A Spade for the Soul By Ephraim Helfgot (’20)


This week’s Parashah, Ki Teitzei, discusses the Halachot of wartime life. The Torah stresses that the camp of Bnei Yisrael must be kept spiritually pure, saying, “Ki Teitzei Machaneh Al Oyevecha VeNishmarta MiKol Davar Ra,” “When you go out as a camp upon your enemies, you shall keep yourselves from any bad thing” (Devarim 23:10). Among the specific procedures prescribed by the Torah is the burying of human waste: “VeYateid Tihiyeh Lecha Al Azeinecha VeHayah BeShivtecha Chutz VeChafarta Bah VeShavta VeChisita Et Tzei’atecha,” “And you shall have a spade by your equipment, and when you relieve yourself, you shall dig with it, and cover your excrement” (ibid. 23:14). This is necessary because, as the next Pasuk states, “Hashem Elohecha Mithaleich BeKerev Machanecha,” “Hashem your God walks in the midst of your camp” (ibid. 23:15). On the level of Peshat, the Torah is commanding us to maintain a basic level of hygiene and civilization in a war camp, to prevent a moral breakdown in the Machaneh. 

The Midrash, however, finds deeper messages hidden within the commandment to keep a shovel handy for bathroom purposes. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 934) renders the phrase “VeYateid Tihiyeh Lecha Al Azeinecha,” “And you shall have a spade by your equipment,” as, “Asei Tik LeZayin Shelcha,” “Make a holder for your weapon.” One who walks outside should not do so with his sword outstretched; the easy accessibility of his weapon is liable to tempt him, “VeHu Makkeh Le’Echad VeHorgo UMitchayeiv BeNafsho,” “And he will strike someone and kill him, and then be mortally guilty.” The Midrash applies this concept to one’s Yeitzer HaRa, in accordance with the Pasuk, “LaPetach Chatat Roveitz,” “Sin crouches at the door” (BeReishit 4:7). If one does not take preventive measures, he opens the door to his lowest urges-- specifically, the Midrash writes, in matters of lust and physical Ta’avot.

The Midrash, a paragraph later, cites Bar Kappara: “Al Tikrei Azeinecha Ela Oznecha She’Im Yishma Adam Davar She’Eino Hagun Yani’ach Etzba’o Be’Ozno,” “Do not read ‘your equipment’, but rather ‘your ears’: that if one hears something improper, he should place his finger in his ears.” This is an extension of the Midrash’s earlier recommendation: an effective way of forestalling sin is preventing the very thought of an Aveirah.

It is interesting that the Midrash presents two different formulations, brought from two different sources, in support of this concept, considering that the point of the two Midrashim, preparation as a protective measure against sin, is not readily apparent in the Pasuk! The literal translation of the Pasuk, quoted above, speaks only of covering human waste. It is true that the introduction to this section of the Torah, ‘You shall keep yourselves from any bad thing,’ quoted above, lends itself to such an interpretation; but the Midrash to that Pasuk (Yalkut Shimoni 933) already emphasized the need to prevent opportunities for sin, and already dwelled on the specific case of lustful desires. Our Pasuk, meanwhile, talks of hygiene procedures in a war camp. Why does the Midrash see our verse as a worthy base for such a homily?

 The Parashah’s opening discussion of an Eishet Yefat To’ar, a female wartime captive taken by a Jewish captor, troubled Chazal due to the immorality and intermarriage inherent in the situation. The only rationale the Talmud can proffer is, “DeLo Dibrah Torah Ela KeNeged Yeitzer HaRa,” “For the Torah only spoke in relation to the evil inclination” (Kiddushin 21b). But if the Torah recognizes that such action is evil, then surely it must advise against it, even if only in a hidden way. There must be another verse, a verse close by, which speaks of warfare and subtly, concealedly, exhorts us to prevent the heat of war from overcoming our better angels. There must be a Pasuk here, a phrase there, which, while not contradicting the allowance of Eishet Yefat To’ar for an individual’s Yeitzer HaRa, urge us to rise above our base inclinations. 

Enter the Midrash. The Midrash notices that the topics of camp hygiene and Eishet Yefat To’ar both speak of wartime situations, and open with the same words. It further notices that our section is riddled with a cascade of strange word choices: Protect yourself from any “Davar Ra,” “Bad thing,” instead of ‘Avon,’ ‘Sin’; keep a shovel by “Azeinecha,” “Your equipment,” instead of ‘Keilecha,’ Your things’ (‘Azeinecha’ is from the same root as the word ‘Oznecha’, ‘your ears’); make sure that God does not see any “Ervat Davar,” “Lack of a thing,” instead of Avon (‘Ervat’ is from the same root as the word ‘Arayot’, ‘immoral intercourse’). And so the Midrash connects the dots and presents the moral: Prevent yourself from entering a situation, or hearing a message, which will allow your Yeitzer HaRa to lead you down the wrong path. In war, as well as life, temptation is strong; give yourself the best chance you can to avoid sin. May we all take this message to heart in these final weeks before the Yamim Nora’im, and commit ourselves to proactively prevent temptation in the year ahead and beyond.

The Simchah of Bikkurim By Yonasan Rutta (’20)

Ramban’s Eishet Yefat To’ar: A Paradigm for Teshuvah By Rabbi Daniel Fridman