5771 — Ki Teitzei — “Waging War”

12/09/2011 at 15:53 5 comments

“Waging War”


Parashat Ki Teitzei

Neil F. Blumofe

10 September 2011


What kind of people do we become when we think that we are at war?  How rattled are we, and how skittish?  How fast do we barricade ourselves into our homes or into our own narratives, armed against any encroachment?  What acts do we perform in the heat of the moment – perhaps instinctual or unthinking, that in recollection may seem inhumane or gruesome?  What emotions, opinions or actions do we keep pent up, or tightly controlled as we live our life, from day to day?


Our Torah, in its honest magnificence, recognizes that war is inevitable in our lives.  Rather than proclaim that love can solve any crisis, our Torah deftly takes on the challenge of how to manage our inner animal in trying times.  To open our portion, the Torah states — ki teitzei lamilchama al oivecha un’tano haShem Elokecha b’yadecha v’shavitah shiv’yo – when you will go out to war again your enemies and haShem, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you will take them captive.  One may interpret these words as fate – that there will be times that we go to war, yet we should not be afraid, because God is on our side and will inevitably, deliver our enemies into our hands.  This kind of reading could justify any conflict – if we are soldiers possessing the truth, or at least, God’s sanction, then we perhaps even have an obligation to move out on the offensive against our enemies – and they will be subdued.


We certainly have seen this rhetoric come alive in our world – those for whom the world is black or white – one thing or another – good or evil, with nothing in between.  All too often we see people who sacrifice their children, sending them out to fight battles, or who poison their youth with reflexive hatred – and all too often we see people who send out others, convinced to blow themselves up for a belief.


Judaism lives amid the wreckage of all of this – not making an absolute proclamation that certain actions bring either paradise or damnation – Judaism does allow for blessings or curses, yes – however, these are lived within an evolving relationship and are not permanent and have to do with mitzvot ben adam lamakom —  a relationship between a person and God, rather than mizvot bein adam v’haveiro – mitzvot performed (or not performed) between one person and another.  It is God who can sanction us or reward us – our most cherished prizes do not emanate from this world – rather, hopefully, our deepest and most enduring happinesses come from the miraculous moments that we have to enjoy and live simply in each other’s company, that are largely beyond our control and rarely have anything to do with us, specifically.


So, Judaism departs from this all or nothing approach that seems to be before us in the Torah.  This is not a war where a mission will finally be accomplished – however, it is a war that is constant against a shifting elusive enemy, fought in different theatres around the world – for wherever we go, wherever we travel, we encounter it, without end. Our enemies feed on our fear, coaxing us to act in ways that don’t seem like us at all, that spur us to actions that in retrospect are beneath us – for the war that brings us out against are enemies is not a physical one – rather, it is a spiritual one, waged against the yetzer hara – the tendency that is within us to do harm or cause ourselves or others, ruin.


Our mystical tradition teaches that we must constantly be on guard against our yetzer hara.  We should go out against it, anticipating it – thereby having a greater chance of success in overcoming it – however, if we are caught unawares and find that have to defend ourselves against it, if we see that it is already rooted deeply within us, we are in need of divine mercy in order to vanquish it.  The Torah is teaching that the strongest defense is a consistent offense against that which threatens our very life.


And the Torah goes further in our war against the yetzer hara.  What tools do we use to fight it?  Do we rely on broad moral principles that bring us some sort of satisfaction?  Do we proclaim some matrix determining that we possess the upper hand, as we take pride in our decorous generosity, not employing any sophisticated weapons to root out such a well-established enemy?  Our Torah teaches the opposite.  We fight this determined enemy with its own weapons, learning from and applying the same tactics – using the same alacrity, vigor and obstinacy that it uses again us in a gradually lifetime conflict.  It is not the battles that matter – rather it is the war that counts.  Any dramatic victory could be celebrated, yet it is short-lived, while there is a perennial enemy that lurks – the yetzer hara is also our Amalek – the enemy that exists in every generation, and who closes this Torah portion with a culmination of inevitability.


It would be easy and convenient to ascribe all of this to some global war that seems never ending in our time – whether a war on terror or something else.  While not denying the importance of readiness and vigilance in this regard, our Torah is even more universal and timeless – asking us to consider our daily struggles closest to home, which is in our most intimate relationships – how we identify and satisfy our sexual urges and how we negotiate our interactions with our lover or lovers, and with our children, and too, with our money.


Ki Tetzei teaches us that the yetzer hara is present in every thing and threatens to break us down and upset all that we work for – accomplishments that can be negated in the blink of an eye.  Our Torah is teaching us to pay attention to our attitude and our proclivities, especially under stress, when our decisions may be unreliable.  Our Torah is guiding us to have confidence and faith that we will be supported in our struggle against our baser nature – to realize that we are not alone as we identify, locate, and work to control the various parts of our lives and the unseemly parts of our soul.


In these days that lead us towards the opening of the Gates, let us continue to recognize what is most important and not overreact as we see the world madly spinning.  Let us be alert and responsive to those who would harm us, at the same time, let us be more mindful of the things that could steadily destroy us from within.

Let us use this opportunity to do the hard work that is necessary in combat, setting up dependable supply chains, nourishing our best efforts, with our best arsenal, and cultivating patience and determination that allows us to live to fight on, to live another day.


Shabbat Shalom.


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon  |  12/03/2013 at 07:45

    Great article. Just as an addition, the Ba’al Shem Tov points out that the opening pasuk reads as quoted above, ” When you will go out to war against your enemies and haShem, your God, will deliver them into your hands, AND YOU WILL TAKE [CAPTIVES].” He says that the main battle was anticipated, and Hashem delivers the enemy – the yetzer hara – into our hands and we defeat it. But we make a mistake, and take captives. We keep a bit of the pain of the yetzer hara with us, and that leads us to see a “beautiful maiden” that we desire and take home with us – this represents the desire for the next sin, the opportunity that we ourselves initiate for the yetzer hara to fight the next battle. Going a step further, perhaps the Torah is teaching us another lesson in passing, which is to let our pain go. We identify with our pain as an important part of who we are, but it opens us up to later suffering. Perhaps it is better to simply let it go and continue on unhindered.

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