Harav Hagaon Ahron Halevi Soloveichik
Parshas Ki Seitzei
To the casual and superficial reader today’s portion of the law seems to be a mere hotchpotch of totally unrelated laws. It commences with the laws regulating that problem which assumes so acute proportions in war when passions become unbridled, the problem of the Jewish soldier who becomes enamored by a pagan captive; it continues with the law of the man who conceives a dislike for his wife and wishes as a result to dispossess her son, and goes on to deal with the uncomprehensible law of the utterly incorrigible son who rebels against his parents.
From that the Sidra goes on to discuss a totally unrelated subject. It deals with the law concerning the public, communal responsibility of a man, that if he builds a house he is obliged to put a safety-parapet round his flat roof, then with the law against sowing one’s vinyard with mixed seeds, then with the law against yoking an ox and ass together.
That is a brief list of the various items displayed in this store of laws, and it seems beyond the bounds of human ingenuity to find a connecting link, or even an association of ideas between them, but our Rabbis of old have succeeded in doing so, and in a brilliant exposition divided these laws into two groups, each law in each group forming a link in the chain of causation, and each group teaching a lesson complimentary to the other. There is in the first law a warning. A man throwing discretion and reason to the winds, driven by illicit passion, enters into an unsuitable marriage. The evil does not end there. The inevitable result is that when passion dies down and the burning flame reduces to ashes, hatred takes the place of love and we get the sorry picture of “sinat bayit” of domestic hatred instead of “shalom bayit,” domestic love. But the evil does not stop even there. What kind of home life can there be for the child of such a marriage? There you have the breeding ground for the perverse and rebellious son, incorrigible, disobedient, gluttonous, with the terrible and tragic end which foreshadowed there. And the lesson of this first group of laws is “sin breeds sin,” once one starts of the downward slope, it is difficult to arrest its progress. How different is the development of the man who also starts with “when thou buildest a house” with the intention of setting up a new home, but instead of thinking only of his lusts and passions he thinks of the responsibilities toward the community as a whole, and builds the parapet. This mitzvah will bring blessing in its train, he will be vouchsafed to plant a vineyard. But even when planting a vineyard he thinks not only of the wine when it is red, of overflowing wine vats, but of his religious duties. More blessing will come to him and he will own a field and plough it, and the lesson of the second group of laws is the complementary one to that of the first. There is the same natural, inevitable causation of cause and effect, but whereas the former teaches that “sin breeds sin,” the latter teaches that “one good deed brings another in its train.” How urgent and necessary is this lesson which our Rabbis derive from the juxtaposition of these apparently unrelated laws. If only we would think of the consequence of our acts, of the inexorable chain of causation which is set up by every one of our simplest actions; that like the spreading ripple caused by the stone cast in a pond, we are powerless to arrest that progressive extension of our act once it has started; that our simplest acts have inevitable consequences undesigned by us.
Unfortunately most people don’t “foresee the future consequences of the acts of today.” It is only when it is too late, when we look upon the ruins of our lives and the wrecks of our hopes that we begin to trace it back to its beginning and then we learn a lesson when it is too late. We beat our breasts in contrition and mourn for that which is lost for all time.
Let a man give way to unbridled desire, let him yield to passion, and he becomes a slave to his senses, unable, because at first unwilling to control them give way to desire and you will no more be able to satiate it. Enjoyment whets the appetite, and the more gratification, the greater the desire. Abandon yourselves to life’s pleasures, it is sweet and pleasant, but you are steadily drawn into a quagmire, whence there may be no deliverance. Deeper and deeper you sink into the bottomless slough of passion and lust until you become totally submerged.
There is a remarkable story told in the Talmud (Bava Basra 73b) by רבה בר בר חנה, famous for his hyperbolical parables.
“We were once on board a ship and we encountered a wonderful bird who stood in the water up to its ankles, and whose head reached heaven. Assuming the water at the spot to be shallow we thought of entering it to refresh ourselves, when a בת קול, a divine voice, was heard saying, ‘Do not go in here! It is seven years since an axe fell into the water and it has not yet reached the bottom, not because of the depth of the water, but because of the swiftness of the current.’” This story, or rather parable, intends to teach us a lesson. The bird is the image of man in his transitory existence, environed by fleeting, unstable things of the earth. He belongs partly to the earth and is drawn by desires to the earthly, but his head, his mind, that which is everlasting in him, belongs to heaven. He rushes for refreshment, for the momentary gratification of his senses. There is, however, a Divine voice which warns him לא תיחותו הכא” “Keep away from the seemingly shallow, harmless flow of the cooling and pleasant water, the current of desire is so strong and swift that it will bear you into the depths whence you will never return.”