When you go out to war against your enemies, Hashem will place him in your hands; you will take him as a prisoner. (21:10)
The mitzvah of ma’akeh, placing a boundary around elevated property to prevent someone from falling and hurting themselves, has both physical and spiritual implications. “When you will build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof. Do not place [innocent] blood in your house, lest someone fall from it. (22:8)”
At its most simple level, the Torah teaches us to take sincere responsibility for our property and possessions. One might have thought it would be enough to put up a nice, big sign, “Danger—large drop; use roof at own risk.” It’s our duty not to warn others of the danger, but to make sure no harm comes them as a result of our negligence.
The concept of fencing in dangerous areas is equally important in an old house as in a new one. Indeed, halachically, the obligation applies to both. Why does the Torah choose to illustrate this mitzvah by speaking specifically about one who builds a “new house?”
Building a new house, says the Ben Ish Chai, is symbolic of one who, after a thoughtful assessment of his life and priorities, decides he is unhappy with how things look. The time has come to make a fresh start—to build himself a new spiritual home, pouring its foundations in this world, and hoping to see the final product in the World to Come. A concept that should apply to every one of us, especially now in Elul, a month set aside for just such decisions.
Starting fresh—‘with a clean slate’—has a nice ring to it. Wouldn’t that be nice—just to start all over again; all past failings and shortcomings forgiven and forgotten. In essence, that’s what teshuva is. It’s a very appealing concept. With some minor technicalities, Hashem has basically told us that we can, at any time and certainly in Elul, do just that. He’s willing to accept our regret, confession, and change-of-course at face value, and offer us the amazing opportunity for a brand new present and future, if only we mean it seriously. He’s willing to grant us that new house, fully loaded, totally on credit. The only down-payment He asks for is our commitment to make real changes.
It’s a fantastic deal—one that truly has no strings attached—so why are we often struck with that sense of déjà-vu that says, “Wait a second—I remember feeling this way last year, and I’m still the same me; same old pitfalls, same old shortcomings, same old me.” What happened? How did the deal of a lifetime turn sour so quickly once Elul and the Days of Awe passed, and we soon found ourselves settling back into the same inadequacies and weaknesses that defeated us last year and the year before that? Who stole our bright, big, fancy new house, and replaced it with that old dreary apartment we thought we left behind? If the teshuva didn’t last, it must be it was deficient to begin with. What are we doing wrong?
Let us discuss for a moment that wily character we like to call the yetzer hara—often translated as the evil inclination or disposition. Others might call it the perverse side of human nature. Kids tend to see the yetzer hara as a foreigner—someone who whispers evil thoughts in our ears and attempts to lead us astray from Torah values and ehrlichkeit. As we get older, we realize that guy’s not whispering in our ears—he’s inside our brain! He’s in there making us thing thoughts we’d rather not.
Mekubalim explain that this transition, from external persuader to becoming part and parcel of our personalities, is what happened when Adam and Chava ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Eitz Ha-da’as). Until then the yetzer hara was symbolized by the snake, who did his best to distance Adam and Chava from Hashem (and succeeded). He’s not in you, he’s just there next to you pushing your hand and telling you, “There—that wasn’t so bad was it?” Once the fruit of knowledge entered us, the line between right and wrong, between good and evil, became blurred. Instead of asking ourselves, “Should I be listening to him?” the question became, “Who am I? What do I want?”
It’s important to know this historical tidbit. It helps us to understand that just because “I feel this way… I want it… It feels right…” doesn’t mean it is right. It might not even really be you, in a sense. We may be doing the yetzer hara’s bidding while all along thinking we were just “being ourselves.” We don’t stand a chance to overcome our perversity unless we understand its source. But even with this knowledge, how does one over come the inner enemy that knows all our secrets?
Parshas Ki Seitzei begins with going to war. When you (sing.) will go to war against your enemy—the singular expression hints that the Torah is referring not only to a communal war, but also to the personal war we wage with our own shortcomings. The Torah promises: You will overcome them, Hashem will place him in your hands.
One condition: You have to go to war. You can’t expect to win the battle lying on the couch. If you come ready to struggle, and determined to win, then Hashem will be there to help you against this otherwise undefeatable opponent we call human nature. But you must make the effort; only then can Hashem ensure you emerge victorious.
The Gemara (Sukkah 52b) says that, “Every day the yetzer hara increases his efforts, and if not for Hashem’s help, man could never overcome him.” Help implies we are doing our utmost, but the enemy’s just too strong. (Imrei Yosef)
Going back to the ma’akeh (fence), when we build our ‘new house,’ says the Ben Ish Chai, we must remember that unless we erect a strong restraining fence, we are liable to fall down. Past weaknesses don’t just disappear in the wake of Elul arousal and good intentions. The only way to produce a lasting teshuva is by recognizing and understanding our personal weaknesses, and taking proactive steps to prevent ourselves from falling back into the same behavioural pitfalls we thought we left behind. Erecting a ‘boundary’ means putting checks and balances in place that will keep us distant and removed from situations, people, and things we know have the potential to bring out the worst in us.
Perhaps this is why the Torah continues: And do not place [innocent] blood in your home—for the one who falls (ki yipol ha-nofel) will fall from it. Obviously if someone falls, he will be “the one who falls!” What is the meaning of this redundancy? In our context, he has fallen before, and he is prone to fall again—this is why spiritual boundaries are so critical. When we emerge, with Hashem’s help, victorious from our ‘war,’ the Torah says: You will take the prisoner captive. Again the redundant wording. In our context, the captive is the yetzer hara. He is already captive within us. We must imprison him and fence him in by putting up effective boundaries that appreciate the perils of sin and the ease with which we can fall right back, if appropriate steps are not taken. “Fool me once— shame on you. Fool me twice—shame on me.”
When building a new home, who wouldn’t take the time to make sure the plans are sound, the foundation is solid, and the materials are of the highest quality? One day we will be shown the homes we spent our lives building with Torah and mitzvos; they deserve no less care and attention. And don’t forget to put up a fence so you don’t fall down!