As we begin the study of this week’s parsha and encounter the narrative of “aishes yefas toar,” we wonder if there is more here than meets the eye. And there is. While the course of action for a man who went to war, emerged victorious, and then chanced upon a yefas toar is applicable and contains many directions and actions to follow, there is also a message for all of us, especially during the month of Elul.
Kadmonim and mekubolim raise the curtain and provide an understanding of the pesukim that describe the parsha of yefas toar and how she goes about adapting to a new life.
The parsha begins, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha – When you will go out and wage war with your enemy” (21:10). The Ohr Hachaim (ibid.) explains that the posuk refers to the battle for which man was placed in this world. The soul is dispatched to withstand tests.
And she shall remove the garment of captivity from upon herself: This will be through ridding oneself of sin, teshuvah and submission to Hashem. Then be misvadeh and cry for the betrayal from your father and mother and detachment from them.
She will weep for her father. This is Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
She will weep for her mother. This is Knesses Yisroel.
For one month. This is the month of Elul, the period of teshuvah.
The Ohr Hachaim’s source is the Zohar Chodosh (Ki Seitzei 72:1), which is also quoted in Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah (Shaar Hamayim).
The Arizal (Likkutei Torah, in this week’s parsha) offers a similar explanation. He says that “Ki seitzei lamilchomah” refers to a person who has decided to do teshuvah. He is setting out to do battle with his enemies, namely his yeitzer hora and the limbs that betrayed him and caused him to sin.
Unesano Hashem Elokecha b’yodecha. Hashem will cause you to beat the yeitzer hora.
Vera’isa bashivyah aishes yefas toar. This refers to the neshomah.
Vegilcha es roshah. He should remove bad beliefs from within himself.
Ve’asisah es tziporneha. He should cut out luxuries.
Vehaisirah simlas shivyah. The covering that is fashioned by sin should be removed.
Uvochsa es aviha. This refers to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
V’es imah. This is Knesses Yisroel.
Yerach yomim. This is Elul.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, Ki Seitzei 2) quotes Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who commented that understanding that this parsha refers to man’s eternal battle with the yeitzer hora is not homiletic drush and remez, but actual p’shat poshut, the simple explanation of the pesukim.
So, as we study Parshas Ki Seitzei and read it aloud this week, it should be clear that these pesukim are meant to help usher us into the sacred portals of avodas yemei Elul. We read about a man doing battle for Am Yisroel and a woman mourning her old home, but, essentially, on a different level, we are reading about teshuvah and Elul.
Elul is everywhere. You just have to know how to find it.
What should be our frame of mind during these days?
We are familiar with the teaching of Chazal that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim ein tzaddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Those who return to Hashem stand at a higher level than great tzaddikim who never sinned. On the face of it, this is a difficult concept to behold. Why should someone who sinned be on a higher plane than someone who never deviated from the word of G-d? We tend to understand the concept in terms of the fact that the baal teshuvah traveled a long journey, and despite having fallen, he had the strength to raise himself from the depths, allowing him to return a cleansed and holy person, while a tzaddik who never sinned did not have to overcome such obstacles.
Perhaps we can suggest a different understanding.
The Eitz Yosef on the Medrash at the beginning of Parshas Eikev discusses the process of teshuvah and redemption. He says that we don’t have to complete the act of teshuvah in order to merit the redemption. It is sufficient for us to show that we have become inspired to repent and begin to undertake teshuvah, and Hashem will begin the geulah.
Teshuvah is a motion, a small shift back to the right direction. When we display a genuine desire to do teshuvah, Hakadosh Boruch Hu sees this and comes to assist us on the way back.
The posuk in Tehillim (103) says, “Kirechok mizrach mimaarav,” as far as the east is from the west, “hirchik mimenu es peshoeinu,” that is the distance Hashem has removed us from our sins. Rav Nosson Dovid of Shidlovtza explained that the distance of east from west is essentially not much. You stand facing east and then you turn around and are facing west. So too, with teshuvah, you turn to go in a new direction and you are considered as having a new destiny.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains in Nefesh Hachaim (1:12) that when a person performs a mitzvah, he begins the action and Hashem helps him complete it.
We can posit that the person who is seeking to repent merits special assistance from the Ribbono Shel Olam. When he turns away from sin and shows interest in repenting, he begins the arduous process and Hashem helps. This is why teshuvah is the only mitzvah regarding which Chazal tell us that Hashem says, “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat, open a hole the size of the eye of a needle, and I will do the rest.” He becomes involved in a Jew’s attempt at returning, helping him navigate the difficult path.
Thus, we can understand the meaning of the teaching that “bemakom sheba’alei teshuvah omdim,” the level of the person who has performed teshuvah, is higher than that of the tzaddik who never sinned. That is because the baal teshuvah merited Hashem’s assistance. Hashem has, so to speak, stood beside him and grasped his hand. He has felt the Divine Presence. Hashem has been part of his journey, so his “makom,” his place, is elevated.
It follows, therefore, that Elul should be a happy month, for it is the month when we begin walking down that holy path. As we study the sifrei mussar, think about how we are doing, turn inward, engage in introspection, and contemplate our future, Hakadosh Boruch Hu comes to help us. He is here, at our side, waiting to help us back.
We have to show the will.
Perhaps the Torah chose to reveal the secrets of teshuvah, depicting the desperate cries of the neshomah as she pines for her father and mother, her return to purity and holiness, in the parsha of yefas toar to demonstrate to us a lesson through the central character, the soldier who finds a foreign woman in the spoils of war. He is so weak that he is not embarrassed to bring this strange woman back home with him. The Torah is telling us that even a person like him can do teshuvah. Even someone who has sunk that low can turn from a life of lust to a life of holiness. Even he can merit Hashem walking beside him, leading him to the light of teshuvah and a blessed life.
