The Torah speaks of making war upon one’s enemy. Who is this enemy? The simple explanation is that it is a physical or national enemy that wishes to harm the Jewish people or the commonwealth of Israel. To defend oneself from such an enemy, there are circumstances that dictate a type of preventive war that avoids later defeat or catastrophe. This is certainly the simple and literal interpretation of the verse and subject of the Torah reading this week.
There is a rabbinic tradition, running through the works of many of the commentators over the centuries, regarding another layer of meaning to this verse. The enemy described is not so much a physical or national enemy as it is a spiritual or societal foe. In the immortal words of the famed comic strip character Pogo “we have met the enemy and they are us.”
We are all aware that many times in life we are our own worst enemy. We engage in harmful practices and commit acts that we know to be detrimental and self-destructive. Yet, we are driven by our desires, and we often allow ourselves to be trapped into a situation that can only lead to disappointment. The Torah as is its wont to do, vividly describes the struggle that we have with ourselves for self-improvement and personal accomplishment. It describes this struggle as a war, a battle against the ferocious and aggressive enemy who must be combatted.
This idea, that our struggle in life is to be viewed as an inner battle in the war of life, is meant to impress upon us to develop within ourselves as wholesome personalities. At one and at the same time, we are bidden to deal with eternity and heavenly ideals, and simultaneously, we are occupied with the mundane fact of everyday living.
Caught in this contradiction of circumstances, we are oftentimes prone to succumb to our daily problems and issues, completely ignoring the larger spiritual picture that is present. It is at such moments of self-absorption that temptation translates itself into reality, and we create situations that ultimately prove to be enormously harmful to our well-being.
Great generals oftentimes engage in a tactical retreat, to achieve a strategic victory. War is always a long-term situation, filled with temporary reversals and plans that remain unfulfilled or even abandoned. But the overarching reality is that basic strategy requires tenacity, courage, flexibility, and a stubborn refusal to succumb to the societal, political, and worldly pressures that beset all of us. It is interesting that despite all our pleas and prayers for peace, war is a constant in human history. It may take on different forms, cold, economic, or military, but it is ever present within our world. By reminding us of this fact, the Torah prepares us for victory in the struggles of life.
Rabbi Berel Wein