The Parashah of Ki Teitzei contains a huge array of civil and ethical precepts on a vast range of social topics, but it begins with guidelines for the behaviour of soldiers in war; specifically, in relation to the capture of civilians. Since our generation has an army that fights wars, we should probably read this Parashah very carefully.
There are many moral dimensions to warfare, both individual and collective. Among these, the Torah acknowledges the existence of complex human sentiment when it comes to the enemy, and reveals instructions for a case where a soldier lusts after, or even falls in love with, a captured woman.
There is no obligation upon any soldier of Israel to desire a captured woman (although mystically some may have thought so), but the Torah provides us with a ritual process - a specific mitzvah - for such an eventuality. The Torah does not ban intimate contact with the enemy; rather, it elevates such contact through the compassion of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and its capacity for love. By doing so, the Torah insists that unnecessary violence, torture and rape are out of the question. Soldiers must treat their captives with dignity and respect.
Do we need the Torah to tell us this? Yes. The exponents of Midrash (narrative interpretation) and Parshanut (textual interpretation) claim that the mitzvot regarding a captured woman are to combat the yetzer harah - the evil inclination - the true enemy. The yetzer harah desires objects and makes objects out of people. Forget your lust, says the Torah, even your love is not a barrier against objectification, when you are the conqueror. Only G-d consciousness, raised through the performance of mitzvot, can ultimately prevent your degrading others in a time of war.
And yet, in contrast, the Parashah of Ki Teitzei ends on a very different point about war: the obligation to destroy Amalek. Here there are no captives. And while the idea of a holy genocide may trouble some people, myself included, we should remember that the fulfilment of this mitzvah has not been granted to this or any other generation for nearly three thousand years, and cannot be fulfilled without a king and a prophet, when all our other enemies are subdued, and only when Amalek is identified under divine instruction.
When it comes to Amalek, the enemy is hated because the enemy is hatred itself. There is no place in this world for those who wish to physically annihilate Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
These two states of war are different in another important respect. 1. The first is a milchemet reshut (a voluntary war); 2. the latter, against Amalek, is a milchemet mitzvah (a commanded war) whose mitzvah is collective.
What unites the beginning and end of Ki Teitzei is the true kavannah (intention) of all mitzvot - and the ultimate purpose of the Jewish People - to bring peace to the world. A voluntary war of conquest, whilst permitted, is not a mitzvah - but the behaviour and responsibility of the individual who partakes in it is a conduit for divine revelation.
While we might feel overwhelmed by the volume of the mitzvot contained in Ki Teitzei and in fact, in all of Torah, it is worth remembering what a mitzvah really is. The term ‘mitzvah’ is derived from the Hebrew root word’ tsav’. A ‘tsav’ is literally a landmark that shepherds used in order to ensure that they were going in the right direction.
In Hebrew theology, HaShem’s commandments are not rules; rather, they are something to seek out, a landmark that helps keep us moving forward and headed in the right direction as we navigate the journey of life.
We, who know the LORD and are filled with His Ru’ach (spirit), are enabled and empowered by the Spirit to choose life by following the landmarks that is Torah – the Word of G-d!