Shaya Cohen -


Voluntarily Marrying an Unsuitable Woman

The Torah vividly describes an extremely challenging situation: Picture the scene of a nice Jewish boy, looking over the spoils of war after fighting on behalf of his people. He sees among the captives a beautiful – but very inappropriate – woman. He finds her attractive and wants to marry her. Then, he brings her into his home, cuts her hair and lets her nails grow. Finally, after a month of adjusting to her new surroundings, they can start to build a life together.

Our Sages are extremely concerned by this. After all, is taking a beautiful captive nothing more than a capitulation to the power of lust? Our commentators bend over backward to explain that the Torah accepts that human desires cannot always be denied or deferred but that we should always understand this story as a worst-­‐case scenario. The evidence to support this is that the Torah follows the laws of the captive with the laws of not discriminating against hated sons, and the laws of rebellious children. When one sees these laws as a collective body, it is a clear warning: if a man goes ahead and takes a non-­‐Jewish captive, he is setting himself up for a difficult existence, a troubled marriage, and rebellious offspring.

But, for all of that, the Torah text itself does not suggest that the man should actually resist the urge to take the captive! Only our sages read this into the text. The Torah says that if the man wants her as a wife, he can have her! He just has to follow the rules in how he does it. And those rules are most specific in detailing the way that she has to lose the garments that she wore as a captive, and put her previous life behind her before she can begin anew as a Jewish wife.

Yet there is a very simple explanation for this commandment: we can marry such a woman because G-d has already walked this path.

When we lived in Egypt we, too, were captives. As Ezekiel says (and as we read every Pesach), “[the Jewish people] became very beautiful, your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare.”  So G-d, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-­‐haired and raw beauty.

Like the captive woman, we did not deserve G-d’s desire because of our merits – on the contrary, we were saved from Egypt because G-d wanted to save us, and not because we deserved it! Like the captive, we were uncouth and unready for a mature adult relationship.

And then, a most peculiar thing happens. G-d took us out of Egypt, and for the following month, the Torah does not tell us about anything that happens. It is a quiet period of adjustment, just as the beautiful captive adjusted to the loss of her parents. And at the end of that period, the Jewish people start to complain. We complain about water, and we complain about food (which has run out). And at that point, we have adjusted to the new reality of living in the wilderness, and started to interact once again with G-d – just as the captive, after a month, can start her relationship with her husband.

And what does G-d do to us, one month after he was first intimate with us? He gives us the commandments of the manna, and Shabbos. These are the building blocks of a Jewish home: sustenance and a connection to the holiness of Shabbos. It is at this point that G-d starts to grow the relationship in earnest. And a Jewish man who marries a captive would naturally start at the same point: explaining where the family’s food comes from, and about the six days we labor for our sustenance, and the one day we do not.

There are linguistic parallels as well. When we leave Egypt, we are wearing the matzos like garments, “simlah,” on our shoulders. At the end of the month, the matzo -­‐ garments — are finished, and we need a new source of sustenance. And when the beautiful captive comes into our house, she has to take off her garments of captivity – and the same word, “simlah” is used, and her hair, which falls on and below her shoulders, is cut. When a captive is adopted into a home, she has to change, and prepare her appearance to make it more civilized and ready to adapt to a new relationship.

The soldier is described as “desiring” (chashak) the woman, and the very same word is used for G-d’s desire for the Jewish people! “G-d desired (chashak) you and chose you…  G-d freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut. 7:7-8)

Of course, our Sages are right to point out that a man who takes a beautiful captive as a wife is sure to have a very challenged existence! After all, marrying an undeserving but beautiful alien woman is the model of the relationship the Jewish people have with G-d! Since He took us out of captivity, the marriage has been one of incredible difficulty and turmoil and strife. We have rebelled, and fought. We have acted as rebellious children who deserve to be put to death. We question and challenge G-d at every turn.

But, just as it can happen with the beautiful captive, the marriage can endure and grow strong despite all of the reasons why it should have failed. Certainly a man who takes on such a challenge is not going to have it easy. Can anyone say that G-d has had it easy with us? And yet: can anyone say that G-d wishes He had chosen another nation to love?

Comments are welcome!

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