by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"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 the interesting switch: 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 inclinations and bad. 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 every day, and if HaShem would not
help him, it would be impossible to beat them back. If so, says the K'sav
Sofer, a person might believe that it is better not to fight, or to make any
effort at all to bring his 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 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
So the verse from our Parsha 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]
This, concludes the K'sav Sofer, is easy to understand.
Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.