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True Marriage: Peering Through the Surface (Parshas Ki Seitzei)

parsha sefer devarim Aug 18, 2021



Matt was the happiest guy in the world. He had somehow found the most beautiful girl in the world, Jennie, and they were engaged, set to marry in just over a month. They had hit it off from the very first date, and Matt could not get over how beautiful Jennie was, and how proud he was to have her by his side. Sure, she was funny, smart, and kind, but wow was she beautiful. He had never thought that he would find someone beautiful enough for his high standards, so he was endlessly thankful that he had met Jennie.

Then, the unthinkable happened. It started with a phone call. "It's an emergency. I'm so sorry. It wasn't anybody's fault. She's in the ICU." Matt got to the hospital as soon as he could. When he walked in, he couldn't bear the sight. Jennie had been in a car accident. She would live, but her face was torn apart in the crash, leaving her scarred and almost unrecognizable. Matt sat next to her for a few hours, comforting her. He then went outside for a breath of fresh air, and contemplated the most difficult question he had ever faced: what should he do? She looked horrible, ugly, repulsive! On the one hand, his gut instinct was to run. On the other hand, how could he be the shallow guy who ran as soon as something happened? What would people think? They would know that he had only been in it for her looks, that as soon as those disappeared, so did he. "No," he thought, "I have to figure this out.”

That night, Matt did some soul searching. He called, texted, and emailed every person he could think of, asking for their advice and guidance. Most tried to comfort him, but finally, he received an email from a Rabbi he had been connected with back in his Yeshiva days. "Listen to this," the email read, "and you may just find your answer."

Attached in the email was an audio recording on the topics of love, marriage, and beauty. With no alternative option in sight, Matt began listening. The lecture questioned the Western model of beauty and love, rejecting the notion of love at first sight. While physical beauty is important, inner beauty, spiritual beauty, is infinitely more powerful. When building a marriage relationship, the goal is to build a deep, internal connection, a soul connection, which is built through the two partners constantly giving to each other, communicating and building values together, and venturing on a shared journey and mission in life.

Matt was blown away. He had never heard these ideas before, and began questioning his relationship with Jennie. Sure, they sometimes talked about life, their values, and overall direction, but they had never built a genuine and deep internal connection. Now that he was being honest with himself, Matt realized that he had been so fixated on Jennie's external beauty that he had never put much effort into getting to truly know her- who she was, what she wanted in life, her struggles, her virtues and flaws, even her hopes and dreams. At that very moment, Matt decided that he would spend the next few weeks trying to build this type of relationship, and after that, he would revisit his questions about their marriage.

At first, it was awkward; Matt struggled to initiate genuine conversation, to ask real questions, to be vulnerable and honest. But slowly, things began to flow more easily. Matt and Jennie began opening up to each other with increasing ease and trust. Matt was surprised by how deep and thoughtful Jennie was, by how caring and empathetic she was towards him, how much she wanted to learn about his values and dreams. While they used to spend their dates at entertaining events, requiring little conversation, they began to go on the types of dates that fostered deep connection and conversation, creating meaningful experiences. They began seeing each other with new eyes, understanding each other on levels deeper than they ever thought possible. Jennie began to shine with a new beauty, one that her physical beauty had never fully captured. They started to grow together, learn together, and inspire each other. Matt decided right then and there that he would spend the rest of his life with Jennie. Her face was scarred, but she was the most beautiful person he had ever met.

Over the next few weeks, Jennie began to undergo surgeries to repair her face, and she slowly improved until her face looked just as beautiful as when she and Matt went on their first date. But at this point, Matt had a completely different understanding of beauty. Physical, external beauty is important, but inner, spiritual beauty, is true beauty, a beauty that shines through and completely transforms the external.


Spiritual Beauty


This heartwarming story might be too much for the modern ear. We are all drowning in Western culture, where physical beauty takes the front seat, or the only seat. But to fully understand the present-day challenge of beauty, we must understand the spiritual concept of beauty in all of its depth. To do so, let us review the spiritual concept of beauty, tracing it back to the creation of man, before Adam Ha’Rishon's sin. [1]


Adam Ha'Rishon


Before Adam sinned, he looked nothing like you or I do today. When we look at one another, all we see is flesh and bone, but if you looked at Adam before he sinned, his appearance was angelic, transcendent, luminescent. The midrash says that he wore kosnos ohr, skin of light. When you looked at Adam, you didn't see his body, you saw Adam himself; his neshama, his soul. When you look at a light bulb, all you see is radiant luminescence; only if you look very closely can you just make out the surface of the bulb. The same was true regarding Adam; only if you looked very closely could you just make out his physical body. His body was transparent, with the outside loyally and fully reflecting his inner self. This is true beauty, where the inner and outer melt into a oneness, where the physical perfectly reflects the inner spirituality; where the physical projects something much deeper than itself. Beauty is the harmony and synthesis of different components, resulting in something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.


