The War Against The Evil Inclination
On the verse, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the L-RD your G-d will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity” (Deuteronomy 21:10), the commentators have stated that this refers to the war against the evil inclination, which is the most difficult of all wars. Let us explain this point. When going out to war against an enemy, every warrior should be sinless before the Holy One, blessed be He. This is why the High Priest proclaims, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house” (ibid, 20:8), and the Sages have said, “This is the one who fears the sins that he has committed” (Sotah 44a). It follows that only the righteous went off to war and were victorious, for only a person who knows how to conquer his instincts can be victorious over every kind of enemy (Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 70:133a). Also, we know that our enemies draw their strength from the weakness of our Judaism, yet if we know how to dominate our instincts, we will conquer our enemies at the same time.
There is nothing easy about the war against the evil inclination, for it has 70 guises that it uses to entice us, which is why even honest people can fall under its sway. One day someone came to see me in Lyon. He was wearing a shirt that really wasn’t appropriate, along with a black leather coat and a metal belt. He had the makings of a thug and seemed to have emerged from the underworld. All of sudden, to my great surprise, here it was that I asked him if we had not studied together in the same yeshiva in England! I was frightened when I realized that his face seemed familiar, but it was difficult to believe that it could be him, for the person who had studied with me was very diligent in study. More than that, I had covered my first Talmud tractate with him! He then confirmed that it was really him, that he had strayed to the point of reaching rock bottom, and all because of the seductions of the evil inclination. It had pushed him, day after day, hour after hour, a little bit each time, until he finally arrived at where he was now. How dangerous can our desires be!
This is why we must understand that the evil inclination rears its head precisely when we perform a mitzvah, and we must fight it until we have finished performing that mitzvah. We could perform half a mitzvah, imagining that we have accomplished it in its entirety and have done enough, but then the evil inclination grows stronger. This is what the verse is saying: “When you go out to war against your enemies” – you must go out to war against him in deeds, in words, and in thought, with all your capabilities. It is then that you will be certain to have accomplished everything required of you, and if you gather all your strength in these areas, with G-d’s help you can conquer your instincts.
Therein lies the connection between our parsha and Parsha Shoftim, where it is stated: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities” (Deuteronomy 16:18). It is difficult to understand why judges are mentioned before officers, since it is the latter who bring order to a city, and a person is only brought before a judge if he does not listen to an officer beforehand. The officer therefore comes before the judge, and the text should have first mentioned officers before judges. Are judges the ones who are responsible for order, judges who only come at the end? Yet it is written, “in all your sha’arecha [literally ‘your gates’],” meaning that we must place judges in every one of the gates, or openings, of the body (such as the mouth, ears, nose, eyes, etc.). This means that we should judge ourselves; we must survey, observe, and decide what must be done and what must not be done, what to say and what not to say, what to look at and what not to look at. We also need to avoid listening to gossip. We therefore first need to establish judges, and only then send officers to assure ourselves that everything is in fact being carried out as ordered, this so as to perform positive mitzvot and observe negative mitzvot.
The Sages recount the story of Elazar ben Arach (Shabbat 147b), who went to rest and drink the wines of Perogaisa and the waters of Diomisis, to where he was drawn, following which he forgot his study to the point of reading Hacheireish hayah libam (“Their hearts were deafened”) instead of Hachodesh hazeh lachem (“This month shall be for you” – Exodus 12:2). And this occurred to a great Tanna, who continued in this way until the Sages asked for mercy on his behalf and he once again began to study! From here we see the considerable power that the evil inclination has on even great Tzaddikim. We must conquer it, particularly by performing mitzvot, and by carrying them out to perfection.