This is the secret of Elul. The Baal Hatanya taught that during this month, the king is in the field. During the rest of the year, subjects must work to obtain an appointment. They must wait, fill out forms and use all the connections they have in order to get a moment of time with the leader. During Elul, the king circulates among his subjects, hearing their voices and concerns.
During Elul, Hashem is nearby, ready to extend a hand, a yad lashovim, drawing us close and inviting us to come back home. But we have to be there, ready to hear the invitation and accept it.
When Hashem sees you want to do teshuvah and haven’t forgotten your neshomah, He becomes overjoyed and grabs your hand with great excitement to bring you where you belong.
Rav Shlomo Reichenberg recounted how he ended up in yeshiva after being sent to Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim when he was brought to Israel as a young Holocaust survivor in 1945.
“I went to the office and asked to be transferred to a yeshiva. They readily agreed and suggested two yeshivos for me, Ponovezh in Bnei Brak and Kol Torah in Yerushalayim. I made my way to Bnei Brak and found the one story building that was the Ponovezh Yeshiva at the time.
“When I walked through the door a man stopped me. ‘Who are you looking for,’ he asked.
“‘Rav Kahaneman,’ I answered.
“‘That is me. What can I do for you?’
“I told him that I wanted to come study in the yeshiva. He asked me where I had come from, and I told him I had arrived from Bergen Belsen. He asked me where I had been before the camp and I told him that I was in the Veitzin Yeshiva, near Budapest.
“‘Do you remember anything from what you learned there,’ he asked.
“I became afraid for I sensed that he was going to test me in order to determine whether he should accept me into the yeshiva. I told him that he should ask me a question to see if I remember anything. He asked me which was the last mesechata, and I said Chulin.
“‘Can you tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos in this mesechta?’
“I told him one. When I finished, he kissed me on my forehead. He then took my hand in his and proceeded to drag me through the streets of Bnei Brak until he stopped at a small building. He knocked on the door and walked in. It was the house of the Chazon Ish.
“The rov was overcome with emotion. The words spilled out of his mouth. ‘Rebbe, I met this boy who is a concentration camp survivor. I asked him if he could tell me a machlokes between Rashi and Tosefos and he did.
“He then began to say, ‘gadlus hatorah, gadlus hatorah,’ and couldn’t catch his breath. Then he turned to the Chazon Ish and said, ‘If a concentration camp couldn’t make a Jew forget Torah, then definitely Torah will never be forgotten.’
“After the rov calmed down, he told me to stay there and talk to the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish was very interested in hearing about life in the concentration camp. I sat there talking to him for two hours. When we finished talking, he said to me, ‘This is your new home. The door is always open for you…”
Everyone has moments that can get him going. There are many times in life when there is a call to you, a message with your name written on it, coming out of nowhere. You can either pick up on it and experience something life-altering or you can ignore it, let it slip by, and lose a chance for eternity.
Read any book of stories about baalei teshuvah and you will find the moment when someone touched a college kid and a light went on. They were invited in and they accepted the invitation. “Do you have a place to eat tonight?” “Did you put on tefillin today?” One thing led to another, and it was as if there was something there guiding the person in the direction of a religious life. They backpacked through Asia, then went to Israel for some reason, and ended up at the wall. They were all alone when they came, but when the Lev L’Achim guy asked if they want to find out what Torah is, they said yes and gave him their name and phone number.
They came alone with their backpack, but left surrounded by the ohr hamakif, the spirit of G-d hovering over them.
Rav Todros Miller of Gateshead Seminary recounted the tale of an English girl who brought her car to a London mechanic. Testing the vehicle, he turned on the engine. Emerging from the speakers was an audio recording of a shiur delivered by Rav Mordechai Miller, of Gateshead Seminary, on sefer Shaarei Teshuvah.
The mechanic was transfixed by what he heard, and when the girl returned to retrieve the car, he asked her to bring him some tapes from that rabbi. Influenced by those tapes, the man became a complete baal teshuvah. Random words emanating from a car as he poked under the hood touched him and caused him to ponder his existence. He could just as easily have tuned out and pressed on with his work, engaging in the usual shop talk.
Instead, he listened for just a moment. A chord was struck deep inside of him. At that moment, as his heart opened, he was flooded with the ohr hamakif of which Rav Chaim Volozhiner speaks. He was on the road to teshuvah, a Divine force propelling him forward.
When we hear those voices, when teshuvah is calling, we have to make sure not to hit ignore, but to tune in and tune up.
After all, as the pesukim this week remind us, the neshomah comes down to this physical world from its encampment at the feet of the Kisei Hakavod, the holiest place in all of creation. It struggles to acclimate to a hostile world, longing for the kedushah it once knew and felt. It cannot adapt, as it is tested and tormented daily. It becomes tainted, it forgets, and it loses its outward shine.
And then there is a jolt. A spark. And it remembers. It reaches for the heavens once again and discovers that in this world, it really is possible to attain the kedushah it remembers. It is possible to be enveloped in holiness, to live a life of G-dliness and remain untainted by idle pursuits, a drive for more money, or a lust for power and dominance. At that moment, he begins to be a baal teshuvah and the original shine returns, building up to a sparkling luster.
We go through life, one day following another. Let us appreciate our gifts. Let us appreciate the neshomah we have. Let us look to help improve the world. Let’s not be satisfied with a little Torah here and there. Let us daven like we really mean it. As we breathe, let us appreciate each breath, and when we experience a breathtaking moment, let it be a jolt to remind us who we are, what our task is, and where we are headed.
Let’s live lives that make it worth the struggle. Let’s act so that the ohr hamakif hovers over us, protecting us from all comers, creating a cocoon of holiness for us to thrive in.
It’s Elul. Take advantage!