Tora Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tetze 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Believe in Yourself and Take the Initiative!
Parashat Ki Tetze begins with some laws regarding war. The first verse of the parasha says, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands…” (Deuteronomy 21:10).
This first part of the verse demands an explanation. From the verse it would seem to be understood that whenever Israel goes out in battle, God automatically delivers Israel’s enemies into their hands. Of course, that is not a fact, since we know from the Hebrew Bible itself that several times Israel was in trouble in different battles and wars. Why does the Torah speak this way then?
The best answer to this question is that this is a well-known literary way for the Torah to state a conditional. We should read the verse as saying, “if you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, delivers them into your hands, then…”. This is most probably the literal meaning of the verse.
However, our sages are always ready to learn great lessons from the Torah, even from its literary style! The basic premise is, nothing is written in the Torah without a purpose, every letter was written in it to teach us something. Therefore, let’s see what we can learn from the fact that the Torah spoke this way about Israel going out to war.
Already old midrashim paid attention to this Torah language. Many of them tried to explain that the Torah wanted to teach us a lesson about self-confidence. When you go out to war, you need to really believe God will deliver your enemies into your hand. In other words, when you go out to war you’d better believe you are going to win that war. Why? Because if you think you are going to lose, there is no doubt you are indeed going to lose!
The classic midrashim also noticed that the Torah speaks here in singular (in Hebrew there are two different words for the English word “you”—one referring to the singular and one to the plural). Why is this? Because no war is won unless there is unity among the people.
Finally, the sages believed that the Torah was not only referring to military wars, but also to spiritual wars, those battles we need to fight against our internal enemy, which is the yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil.
The great Hassidic rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (Poland, 1787–1859), explained that our verse is written this way in order to teach us that the key for success in our wars is in our initiative and in believing in our possibilities of victory. He especially focused on the spiritual wars we need to undertake. He wrote that, in the battle against the inclination to do evil, we must go out to war, we must keep the war on the enemy’s side, not on our side.
This is a particularly appropriate message for this period of time we are living right now, in preparation for the High Holidays. In order to truly repent and be forgiven, in order to start a new year with renewed energies and strengths, we need to overcome our internal enemies. In order to fulfill the resolutions that each new year brings, we need to fight our internal enemies. For example, if we want to be more generous, we will need to fight against our desire to accumulate more wealth. If we want to avoid getting angry with people easily, we will have to fight our natural arrogance and our impatience. If we want to become healthier, we will need to fight against our inclination for unhealthy food and our sedentarism.
In a certain sense, the process of preparing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be compared to a preparation for a battle, a spiritual battle. We need to train ourselves and gather our best internal resources. And, as the first verse from this week’s parasha teaches, us, we need to believe in ourselves and take the initiative. If we follow these tips, our chances of succeeding increase greatly!