In just one place, the Torah breaks the mold. In the other sections
dealing with the rules of combat, the Torah begins with the same
phrase: “When you go out to war….” In the middle of our parshah, however,
the Torah tweaks the wording ever so slightly. It becomes “When a camp
goes out….” 2 One anomaly seems to deserve another. The pasuk in questions
ends with an element unique to this pasuk: “You shall guard against
anything evil.” Are the two anomalies linked?
It would alson be good to know what the Torah is telling us by introducing
the idea of the “camp.” Chazal clearly are sensitive to the problem. They
comment, “All your goings out should be with a camp.”3 This hardly slakes
our thirst for enlightenment, however. What did they mean by this?
We have explained elsewhere that all of the sections about warfare in
Devarim are presented on two levels. They deal with the conduct of a
Jewish army; they describe as well the mortal combat in which all of us
are locked as individuals – with our greatest enemy, the yetzer hora.
The Torah introduced us to the protocols of war in parshas Shoftim. The
opening stages of our internal battles with the yetzer hora concern a host
of items and issue, including the overtly impermissible. The formula is
simple. The yetzer hora encourages transgression; we fight back by
Parshas Ki-Seitzei begins with a similarly phrased reference to going out
to war. This time, Rashi is careful to add that the sub-section, that of
the yefas to’ar, only applies to a discretionary war, not to an obligatory
war, or mitzvah war. The allusion is unmistakable. The next logical stage
concerns a completely different theater of war. It involves reshus,
matters that are neither commanded nor proscribed, that are neither
mitzvah nor aveirah. In other words, they concern matters and activities
that are discretionary. Here we learn the all-important approach of
sanctifying ourselves regarding what is permissible to us.
Arriving at our pasuk, we realize that we are looking at yet another, more
sophisticated arena of combat. In it we contend with the yetzer hora not
over prohibited matters, and not over permissible ones. Like it or not, we
are forced by our human limitations to involve ourselves to some extent
with mundane, earthly matters, simply to maintain our bodies. We need not
indulge in excess, but we need to satisfy our basic needs. No matter how
far we have climbed, we are frequently pulled back to the common and
Even when we seek desperately to link ourselves with the holy and dwell in
some ethereal, celestial place, our natures will not permit it. Wherever
that special holy place is, we are repeatedly forced out of it. In other
words, we are compelled to go out from the place of kedushah – the “camp”
spoken of in the pasuk - and wage war with the mediocrity imposed by our
involvement with the pedestrian and non-holy.
It is in this battle alone that the Torah prescribes a solution. We are
not to go out alone, but in the company of a camp. By joining up with a
tzibbur of like-minded warriors, by losing some of our own identity by
subjecting it to the needs of the collective, we are given the hedge
against the yetzer hora. Chazal tell us that the Shechinah dwells in every
group of ten.4 We are vulnerable to the depredations of the sitra achra,
of the forces of evil, when we venture – as we indeed must – away from
pure attachment to kedushah. Our winning strategy is to take refuge with
the Shechinah that makes itself available to us in the larger group.
We should not be surprised. Subordinating ourselves to the klal yields
many dividends. When Chazal tell us that Shabbos was the intended mate of
Knesses Yisrael, 5 they do not merely mean that each of us has a special
affinity for Shabbos, finding in it our completion, like in a good
marriage. The pairing is not with us as individuals, but with Knesses
Yisrael, representing the collective super-neshamah in which we all have a
place. The experience of Shabbos at its highest level – access to its
most precious supernal lights – avails itself only to the collective, to
the group. This is the reason that the great rebbes stressed the
importance of coming together with a larger chevra and experiencing
We pride ourselves in that we are described as Hashem’s children. We
should stop and reflect that no individual is ever called a child of
Hashem. It is only in the plural, in the group that we become His
children. Similarly, we call Him our Father only in the plural – Avinu –
but not in the singular.
