Bnei Yisroel were given specific instructions on who is eligible and who may serve as a soldier in the conquest of Eretz Yisroel. Exemptions were given for those who were preparing for marriage (Shoftim, 20:7), had built a new house (20:5) or if they had recently planted a vineyard (20:6). Moreover, even one who was afraid of war could not participate (20:8). In fact, the Gemarah explains that only Tzadikim were left to fight and that is exactly what was intended.
How then does one understand the Torah’s significant discussion of the Yifas To’ar? This woman, a gentile captured at war, is permitted to marry the soldier who captured her once the procedures, albeit extensive ones, are followed. Rashi (21:11), citing the Gemarah in Kiddushin (21b) explains in rather blunt terms, that the procedures were prescribed by the Torah in recognition of the fact that soldiers at war would do terrible things. Accordingly, the Torah enacted a permissible manner in which the soldier could take this woman to be his wife. Is this the behavior of our Tzadikim? They are so overcome by their baser instincts that the Torah concedes that they will yield to them? How are we to understand this abhorrent conduct from our best people?
Many years ago one of my Rebbeim explained to me how this must be understood. The world is designed with an inherent moral code. There are certain things, which are intrinsically understood, as right or wrong. That is not to say that people would always do the right thing but they at least know what it is. For example, most people understand that it is wrong to steal. They may at times steal, either due to necessity, hatred or some other “reason”, but they understand it to be wrong. The most basic “wrong” that we understand is that it is wrong to kill. Whether people do commit murder at times due to greed, passion, vengeance or some other motivation, they understand that killing is wrong.
When one goes out to war, the fundamental instruction is to kill the soldiers on the other side. Once this most basic barrier is broken, all other forms of immoral behavior seem comparatively insignificant. If I can kill, then vandalism, theft or even rape seem like relatively minor violations. Long ago, our sages recited this principal thusly: the first time we commit a particular sin it is difficult, the second time it is permissible and the third time it is a mitzvah. (Sotah 22a)
This is an incredibly profound and poignant lesson. Barriers mean something. They are important. When we break through them, there are ramifications. Similarly, an emphasis of our core values does keep us from crossing certain lines absent the most extreme circumstances. Those values are Torah and Chesed. As we pass the midway point of Elul, we need to redouble our commitment to those core values and be certain to emphasize them to our children, both in word and deed.