A Jewish man goes to war and there at war he encounters amongst the enemy a beautiful woman. The Torah says that he can take her home but he must cut off her hair and “do” her nails. It’s interesting that the two ectodermic appendages, hair and nails are singled out for adjustment on this hostage woman.
Kabbalistically, this portion of the Torah refers to the battle one fights daily within themselves. We are so often torn between what seems externally beautiful and that which is wholesome and real. Thoughts and actions are the two major arenas for personal growth. The hair of a person represents the klipa or the extraneous aspect of ones thoughts and the nails represent the klipa or the extraneous aspect of ones actions.
What exactly does ‘do’ her nails mean? There is a Talmudic argument: Rabbi Eliezer interprets ‘do’ to mean that she should cut her nails very short. Rabbi Akiva disagrees and interprets ‘do’ to mean that she should let he nails grow long. (Yevamos 48)
On the surface the dispute seems cosmetic but it is really very deep.
In our battle for personal growth we strive to conquer our nature and emotions and bring the yetzer home. We search for new beginnings and a fresh start, but everyone comes with a bag full of the past. What should we do with our past?
This is the argument. Rabbi Eliezer taught that the growth that comes from negativity is negative – cut it off; get rid of it.
Rabbi Akiva took a different approach. The beauty of Judaism is its ability to take even the most mundane and even negative aspects of life and sanctify it. Teshuvah, in its ideal form turn ones sins into good deeds. If you have arrived to Judaism with a past – don’t cut it off, make it holy!
The period we are in before the fresh New Year begins is a special time for introspection and growth. There are two ways to begin fresh. We can become brand new and leave the past behind. This is perhaps the easier way. Or we can take the advice of Rabbi Akiva. Don’t throw the past away. Bring it forward, bring it home and make it holy.