When the Torah underscores the pursuit of kedushah, it prefaces its
remarks by commanding “Speak to the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael.” 6 We
are ill-equipped as individuals to achieve kedushah. It is positioned
elusively beyond our individual grasps. Only though the klal can we
consecrate everything, taking all things to a higher place; only through
the tzibbur can we access the lofty levels of true kedushah.
Binding ourselves to a tzibbur of united Jews is a magic bullet in the
battle with the yetzer hora. It is the only way to remain sure-footed
when we gingerly walk the slippery walk of life. We should realize,
however, that Jews can come together in two very different ways. There is
an outwardly-connected tzibbur, which can be formed by people who do not
even know each other, but come together to serve Hashem. We should not
minimize the importance of such banding together. Another tzibbur,
however, binds people together who are inwardly connected, joining their
internal cores, their penimiyus, until they become as one person, with one
heart. 7 It is through the latter kind of tzibbur that we enable ourselves
to reach levels of understanding and kedushah that are inaccessible to the
Belonging to a tzibbur can be a matter of life and death. This is
demonstrated by the role of the city elders in the eglah arufah ceremony.
We are familiar with the Gemara’s 8 explanation of why they must declare
that their hands were not the ones that shed the blood of the murder
victim. The elders are hardly the prime suspects! Rather, they declare,
explains the Gemara, that they were not instrumental in the demise of the
victim by failing to provide him with food and accompaniment on the way
out of the city.
Our minds may be put at ease by this explanation as far as the cloud of
suspicion that the Torah hangs over the elders. We are relieved that the
elders are not accused of being accomplices to the act itself. But having
heard the Gemara’s explanation, we are still left dangling. Why is it so
important to accompany the stranger out of the city? How would such
accompaniment thwart the highwaymen who lie in wait to ambush the
traveler? One can accompany a guest only so far before turning back. The
criminal who preys on the vulnerable traveler will simply fall upon his
victim somewhat beyond that point.
The Maharal 9 teaches that accompanying the stranger makes him a member of
a larger community, ties him in to the tzibbur of the city he is leaving.
An individual is sometimes vulnerable to the scrutiny of Judgment and the
forces of din that may prevail at a given moment. The klal, the
collective, is often beyond the reach of the forces of din. Without a
Divine judgment and decree finding the potential victim wanting when an
accusatory finger from the Heavenly Court is pointed at him, he cannot
die. Thus, if he travels alone, all the dangers of the road can be
sources of potential harm to him. When he travels as a member of a larger
group, tied in with the rest even when he is geographically distant from
them, the collective merit of the group protects him. Membership confers
the privilege of protection against the misery brought on by din.
When the great secrets of the Hidden Torah were made available in the time
of R. Shimon bar Yochai, we find that he did not reach out to claim them
on his own, but accompanied by a group. The Zohar identifies them by
name. Moreover, it categorically states that he merited the great
insights contained in the Idras 10 only through the collective. What had
been kept hidden prior to his day became revealed, says the Zohar,11 only
because members of his group loved each other with heart and soul.
These ideas take on new meaning in the month of Elul. In the run-up to
the judgment of the Yomim Nora’im, we need to make use of the sanctuary we
can find in the embrace of the rabim. We need to make ourselves part of a
group. It should be a group that not only takes the judgment of the Yomin
Noraim seriously, but deals with the spirit of the season with even
greater insight and sophistication. We should band together in
collectives in which people are not only conscious of which transgressions
they have or have not committed, but are working on their penimiyus, to
reclaim from it all room that has been ceded to the yetzer hora, and
restore it to the domain of our Creator.
This may just be our best strategy in the weeks to come.
1Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 146-149 2Devarim 23:10 3Sifrei 4Sanhedrin 39A 5Bereishis Rabbah 11:9. They observe that each day of the week can be paired with another, as long as the total number of days is even. The seventh day, the odd number, leaves one day unpaired, without a mate. Knesses Yisrael itself is the missing mate. 6Vayikra 19:2 7Rashi Shemos 19:2 8Sotah 38B 9Chidushei Aggados, Sotah 46B 10Two subsections of the Zohar 11Zohar 2:190B