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Striving for the Ideal, or Conceding to Reality

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Please pray for Israel's captive and missing soldiers:

Zekharia Shelomo ben Miriam (Baumel), Tzvi ben Penina (Feldman), Yekutiel Yehuda Nahman ben Sara (Katz), Ron ben Batya (Arad), Guy ben Rina (Hever), Gilad ben Aviva (Shalit), Eldad ben Tova (Regev), Ehud ben Malka (Goldwasser)







Parashat KI TETZE



Striving for the Ideal, or Conceding to Reality

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha opens (21:10-14) with the law of the yefat to’ar, a beautiful woman taken captive during war.  She is allowed a month-long period of mourning, after which her captor must either marry her or free her. The Gemara (Kiddushin 21-22) teaches that “the Torah makes this provision only to counter the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination): it is better that Jews eat the meat of animals that were dying, yet underwent proper ritual slaughter, than that they eat the meat of animals that died and were not slaughtered.”


From the Gemara it is apparent that the Torah takes a dim moral view of marriage to a yefat to’ar, just as it disapproves of eating the meat of a dying animal that undergoes proper ritual slaughter, and that the license to do so is really a compromise with reality. The Torah recognizes that in certain situations people will not be able to abide by a strict ruling, and therefore it permits a “lesser evil.” Such license offers two advantages over an absolute prohibition:

1.                       The scope of evil is limited: if dying animals were prohibited outright for food, then people who were unable to abide by the prohibition would end up eating dying animals that had not undergone ritual slaughter. By allowing the slaughter of a dying animal, we ensure that people will eat only animals that were slaughtered.

2.                       If dying animals were completely forbidden as food, a person who gave in to his yetzer ha-ra would regard this as an opening to transgressing further prohibitions. He would tell himself that since he had already transgressed one commandment, it would no longer matter if he sinned further. He would thus be in danger of eventually severing himself from Torah altogether.


There are many activities sanctioned by the Torah where there is room to debate whether they are permitted ideally or whether they represent compromises with the reality of human fallibility. Abarbanel maintains that the Torah’s discussion of the appointment of a king is similarly an accommodation to the evil inclination. Bnei Yisrael are likely to aspire to be like the nations of the world, and therefore to demand a king (“We shall place over ourselves a king, like all the nations that are around us”), even though the Torah views this negatively.


However, one point should be emphasized: this compromise speaks to the reality of the human condition; it is not the desired ideal. God decides to permit certain activities as “the lesser evil,” but we must understand that these activities are not regarded as intrinsically good or desirable, and we should try to refrain from exploiting the license that the Torah extends. This point is of dual significance:

1) Practically, one should try to avoid such actions.

2) It must be understood, philosophically, that the action is not desirable, and that we must adapt our system of values to that which the Torah holds as an example, rather than adopting those practices permitted merely as compromises with reality.


This principle also has broader significance. Sometimes a person reaches the conclusion that he is unable to attain a certain spiritual level; he feels it is beyond his abilities. However, he must not simply accept this situation, lower his expectations of himself, and limit his aspirations.


Ramban expresses this idea in his well-known commentaries on the verses “You shall be holy” and “You shall do that which is right and good.” These verses express a blanket disapproval of actions which are not listed explicitly in the Torah, but which in view of all that the Torah does spell out, are clearly not in keeping with its values. We dare not regard the avoidance of such behaviors as “pietist practice.” These verses are directed at each and every person; they are themselves explicit prohibitions. The same applies to the yefat to’ar, dying animals that were ritually slaughtered, etc. A person must know that it is forbidden for him to permit himself such indulgences. We must conduct ourselves according to what is good, not according to the “lesser of evils.”