Friday, August 20, 2010

Tetzei 5632 First Ma'amar

How is it possible to live in and interact with the physical world and yet not be drawn after the physical?  How can we live holy lives even as we are immersed in the material world?  We learn the answer from the first mitzvah in this week's parsha, the mitzvah of the captive woman.  

The Torah permits a Jewish soldier, under certain circumstances, to take a non-Jewish woman in the heat of his passion.  This is a strange law, to be sure.  Rashi[1], citing Chazal,[2] explains that the Torah is addressing a person’s evil inclination.  If God had not permitted the captured woman, the soldier would take her in sin.  God permitted her to him because it is not within the soldier’s ability to overcome the temptation.

The Sfas Emes asks, “Would it not be better for God to help the soldier overcome the temptation or to lessen the power of the evil inclination to manageable levels?”  Why actually permit what would under any other circumstance be considered a low act? 

To answer this question we must understand the nature of permitted acts and prohibited acts.  Actions, in and of themselves, are not good or bad.  They are value neutral.  There are many situations in which an action can be either a mitzvah or a terrible transgression depending on the context in which the action is performed.  The Hebrew for permitted and prohibited is heter and issur respectively.  These words also mean released and bound.  Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that a prohibition is called issur because the act binds one to the evil which is within it.[3]  A permitted act does not.  So, a permitted action does not draw a person to any evil whereas when the very same action is prohibited it does.   

Since whether an act is permitted or prohibited gives moral value to the act, a soldier can take a captured woman and not be drawn to evil.  In fact, his feeling for and relationship towards the act is such that he can consider that if the Torah had prohibited this action, he would not have done it.  If taking her were really prohibited, of course, he would be drawn to the evil and would not be able to overcome his evil inclination.  

This concept is the answer to our questions.  How can we live spiritual lives in the physical world?  The only reason all the mundane activities that take up most of our time are permitted is because it is God's will that we live in the physical world and interact with it.  Since these actions are God's will, we can perform them and interact with the physical world without being drawn after it.  We can consider that the only reason we do what we do all day is because God wants us to, otherwise we would not do it.  We would live ascetic lives.  Realizing and internalizing the concept that our daily activities are God's will, frees us to live spiritual lives even in the material world.  

[1] Rashi on Devarim 21:11
[2] Kidushin 21b
[3] Tania 8

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