“When you shall go out to wage war against your enemy, and Hashem your G-d should give him into your hand…” [21:10]
Note how the action switches in the middle of the verse: when you go out, and HaShem gives you… Who goes out? You do. But who gives success? G-d.
Our Sages explain that the most important war in a person’s life is that against his own inclinations and desires. More precisely, a person is regarded as having two internal forces, good and bad inclinations. The task of a person is to battle his bad inclinations and follow the good, and thus become a more perfect and G-dly individual.
The K’sav Sofer, Rabbi Abraham Sofer [the Rabbi of Pressburg during the 1800’s], applies the above passage to this most important war, and in so doing explains the cryptic saying of Hillel in the Chapters of the Fathers [1:14], “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
In the Talmud, Masechta Sukkah 52b, Reish Lakish says that a person’s evil inclinations attempt to overpower him or her every day, and if HaShem would not help each person, it would be impossible to beat those inclinations back. If so, says the K’sav Sofer, one might believe that it is better not to fight, or to make any effort at all to bring his or her desires under control. Rather, he should trust that G-d will help him, and fight the great war on his behalf.
The truth is just the opposite. One who believes this, says the K’sav Sofer, will never control his or her desires. It is necessary for a person to constantly battle his desires to the full extent of his capabilities – and then Heaven will help. “One who comes to purify himself, [Heaven] helps him,” say our Sages. The person must begin to purify himself first.
This, according to the K’sav Sofer, is what Hillel said: “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” If a person does nothing on his own behalf, and does not stand up to fight his inclinations, then who is going to help him? “And if I am for myself, what am I?” Even after making the effort, what is it? Because alone it is insufficient – one cannot control his desires without further help, combined with his own efforts. “And if not now, when?” Let no one think that he can set aside the battle until he ages, and loses many of his desires for the pleasures of the physical world, and then return to HaShem, who will accept him with mercy. Our Sages have already said: happy is the one who fears HaShem while he still has physical strength, for then he will be able to completely return to G-d and abandon his misbehavior.
So the verse from our Parsha, this Torah reading, can be easily applied to this war: “When you go out to do battle against your enemy” – this is the evil inclination, and only if you go out to battle against him, then “Hashem your G-d should give him into your hand,” for “One who comes to purify himself, [Heaven] helps him.” This, concludes the K’sav Sofer, is easy to understand.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org.