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Taking Responsibility for One's Deeds

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Taking Responsibility for One's Deeds


Summarized by Dvir Tchelet

Our parasha opens with a battlefield setting. Even though Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the land - a task which entails warfare, and would thus seem to explain the military setting - Rashi explains that the Torah is speaking about a "milchemet reshut:" a war that is not obligatory for Bnei Yisrael, but rather voluntary. This war will take place much later, only after all of Israel has been conquered.

In this voluntary war, we find a seemingly unique case, "eshet yefat to'ar" - a beautiful woman who is taken captive. If one of the soldiers desires her, he may take her for a wife, after a month-long process that the Torah describes as her mourning for her parents.

Rashi explains that the Torah gives this law as a concession to man's evil inclination: even had the Torah not allowed her to be taken, he would have taken her anyway and thus violated Torah law. Therefore, the Torah permits her to him, but only after he has waited a month (while she mourns) and then has married her. However, if he does marry her, we learn from the juxtaposition of the parashiot that he will hate her in the end, and ultimately he will beget a rebellious son by her, as described in verses 18-22. In the section dealing with the rebellious son, we see an altogether different approach regarding human weaknesses.

In speaking of the rebellious son (aged between thirteen years and one day, and thirteen and three months, according to the Gemara), the Ramban describes him as committing two basic sins:

1) he rebels against his parents;

2) he is a glutton, thus desecrating the commandment of "Kedoshim tihiyu" - emulation of God's holiness through our actions.

Rashi explains that after stealing and eating a certain amount of meat and wine, he is liable to the death penalty. It is not that he has now committed a terrible crime, but the Torah sees that in his search for vain pleasures, he will ultimately rob and murder and thereby incur the death penalty, so we say: Let him die now while he is innocent, before he becomes guilty.

What happened to the "humane" Torah that gave man such leeway in the case of "eshet yefat to'ar?" There, man's weaknesses and desires are recognized, and he is handed a law to illumine his way through the blackened tunnel of temptation lest he sin - God forbid. Couldn't we provide the rebellious son with a similar solution? Help the poor boy return to his senses! Give him a chance! Why does the Torah accommodate man's desires in the first case, while acting against them in a preemptive manner in the second?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a) addresses the problem. Rabbi Shimon asks:

"Can it be that if he eats a 'tartemar' of meat and drinks half a 'log' of wine, his parents will take him out to be stoned?! Rather, such a case never occurred and will never occur. If so, why was it written? 'Derosh vekabel sachar' - Learn it and be rewarded."

The Torah did not intend this law to be applied, but rather to teach us a vital lesson.

Both cases, the beautiful captive woman and the rebellious son, point out the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions. Even in a state of war, away from home and family, where man's moral standards balance precariously on a thin wire, he cannot use the war setting as an excuse to lose his balance, to take advantage of a woman momentarily, and then cast her aside without an afterthought for her well-being. One must realize the gravity of his actions, even in warfare. Therefore, he is commanded to take her into his house as his wife - an act which takes his temptation for a momentary fulfillment of desire, and translates it into a lifelong commitment.

When Rashi tells us that the Torah makes concessions to man's evil inclinations, he means that man can face every situation with the Torah's guidance. Had the soldier not been allowed to take her at all, he would find the temptation impossible to resist. Hence the Torah provides a path that enables the soldier to cope with his desires. Although he is permitted to satisfy his lusts, he must nevertheless realize the responsibility involved. If, however, one doesn't live up to the basic standards set by the Torah, he must be prepared to take responsibility for his actions. Therefore the rebellious son, who violates the ethic of "Thou shalt be holy," is held responsible for his present and future sins. There is no such thing as a temporary lapse; every action has consequences and leads man along a certain path.

As a final illustration of these principles, let us return to the story to which we turn every year. In Avoda Zara (17a) we are told of Elazar Ben Dordaya, who had relations with every harlot in the world. He heard of a certain woman who demanded a bag of silver in payment for her services. He crossed seven seas to reach her. During the act, she informed him that he would never be able to repent for all his previous deeds. Shattered by this statement, Elazar wandered the world, asking the heavens and earth to pray for him, until he realized that only he could pray for himself. Elazar cried in prayer to such an extent that his soul departed from his body; a heavenly voice declared, "Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya is worthy of the World-to-Come."

How are we to understand this story? This R. Elazar was not a conventional evildoer. Any man capable of visiting every prostitute in the world is certainly a man with drive and capability. He had planned on living a holy life - in compliance with "kedoshim tihiyu" - but had one problem. He thought that he could first live a frivolous life and repent afterwards, and all would be forgiven. R. Elazar believed there would be no problem in living a fully hedonistic life, and then switching to a Godly life. He did not realize that once he began to sin, he could not stop. His dreams of ultimate greatness were worthless because he lived a life devoid of responsibility.

So, too, Rashi tells us that once man follows his desires, seemingly a one-time event, he must be prepared to take responsibility for the consequences. Even in a case where the Torah gives us a loophole to indulge our temptations, we must be aware of the repercussions. "Aveira goreret aveira," one sin drags with it another - one loose brick and the building of our soul will ultimately collapse. Even when the Torah gives us leeway, we must be wise enough to see what is coming. Repentance cannot be put off until your desires are fulfilled, as R. Elazar thought, but must serve as a stepping stone towards a more responsible outlook on life.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Ki Tetze 5755 [1995].)


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