When Adam sinned, however, the world fell, and Adam’s body fell as well. The physical no longer revealed the spiritual, but hid it. Now, when we look at each other, we don't see our true selves; all we see is a physical body. What was once light is now darkness. People can't see your inner world, your thoughts, your consciousness, your emotions, your soul; all they see is your external body. Now, in order to reveal yourself to other people you must actively use the physical to reveal the spiritual; only through your words, actions, facial expressions, and body language can people gain a glimpse into who you truly are. The body used to be incandescent and reveal, now it only hides. [2] It is up to us to reveal.


Sarah Imeinu


After the sin of Adam Ha’Rishon, genuine beauty became elusive. Sarah Imeinu, however, was one of the few who still achieved this lofty feat. We know Sarah was physically beautiful, that her beauty was not just of an ethereal, spiritual nature. When Sarah and Avraham descended to Mitzrayim (Egypt), the Mitzrim (Egyptians), and even Pharaoh himself, desired her. [3] The Egyptians were steeped in immorality, interested only in beauty that ran skin deep. However, we know that Sarah Imeinu was immensely spiritual as well, that she reached the loftiest of spiritual levels. [4]


At the end of Parshas Noach, Rashi [5] explains that one of Sarah's other names was Yiscah. A name always reflects essence, [6] so we must ponder the meaning of this name and what it reveals about Sarah Imeinu. “Yiscah” means transparent, and Sarah's true beauty lay in her transparency. Her inner beauty completely permeated and was loyally reflected through her physical body. Genuine beauty requires the middah (character trait) of transparency, where the physical body reflects the inner and spiritual beauty, something infinitely greater than any external beauty. True beauty is oneness, where the physical and spiritual melt into a oneness, where the physical doesn’t hide the inner self, but reveals it!


It is therefore fitting that the shoresh (root) of the word “Yiscah” is also the shoresh of the word “schach”, the roof of the succah. According to Halacha (Jewish law), the schach is the most important part of the succah, which is why “schach” is the shoresh of “succah” as well. What, then, is the connection between transparency and schach? The answer lies in one of the deepest themes of Succos. Succos is about seeing past the illusion of independent self-security, recognizing that Hashem is our true source of protection. This is why we leave our sturdy homes and enter a diras arai, a temporary dwelling place. We show that our faith and trust lie in Hashem, not our "safe" homes. While on the surface, our security and safety seem to come only from our own efforts and hishtadlus, when we look past the surface, we recognize that everything comes from Hashem. This is why the schach is the main part of the succah- it trains us to see past the surface. The schach must be transparent, allowing you to see the stars at night. It must also be loose enough to allow some sunlight and rain to enter the Succah. Only when we have a transparent surface can we truly see what lies behind it. [7]




One of the most misunderstood ideas in Judaism is the concept of tzniyus (modesty), especially in regards to women. Many think that tzniyus means to hide, that the ideal is not to be seen. However, there is an infinitely deeper approach to tzniyus. In this age, beauty has been corrupted. The term “beauty” generally refers to outer beauty, a surface beauty that distracts from and hides the inner self. Physical beauty is neither good nor bad, it is merely a vessel that has the potential to be used for good or bad. While the physical exterior is important, our true self is our neshama, our mind and consciousness. Our inner world, thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs, middos, and emotions are the deepest and most genuine parts of our “self”. True beauty is when the physical serves as a vessel that expresses one’s true self, their inner essence, into the world.


The focus must always be on the inner beauty as the ikar, as the essence. The purpose of tzniyus is not to hide you, but to reveal you! The true you. Tzniyus shifts the focus from the external trappings to the actual self, the neshama, which lies beneath the surface and illuminates the physical vessel. True beauty requires a beautiful root and core, and the physical must be used to project that inner beauty outwards.


Ideal Marriage


In Parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah discusses the prohibition against illicit relationships; these relationships are usually referred to as giluy arayos, literally translated as "revealing one’s nakedness". What does this mean? Why does the Torah refer to a forbidden relationship in such a manner?


