The opening verses of Parashat Ki-Teitzei present the law known as “eishet yefat to’ar,” which applies in situations of warfare. The Torah addresses the situation of a soldier who in the course of military conflict sees and desires a woman who was captured from the enemy nation, and the Torah outlines the procedure he should follow if he wishes to marry the woman. After bringing her home, he must allow her a one-month period to mourn, and take measures to make her less attractive. If the soldier still desires her, then he may marry her, and if he does not, then he must set her free.
Oftentimes, during our encounters with other cultures, we come across an “eishet yefat to’ar” – elements that appear attractive, compelling and appealing, and we are naturally and instinctively drawn to them. The law presented here by the Torah warns us that before we embrace these ideas and implant them within our value system, we must exercise patience, giving ourselves time to think the matter through, and waiting until the glitter and initial attraction fade. If, after a period of careful consideration and honest, objective assessment, we determine that this is something of value that ought to be embraced, then the Torah instructs us to do so. In some instances, however, after this waiting period, when we are able to look beyond the alluring, external trappings, we find that the idea, value or practice in question is not something we wish to bring into Jewish life, in which case we are to let it go.
A number of commentators noted that in describing the soldier’s initial attraction to the captive woman, the Torah uses the word “chashakta” (21:11), whereas later, when it speaks of the soldier’s eventual disinterest in the woman, it says, “im lo chafatza bah” – “if you do not want her” (21:14). It has been suggested that the verb “ch.sh.k.” denotes instinctive lust and desire, whereas “ch.f.tz.” refers to a genuine wish that one has after making a reasoned, calculated decision that this is something beneficial. Like the soldier described by the Torah, our instinctive “cheishek” is sometimes at odds with our true “cheifetz”; we are lured and misled by the charm and external appeal of certain ideas and are tempted to embrace them without a second thought. The law of the “eishet yefat to’ar” alerts us to the need to be careful and discerning before we embrace newly-discovered concepts and ideas, and ensure that we are not just falling prey to their external charm and appeal.