When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and the Lord thy G‑d delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive, and seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her to thee to wife; then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.Deuteronomy 21:10-23
Last week’s Torah portion begins with a narrative of a soldier who sees a beautiful woman among captives and desires her. According to the literal meaning of the text, the Torah recognizes the uncontrollable nature of this attraction and allows the soldier to take her as his wife, providing he does so according to the Torah’s instructions listed in that passage.
According to Arizal, the soldier feels the attraction to the captive woman because she has divine sparks in her that are connected to his soul. However, Arizal does not explain how this metaphor fits the details of the biblical narrative.
I would like to propose another allegorical interpretation of this narrative rooted in Jewish esoteric tradition, which seems to fit well with the details of the narrative.
According to Kabbalah tradition, before G‑d created our universe, He created another universe, called Tohu (see, for example, my essay, Cosmological Problem of Initial Conditions and the Universe of Tohu). Tohu is usually translated as “chaos.” This universe is hinted at in the very beginning of Genesis:
Now the earth was unformed and void…Genesis 1:2
The original Hebrew word for “unformed” is tohu. The Kabbalists see here a clear reference to the first created universe—the universe of Tohu. According to the Lurianic doctrine of shevirat hakelim (the breaking of the vessels), the vessels of Tohu shattered and fell into the universe of Tikun (the second universe to be created was our universe of Tikun, i.e., “Rectification.”), where they await their rectification.
This Torah portion starts with “When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies…” What battle is Torah talking about it? The Jewish nation is called Tzivot Hashem—the Army of G‑d. The war that this army is destined to fight is the war with the forces of evil. It is a battle to liberate the divine sparks in the shattered vessels of Tohu that fell into the universe of Tikkun. Each of us is a soldier in this arm of Tzivot Hashem. Knowingly or unknowingly, we fight every day to liberate fallen divine sparks from the kelipot (evil husks that hid these godly sparks) and elevate them. There are general sparks that we all liberated collectively, as it says about the Jews leaving the Egyptian exile:
And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.Exodus 12:36
The literal translation of the last phrase is “And they emptied Egypt.” Kabbalists interpret this to mean that Jews emptied Egypt of godly sparks that were buried there. However, certain specific sparks are connected with specific souls and are destined to be liberated by individuals. From the esoteric point of view of Kabbalah, we are naturally drawn to things that have the sparks that are waiting to be liberated by us. When one randomly picks an apple from a fruit vase, from Kabbalah’s perspective, it is because that particular apple has a godly spark that could only be liberated and elevated by this person.
Returning to the biblical narrative, “and thou . . . . seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her,” can be interpreted as seeing a godly spark and being drawn to it in order to liberate and elevate it. Indeed, Arizal writes:
Therefore the Torah informs us that if he does indeed feel attracted to her, it is because there is a holy spark enmeshed in this nation and something of it is found in this non-Jewish woman. This spark is connected to the soul of this man, and he therefore is attracted to her.
While giving a mystical interpretation of the man’s attraction to the heathen woman, the Arizal stays close to the literal meaning. Arizal offers an alternative allegorical interpretation, where he suggests that the enemy is the body and the beautiful woman is the soul. We battle to liberate the soul from the desires of the body. (See Likutei Torah, parshat Teitzei.) However, again, it is not apparent how to draw the parallel between this allegory and the text in all its details. I suggest another allegorical interpretation that tracks the details of the narrative.
It is not necessary to see the divine spark as embedded in a heathen woman. We can simply see that the man (who is not a soldier in a literal sense, but a “soldier” in the army of G‑d, as all Jewish people are), who is fighting the war against the forces of evil (by doing good and performing the commandments of the Torah), sees a godly spark embedded in the evil husks and naturally attracted to that spark (there is no woman involved, and the attraction is not a sexual attraction, but attraction to godliness). The act with the “beautiful captive” permitted by the Torah is the act of extraction and elevation of the divine spark that has been a captive of the forces of evil. This is the allegorical meaning of this story as I see it.
The rest of the story, where the soldier is instructed to take the woman home, where she cuts her hair and nails off and mourns her parents for thirty days, after which she is converted to Judaism and becomes the wife of the soldier, requires further explanation.
To understand what is going on here, let us remember the story of the Passover, followed by Sefirat HaOmer, ultimately culminating with Shavuot. But first, let me share with you an interesting rule in the technical analysis used by stock traders. Technical traders follow a rule—when a stock leaps suddenly to a much higher price than usual, it will have to recede to its average value and then, level by level, climb to the new high (if the fundamentals support it).
