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Seeing the Big Picture, Piece By Piece

Recently we bought a house in New Jersey as part of our relocation from Atlanta. The home is of 1920’s vintage and possesses “good bones” (to quote a realtor who looked at the home with us), which is a nice way of saying that it is quite old and in need of a significant facelift. While age and generous use were certainly factors in the home’s largely worn condition, a more pressing matter was the foul smell that emanated from the hardwood flooring on the main floor. Previous owners had pets, which resulted in a residual odor that could only be extracted by completely replacing the hardwood. The home also needed to be painted.

Naturally, once we had committed to doing these projects, it only made sense to update the moulding as well. Old trim alongside new floors and fresh paint just doesn’t look very nice. And once the trim was going to be replaced, we just HAD to also install new interior doors, for the same reason. (The windows will go at some point too, we hope, but there’s only so much we can handle right now.) We understood that if we wanted to gain the maximal aesthetic benefit of the work that was required, it was not sufficient to address those isolated areas. The condition of one component or feature, particularly those that are interconnected, impacts the way that we perceive and appreciate the total condition of the home.

Considering how numerous interrelated components impact the appearance of even the most basic parts of our homes brought to mind an important lesson from this week’s Torah portion. The opening verses describe a scenario involving a captive gentile woman whose appearance and beauty catches the attention of a Jewish soldier (Deuteronomy 21:10-17). The Torah anticipates that the provocative nature of her attire, coupled with the heated, emotionally charged nature of battle, can result in the soldier’s temptations getting the better of him. Instead of approaching the situation restrictively, the Torah grants the soldier freedom to pursue this relationship, on condition that the woman fulfill certain stipulations designed to weaken his powerful feelings towards her. These actions include shaving her head, allowing her nails to grow long, and remaining separated from her soon-to-be husband for a month’s time before marrying her so that she can properly grasp the new life that she will be leading.

As our Creator and Designer, God fully understands the difficulties that we face in subjugating our inner drives, particularly in the heat of the moment. As such, He offered our soldiers an approach geared towards mitigating the current intensity, while still preserving the soldier’s ability to choose. The assumption, of course, is that if the situation is handled properly, the soldier’s lustful inclinations will weaken and no sinful conduct will occur.

(In the case of the y’fas to’ar) the Torah spoke in recognition of one’s evil inclination. (Kiddushin 21b) The Torah permitted it because otherwise he would anyway come to a commit a violation. (Rashi, Ibid)

But perhaps the strategy described above can be used to teach us another lesson, one that extends well beyond the battlefield. We tend to view things in their totality and assess them in that light. When the soldier’s eyes first landed on the aforementioned woman, he knew almost nothing about her. It was a classic case of “love at first sight,” in which he allowed his first impression to define the object of his interests. By instructing that the woman bring negative attention to herself through the diminishment of her beauty in a few core areas, the Torah forced the solider to assess her through a completely different set of criteria. No longer was the relationship to be based on the totality of her appearance, but on whether she possessed the inner qualities upon which true, lasting relationships can be built. In this way, if in fact her were to still marry her, it would be because he felt that she possessed the qualities, in character as well as in appearance, that made her a suitable life partner.

As with the captive woman, a home gives off an initial impression. If the home is well built, then our first, positive sense will be reinforced through a study of its rich detail and fine craftsmanship. If, on the other hand, the house is not in good condition or even if it is in a fair state, a closer analysis will reveal defects, particularly as top layers or covers are removed. The defects will have to be rehabilitated, which will cause more harm than good in the short term until the house’s aesthetic appeal can be enhanced. And in the case of the captive woman , it is the deconstruction, so to speak, that brings out the inner beauty, assuming that such beauty exists.

This concept of deconstructing for the purpose of constructing something better can be extended to our thoughts and attitudes as well. There may be people who offend us because of their perceived insensitivity, coarseness, or other non-endearing attributes. Perhaps we do not care for a particular organization or locale because something about it does not sit well with us. By allowing ourselves to think in global, dismissive terms, we discount the subject’s many positive qualities. The portion and my housing project have each in their own way reinforced for me the value in looking more deeply, to deconstruct our initial impressions and try to assess the true potential, in beauty or character, that lays within and beyond the surface. Such efforts at reconstruction will ultimately allow for a more positive impression and hopefully more rewarding relationship as well.

As we approach the Days of Awe, let us try to perceive our surroundings with a generous eye, which can help us see beyond the surface and recognize each entity’s true beauty. In so doing, we can hope that God will extend such generosity of spirit, so to speak, to us as well, and inscribe us for a year of blessing and good fortune.  

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