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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Ki Setzei 5773 "Surviving Triumph"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, related an apocryphal anecdote about an emergency meeting convened in the Knesset some years ago to discuss the dire state of the Israeli economy. Unemployment was rampant, the shekel was dropping, and the national deficit was burgeoning. The Knesset members debated their options, but every idea was voted down. Finally, one member proposed a radical idea. “My friends, I know this will sound crazy, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I propose that we declare war on America.” A gasp escaped the room but the MK continued, “As soon as we strike, the Americans will strike back with punishing force. As soon as we surrender the Americans will pump billions of dollars of aid into Israel for reparations and recovery. It is an infallible plan. The country will be rebuilt by American dollars, no less than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.” After a few moments of discussion it was agreed that the crazy plan was their best option. There was an almost unanimous vote to move ahead with the plan until one aged Knesset member raised his hand to ask his question which stumped the room: “What if we win?”

War is never pleasant or as glorious as it is depicted. Even in victory a nation suffers destroyed land, tremendous financial strain, and most importantly broken lives and families. The Torah addresses the idea of warfare, “When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will place them in your hand, and you will take captives.”

Rabbi Wein mused that the American Jewish community is less than one hundred years old. An overwhelmingly disproportionate number of congressmen are Jewish. Jews are indistinguishable in law, medicine, media, and control much of Hollywood. Jews have achieved unprecedented levels of wealth, glory, and power. But nationally, the Jewish spiritual focus is almost negligible. Out of few million people who admit to being Jewish, perhaps a million can identify who Rashi is, and know what Shabbos is about.

In Eretz Yisroel today it is also frustrating. The Israelis were victorious in four bloody and costly wars despite being outflanked and out-manned by numerous hostile Arab enemies. Not including oil, Israel’s economy is far superior to all of the Arab countries combined. Yet as a country, the spiritual influence in Eretz Yisroel is poor. Despite the heroic and successful efforts of the many kiruv organizations, the overwhelming majority of the country is devoid of much connection to Torah and mitzvos.

In the hamlets and shtetles of Europe, life was extremely difficult to say the least. Poverty was rampant, food was scarce, and Jews were persecuted. But Jews understood what being Jewish meant.

Parshas Ki Setzei begins with the discussion of three seemingly unrelated topics. The parsha commences by speaking about a soldier at war who captures a beautiful woman and desires to marry her. The Torah prescribes the process that would allow him to marry her. The Torah then discusses the inviolable right of a firstborn son to a double portion of his father’s inheritance[1]. The third concept discussed is that of the incorrigibly wayward and rebellious son, who is put to death before his thirteenth birthday.

Rashi explains the juxtaposition of these three topics. Although the Torah allows the soldier to marry the beautiful woman, the Torah is only doing so in order to satisfy and quell the soldier’s desires. In the vernacular of Sifrei, “The Torah only spoke in response to the Evil Inclination.” The Torah seeks to warn a person what can happen if he adopts such a desperate measure in order to satisfy his desires by demonstrating what the consequences of such a union can be. The implication is that there is a chain reaction here. Improper infatuation with a captive woman will lead to the man hating his wife which, in turn, can lead to rebellious and wayward children.

If a nation is vanquished in war there is no discussion of what to do with the losers, as there is no fighting about how to divide the spoils. Victory and success, on the other hand, brings all sorts of complications. The danger is magnified by virtue of the fact that those challenges are often not realized until it’s too late.

There are numerous accounts of families thrust into fortunes that were torn asunder by vehement arguments about how to deal with their newfound wealth.

Rabbi Wein concludes that we all have a plan for defeat. People, and especially Jews, know how to bond together in times of need. However, when life is less demanding and there is an atmosphere of success and complacency, humanitarianism and spirituality often are left at the wayside.

The parsha begins with a discussion of victory. The question is how does one respond to success and blessing? Does he use it for his own selfish aggrandizement and pursuits, or to seek and promote greater Torah adherence and love of G-d.

“When you will go out to war”

“And Hashem will place them in your hand”

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[1] The Torah mentions the law specifically in regard to a scenario where a man had a polygamous marriage and the eldest son was from a wife that the man hated.

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