This rule is the basis for the understanding of the Passover, Sefirat HaOmer, and Shavuot. In spiritual terms, here is the short story of the Exodus from Egypt. Being in Egyptian slavery for many years, the children of Israel descended to the penultimate, 49th gate of tumah—spiritual impurity. Had they descended one more level, they would have been lost forever. G‑d rushed to save Jewish people and yanked them out of the clutches of impurity, skipping all 49 levels. This is why we call the holiday, on which we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, Pesach, which literally means “skipping.” On a simple level, this is because G‑d skipped or passed over (hence the English name “Passover”) the houses of the children of Israel when He unleashed His destructive force and killed all firstborns in Egypt. On a deeper level, this is because G‑d skipped the 49 levels of impurity when He took Jewish people out of Egypt. This miracle we celebrate on Passover. However, this miraculous skipping of the levels is unsustainable. That is why after the Passover is over, we have to repeat the process on our own—just as the stock that experienced sudden rise has to return to base level and rise step by step to new heights. This is the essence of the 49 days of Counting of the Omer—Sefirat HaOmer—that separate Passover from Shavuot, which is the culmination of the holiday. The days of the Counting of the Omer are marked by semi-morning when we don’t celebrate marriages and don’t take haircuts. The 49 days correspond to 49 spiritual levels, which we need to climb using our own efforts until we reach the culmination of the process on Shavuot, which is called Yom Chatunato—the Day of Your Marriage, referring to the marriage of G‑d to His chosen nation.
You cannot escape the similarity with the story of the beautiful captive. The initial encounter takes place before her conversion and purification. This is symbolic of the divine spark held in clutches of impure husks—the only way to liberate this spark is to yank it out, skipping all levels. This is metaphorically depicted by the first permissible act in the story. However, after the first encounter, further relations are forbidden until the captive woman goes through the process of mourning and purification. Note the parallel between not having haircuts during the Sefirat HaOmer and the captive woman having to shave off her hair (and pair her nails). In Kabbalah, hair and nails are considered externalities where the life force is diminished, allowing spiritual impurity to attach itself. The fallen spark gets entangled with the impure husks among which it dwelled until it was liberated. It needs to be shaved off to disentangle the spark from the husks. Note the parallel with the period of Counting of the Omer with its mourning customs, spiritual purification, and retrospection. Note the parallel between the prohibition of holding marriage ceremonies during Omer and the prohibition for the soldier from having relations with the woman until the completion of the period of her mourning. All this is needed to reintegrate the fallen spark into the holy realm of the world of Tikkun. Also, note the parallel between the ultimate marriage between the soldier and this beautiful woman, after 30 days of purification, and the holiday of Shavuot following the 49 days of counting Omer on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah and the marriage of Jewish people to G‑d.
Let us summarize these parallels in the following table:
|Skipping Levels:||The first sexual encounter between the soldier and the woman before her conversion||Exodus from Egypt skipping 49 levels of impurity celebrated on Passover|
|Mourning||30 days of mourning||49 days of mourning during the days of the Omer|
|Abstinence||Relations are forbidden between the soldier and the beautiful captive during her 30 days of mourning, during which time he cannot marry her||Marriages are not held during the mournful days of the Sefirah|
|Hair:||She has to shave off her hair||We are not permitted to have haircuts|
|Marriage||After 30 days of mourning, the woman becomes the wife of the soldier||After 49 days of Omer, we celebrate Shavuot—the day of “marriage” of the Jewish people to G‑d|
To summarize, in the proposed allegorical interpretation, the soldier in the war is a metaphor for the Jewish people, who are all “soldiers” in G‑d’s army Tzivot Hashem, who fight the battle against evil to liberate and elevate fallen sparks from Tohu; where the beautiful woman from another nation is a metaphor for a fallen spark from another universe (Tohu), where the uncontrollable attraction the soldier feels towards the beautiful captive is a metaphor for the uncontrollable attraction a Jewish person (who is attuned to spirituality) feels towards divine sparks he is destined to redeem; where after having extracted the fallen spark from the clutches of evil, it requires a period of purification to achieve the ultimate marriage—the reintegration of the fallen spark into the domain of holiness. This esoteric interpretation illustrates how the Torah text, like an iceberg, conceals the depth of its meaning beyond the surface.
 A. Poltorak, “Cosmological Problem of Initial Conditions and the Universe of Tohu,” https://quantumtorah.com/cosmological-problem-of-initial-conditions-and-the-universe-of-tohu/, retrieved September 11, 2022.
 Sefer HaLikutim and Likutei Torah, parshat Teitzei. See Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, “Apples From the Orchard: Gleanings From the Mystical Teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) on the Weekly Torah Portion” (Thirty Seven Books, 2006), p. 960.