ASOT, it serves as a device to call attention to these deeper levels of meaning.
In Havdalah, the ceremony concluding the Sabbath, we gaze at the light and shadows reflecting off of and from our fingernails. We reenter the world asking ourselves if this week we will be more sensitive to others or less so, reenter the world asking if we will use our talons/talents for taking - or giving.
The mother bird has feelings for her young. Before you take the young or the eggs, you must send the mother away. The Torah is telling us to be sensitive to the bird mother's feelings. Likewise the captive maiden also on a reciprocal level has feelings for her mother/parents, whom she has just lost. Let her mourn.
This is the Torah of taking: Never take without recognizing the unique essence of that which we take. Never take without recognizing the source of that which we take. Never take without realizing that there are ramifications for our taking, and that we are thereby effecting change on many levels.
It is interesting that the choice of wording for the mother bird's sitting is not YOSHEVET, but rather ROVETZET. The first usage of the root word RVTz is in Genesis 4:7, where Hashem is urging Cain to control his jealous passions towards his brother Abel:" VE'IM LO TEYTIV LAPETACH CHATATROVETZ...AND IF YOU DO NOT DO GOOD, SIN IS CROUCHING AT THE DOOR.."
Another allusion: the word for nest is KAN, deliciously close to brother KayiN,first son of the first family. Another connection is the word TESHUKATO (same verse). "Sin lusts after you (be on guard)."
Now back to our parsha:(Deut 21:11) "veraeeta basheevya eshet yefat toar VECHASHAKTA va ve lakachta lecha le'isha-If you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and LUST after her, you may take her as a wife." The first lusting. As much as we lust after sin, sin is lusting after us! And vice versa.
The ability to lust and how we deal with it is a foundational challenge in this life, reconciling our angelic self with our instinctual drives. This is expressed symbolically via the kabbalistic diagram of the sephirot mapped against the human body with the sephira of yesod, or "foundation" set opposite the genitalia. Only through how we channel and sublimate our lusting can we truly grow as human beings and create a civilization based on ethical sensitivity.
Now Cain and Abel were engaged in the very first giving, the very first offering to Hashem. So here is the Torah of Giving! When do we often sin? What is often the root cause for bad behavior? Lack of appreciation! Most acting-out behavior, whether in the family with young children or in the workplace with the less than gruntled worker is rooted in the need for attention and appreciation. The most evil man in all of human history, yemach sh'mo, did not feel appreciated as an artist, so he changed careers!
In verse 5 in Gen. 4, it says : "VE'EL KAYIN VE'EL MINCHATO LO SHA'AH...BUT TO CAIN AND HIS OFFERING HE PAID NO HEED..."
The Hebrew for "pay no heed" is LO SHA'AH. This means that, literally, it "wasn't his time." Cain should understand that when we give we might not get the appreciation right away. We might be the biggest tzaddik, and yet the payback might not be so obvious. But Hashem sees all. Hashem knows the inner heart and everyone's time of appreciation will come sooner or later.
The message to Cain, the very first giver, and to all subsequent givers, is: be patient. The reward is in the giving itself, and any other appreciations you need will be there in the end as well, in its proper time. And the lesson is that we should always find ways to compliment our children so they grow up to feel appreciated.
The law of shatnez, against mixing wool and linen in the same garment, is also found in our parsha. It is also connected to Cain and Abel. We are not to mix in our garments both wool and linen- things that grow from an animal (wool) with things that grow out of the ground (linen).
We thus are to come to appreciate the uniqueness of the respective kingdoms- that of the animal and that of the plant. In short, sensitizing us to appreciate the differences of the other, and not attempt to erase them to create a world where difference cannot be tolerated.
This is to remind us of Cain and Abel- the very first people to always wear garments, the very first people to work with animals and crops. We are prone to making mistakes whether we are naked, garmentless (Adam and Eve) or clothed, garmented (Cain andAbel). We are to remove the garment of captivity (simlat shivya) from the captive woman perhaps as a simile to understand the necessity of recognizing her essential divine spark despite the garments of the illusions of this world.
The bird symbolically uses her nails fortaking when she takes a life. She's also symbolically using her nails for giving, when she gives that life over to feed her young. But the deepest feeding of all is when we show our children appreciation and shower them with love. For forgiveness is the essence of growth. And this will cause the fixing to reverse the first sins and lead humanity back to the Garden.
Shabbat Shalom. Good Shabbos.
copyright 2000-2007 by Rabbi Baruch Melman
This commentary is written in honor of the memory of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Yakov Hakohen Melman
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