I like to have guests at my Shabbat table, and depending on the themes of the weekly Torah portions, the table discussions can get a little heated. If you are apt to read the Torah and be offended, then welcome to the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei. It means “When you go out to war with your enemies,” and it opens with the rules a man must obey when coming across a “beautiful woman on the battlefield.” As the Jewish people were getting ready to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land, where they would be engaging in battles for years to come, this was a very likely scenario.

So what were the rules? Could he rape her? No. Could he keep or sell her as a slave? No. Could he cut her head off and tweet the video? Definitely not. What, then, could a man in those circumstances do?

He could leave her where she was, or if he desired her, he had to bring her home and wait during a cooling-off period when the enticement of her looks would diminish by stripping the woman of her finery, her ornaments and her ability to look seductive. During that time the man could not touch her, but afterwards, if he still desired her, he had to marry her—or else he was required to set her free and compensate her for her “ordeal.”

There are many important questions that can be asked about this episode, but let’s look at it in the context of the ancient world. According to commentators, in anticipation of battle, women would put on finery and make themselves beautiful to entice Jewish men, because winding up with a nice Jewish husband was a lot better than their other choices. Also, compared to the battle ethic of the ancient world (rape, murder and pillage), the Torah scenario is positively enlightened and compassionate. (Thanks to ISIS and their ilk, I no longer have to contextualize this. Has anyone noticed that the “ancient world” is not so “ancient” anymore?) Moreover, according to many commentaries, the woman had to convert willingly for him to be able to marry her.

The Power of Emotional Mastery

But there is a more profound response to these objections. The major theme of Ki Teitzei has to do with emotional mastery, to having deliberate and reasoned responses to emotionally charged situations. A deeper read of “when you go out to war with your enemies” could be this: “when you go out to war . . . with yourself,” referring to the struggle with those aspects of you that are base, unbridled and unbounded.

The purpose of the laws of “the beautiful captive” is not to result in an orderly marriage; rather, they are to prevent the marriage in the first place. The very objective of the process is to give the man time to see the woman not as a mere beautiful object, but as her authentic self. He has to be able to picture her as the mother of his children and someone who will be by his side for the rest of his life. He has to see her as compatible with his Jewish values and lifestyle.

He has to see her as not just satisfying his desire for instant gratification in the immediate present, but as a total commitment to the future. And if she is not to be a full-fledged wife, then she can’t be something else, like a slave. She must be compensated and set free.

The Power of Choice

In the last few weeks of his life, Moses was cramming in his final words of advice, and so the laws of Ki Teitzei come one after another. To what end? As slaves in Egypt, the Jewish people were not free to say “no” to Pharaoh, and thus they had limited free will. In the desert, the Jewish people lived with “strict justice”—meaning that punishment was quickly and visibly meted out. While they had free will, they also had the clarity of cause and effect, and so if you said “no” to G‑d’s laws, you weren’t going to be around that long to brag about it.

Once the Jewish people would leave the desert, however, and live in the land, it was going to be an entirely different story, and that was Moses’s concern. They would not be slaves to anyone, nor would they live with “desert clarity.” They would have to figure out on their own how to say “no” to that which should be negated in their life.

This is where emotional mastery comes in. Torah doesn’t permit us to have whatever we want just because we want it. We cannot discard someone from our lives improperly, or divest them of rights to suit our emotional needs. We can’t put things together that don’t belong together, and we can’t make admixtures of things that deny the unique individuality, needs and purpose of all living things. Each person and each situation has its carefully circumscribed borders of protection.

Understanding and respecting the sensitivities, the boundaries and the proper uses of all things—whether human, animal or even vegetable—is the basis of mastery over those emotional urges, which could cause us to violate someone or something else.

The Power of Yes

So the battle is between you—and you—to develop a healthy way of dealing with exclusion. Certain things, certain people and certain situations simply do not belong in our lives, nor do they belong with each other. It’s about understanding the “Law of Exclusion” and going to war against that which blurs our boundaries.

A slave cannot say “no.” Only a human being with autonomy and free will says “no.” And that is precisely what makes a “yes” so powerful, so meaningful. Therefore, saying “no” to that which will bring you down is saying “yes” to that which can elevate you, make you grow and sanctify your life. And that is certainly worth fighting for.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. In what ways are you at war with yourself? Are you winning or losing the battles?
  2. Is there a situation you are currently dealing with that you are reacting to in an emotionally inappropriate way? This week, try to remove yourself from it, and then, with some distance, revisit how you are thinking and feeling, and note if anything has changed.
  3. What is a part of your life that shouldn’t be? How can you begin to separate yourself from it (or from that person) which is unhealthy or toxic for you? Recognizing that something or someone doesn’t belong is the first step in the process.