An ideal marriage consists of two people who endlessly break down the barriers and walls between them, creating ever deeper levels of existential and spiritual connection and oneness. Physical connection is part of a spiritual relationship, and when used correctly, becomes uplifted to something transcendent. While a true marriage relationship creates a transcendent bond, an animalistic relationship consists only of a physical, surface connection, devoid of anything deeper. It has no purpose or meaning, no direction, no transcendent element. When one violates giluy arayos, they proclaim that the intimate realm is nothing more than a means for physical pleasure. In doing so, one reveals that they are merely an animal, a physical being, lacking connection to that which is higher and spiritual. By entering into an illicit relationship, one expresses that they view themselves as a purely physical being, as if their body is all that they are. If so, then by revealing their body to the world, they are revealing their "nakedness", that they are merely a piece of flesh, nothing more. They have self-identified as an animal, a body that does not reflect their neshama, one who does not wish to use their body to reflect anything higher. This is the ultimate shame, [8] which is why the Torah repeatedly refers to giluy arayos as an act of shame.


The Mysterious Trio


With this in mind, we can understand the strange progression of topics in Parshas Ki Seitzei:

  • The parsha begins by discussing the eishes yifas to'ar,[9] the enigmatic halacha which allows the marriage between a Jewish soldier and a female captive of war.
  • The Torah then discusses the topic of the "hated wife". [10]
  • Finally, the Torah discusses the case of a ben sorer u'moreh, the rebellious son. [11]


What is the connection between these three topics, and what is the deeper meaning behind this progression?


A Downward Cascade


The answer is quite striking; this is a three-step process, a natural progression that the Torah warns us against. When one marries a yifas to'ar, he does so out of passion and lust. A man at war is unstable, more inclined to give in to his animalistic urges. His desire to marry this captive of war is almost guaranteed to be rooted in physical desire, lacking any spiritual underpinning. As such, the Torah establishes many obstacles and barriers between the soldier’s original inclination and his ultimate permission to act on that desire. In addition to having her shave her head and prolonging the time before marriage, the Torah requires many other such conditions be fulfilled in order to cool his flame of passion and help him think clearly. However, if he still desires her at the end, he is permitted to marry her.


Nonetheless, this will likely lead to a very unstable and unspiritual marriage. When a relationship is founded purely in the physical, there are often fundamental disagreements in values and outlooks, leading the couple to grow apart. This is why the Torah places the discussion of the "hated wife" right after the topic of eishes yifas to'ar. It is this foundation that leads to such an unstable marriage.


And it is no surprise that the topic of ben sorer u'moreh is soon to follow. Chazal discuss the various halachos of the ben sorer u'moreh, but there are two things that are clear. First, it is highly unlikely for a child of this nature to exist. Second, to qualify as a ben sorer u'moreh, the child would have to possess the most barbaric, animalistic character traits. However, the pattern is clear. An animalistic marriage leads to an unstable and unspiritual relationship. Such a relationship creates an unstable home and is the most likely means through which a ben sorer u'moreh can come into this world. These are not three disconnected discussions; this is a chain reaction.


Perhaps this is why the very next topic mentioned in the Torah is the halacha of burial. [12] The Torah tells us that if a man is hanged, he must be buried that day, and must not be left hanging. The reason is as follows: even though he acted immorally, man was created b'Tzelem Elokim, in the image of Hashem. In other words, no matter how low man may fall, no matter how animalistic he behaves, no matter how far he sways, his root will always remain spiritual and Godly. No matter how much we refuse to reflect our true and higher selves, it will always remain our truest and deepest identity.


A Journey of Ascension


There are always two levels of reality: the surface level and the deeper, spiritual level. The surface is meant to reflect the spiritual, reveal it, emanate its truth and beauty. But often we struggle, we forget, we get caught up in the deception that the surface is all that there is. But even when we fail, even when we fall, there is always hope, there is always a path back to our true selves. This is the message of Elul, this is the message of life. To strive to see more, feel more, learn more, become more. May we all be inspired to not only see past the surface, but to then reveal that truth through the surface, to live wholistic lives of truth, spiritual beauty, and true oneness.


[1] See chapter on Parshas Mikeitz, where we already discussed the next few paragraphs.

[2] In a deeper sense, the physical stilldoesreveal spiritual truth, albeit in a less pure and clear fashion. For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual world, and how to relate to the infinite through the finite, see chapter on the holiday of Shavuos (located at the end of this sefer), section: “The World is a Mashal”.

[3] Bereishis 12:14-15. See Rashi.

[4] See Rashi, Bereishis 23:1.

[5] Bereishis 11:29.

[6] The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.

[7] For a deeper understanding of clothing, see chapter on Parshas Mikeitz, sections: “From Light to Skin”, “The Spiritual Purpose of Clothing”, and “The Potential of Clothing”.

[8] For a deeper understanding of shame, see chapter on Parshas Mikeitz, section: “The Spiritual Purpose of Clothing”.

[9] Devarim 20:10.

[10] Devarim 21:15.

[11] Devarim 21:18.

[12] Devarim 21:22.


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