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Ki Tetze 5781 ~ August 20, 2021

How passionate of a person are you? Do you act out of impulse or out of true feelings? When you go online to buy an item be it a piece of clothing, a chachka or a box of chocolates, how do you decide what you are going to buy? What is it that convinces you to make that purchase?

The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Ki Teze, speaks about passions versus impulses. For example, if a man goes out to war and sees a most beautiful woman, his impulse is “to want her.” Back in the time of the Torah, it was not wrong to carry off such a woman and take her as your own. While the Torah does not prohibit such an impulse, it places true barriers upon the individual. When she is brought back to the land, you cannot immediately take her into your home as a wife. First, you must allow her to mourn for her parents. Only then she can become your wife. But once that occurs, since your impulse overcame you, then you must treat her with dignity and respect. She is not chattel.

Today, this act would be reprehensible in every circumstance. Rabbinic Judaism would not tolerate such an act. As a matter of fact, our Torah reading places a great deal of respect upon a woman, by any man, that is unless she actively participates in a way unbecoming of a woman. So, for example, in the time of the Torah, a woman who is raped is not an outcast. She must be cared for by the individual. He may not deny it and must accept the responsibility for his actions. Back then, the man was required to care for her as his wife unless her father disagreed.  The man could not go around talking badly about his wife either. Moreover, the Torah allowed her father, and today we could say the woman too, to challenge her husband’s contentions. In that regard, we hope that in the new Taliban run Afghanistan, women will find their way to continue with being treated equitably and fairly, will be allowed to continue to study and work and to be treated with dignity and respect. As the events continue to unfold, we pray not only for the women, but for everyone who lives there. Yet at the same time, as we are witnessing, we pray for the daughters, that they may remain protected and safe, and that no Taliban male regresses to the concept of war of his impulses and his yetzer harah, his evil inclination. That is simply unconscionable.

One section in the Torah that is never taught in school and never talked about in shul, talks about the impulse of a woman who sees her husband losing in a fight and goes to her husband’s rescue. While her goal is to protect her husband, her actions are quite inappropriate.

Today, we talk about passions in terms of meaningful moments and impulse in terms of immediate actions. If you are impulsive, then in a crisis situation you act immediately, often without much thought. At some times impulse is an important response. For example, if your fire alarm goes off in your residence, it is impulse that moves you to act and appropriately so. Yet at other times, impulse is the immediate reaction which allows passion to react in an appropriate fashion, where impulse alone would be destructive. Several years ago, on one of our family road trips we had a blow out of our tire. Impulse would have made me step on the brake pedal. Passion took over and got me to think about pumping the brakes and slowly easing to the side of the road. The difference was the difference between rolling over and coming to a safe stop.

Every human being is born with two impulses, a good impulse, and an evil impulse. The good impulse involves passions; the evil impulse stands alone, unless harnessed. The yetzer hatov adds a dimension in all aspects of our lives. For example, the rabbis tell us that it is the yetzer hatov that reminds us of the Biblical commandment that if we have a balcony on our roof, we need to add a fence on the top of our roof. Passion tells the builder to install proper fences. Impulse might tell the builder to save a few bucks.

In one of my Mishna classes last year at Solomon Schechter Academy, we discussed the question of “hashevat ha’avedah,” the return of an item that one found on the street, and when and how does it apply. The Torah teaches that “finders keepers, losers weepers,” doesn’t always apply.  For example, if you find a wallet full of money or bills folded together, then you must attempt to return it. On the other hand, if you find scattered coins on the street with no identification, then it is yours to keep.  Passion in this case and the yetzer hatov, either working independently or together, clearly teach us what is not only appropriate, but what is the right thing to do.

As we prepare for the up and rapidly coming High Holy Days, may the Torah guide our passions in a positive manner.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782