When You Go Out to War – Man and the Fight Against the Evil Inclination

It is written, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem your G-d will deliver him into your hand and you take captives…” (Devarim 21:10).

The commentators, such as the Alsheich Zatzal in his book Torat Moshe, have already explained this passage as referring to a Jew’s war against his constant and eternal enemy, the evil inclination. In this week’s parsha, we are given a great deal of advice on how to fight and defeat it, a subject that I will explain by following the order of the verses.

The words, “Hashem your G-d will deliver him into your hand” relate to what the Sages have said: “Man’s evil inclination gathers strength against him each day and seeks to kill him…and were the Holy One, blessed be He, not to help him, he would be unable to prevail against it” (Kiddushin 30b). This means that with his own minor strength, man cannot defeat the evil inclination. On the other hand, he has the duty to start fighting it, in which case the Holy One, blessed be He, will help him to defeat it, as the Sages have said: “If one comes to purify himself, he is helped” (Yoma 38b). At that point the Holy One, blessed be He, will certainly deliver it into his hand.

In general, we know that whoever goes to war will try to uncover the details and secrets of his enemy’s forces, doing so in order to determine how he can defeat his enemy, such as by using a sophisticated weapon for example. The same applies to man’s fight against the evil inclination, which possesses considerable strength and employs all the tricks of warfare. He must therefore attack it using the most sophisticated weapon possible, namely the Torah, as the Sages have said: “I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote” (Kiddushin 30b). It is the Torah which can defeat the evil inclination and make it fall.

This idea is alluded to in the expression, “When you go out to war,” for the term milchama (“war”) can be divided into lechem ma. This designates the Torah, which is called lechem (“bread” – Yalkut Shimoni), as it is written: “Come, eat of my bread” (Mishlei 9:5). As for the term ma, it has the same numerical value as adam (“man”). As we have said, this means that when a person decides to fight his evil inclination, he will only be able to defeat it through Torah. In such a case, it will dissolve if made of stone, and it will shatter if made of iron (Kiddushin 30b).

In this regard, we must add that there exists another way to defeat the evil inclination, a segula to conquer and prevent it from bringing man down to the abyss. This consists of guarding the sanctity of the milah. Sanctity must be absolute in this area, in which case we will be able to conquer the evil inclination. This is also alluded to in the expression ki tetzei la’milchama, which is formed by the letters of lechem milah, meaning that when a man guards his milah as he should, and he strengthens himself in lechem (i.e., Torah), he will defeat the evil inclination.

In that case, he will fulfill the next part of the verse: “and you take captives.” This means that all the drops of semen which he emitted in vain, and which were held captive by the forces of impurity, will also be saved and purified. This occurs when a person controls his evil inclination, as it is written: “He devoured wealth, but will disgorge it” (Job 20:15), and they will return to their source.

As we know, “He devoured wealth, but will disgorge it” represents the initials of one of Hashem’s sacred Names. This is the Name that we focus on when immersing ourselves in a mikveh, doing so in order to retrieve the sparks of holiness that we have damaged, and to no longer lose them. This is the meaning of “and you take prisoners.” By dividing the term shivyo (“prisoners”), we get shav and the letters yud vav. These letters are part of the sacred Name in question, one by which a person retrieves all that was taken from him by the evil inclination, all the sparks of holiness that were lost.

The passage continues: “And you see among the captives a woman of beautiful appearance” (Devarim 21:11). In other words, once you defeat the evil inclination, you will perceive the sweetness of the Torah, which enabled you to fight the evil inclination. How so? By the brilliance of its glory and by its secrets. It will be beautiful to you, making you desire it even more, as it is written: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its pathways are peace” (Mishlei 3:17). This is also alluded to in the term to’ar (“appearance”), the numerical value of which (when adding its four letters to the total) is equal to that of Torah.

At that point, “you will have a desire for her” (Devarim 21:11), meaning that your desire for Torah will make you cleave to it, and you will truly acquire it in your soul as if it were your wife. As the Sages have said on the verse, “Moshe commanded us a Torah, a heritage [morasha] of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4): “Do not read morasha [heritage], but me’orasa [betrothed]” (Sifre ad loc.). They also compare a good wife to the Torah (see Yebamot 63b). This is “you will take her to yourself for a wife” (Devarim 21:11).

We then come to the following idea: “You shall bring her into the midst of your house” (v.12), meaning that the Torah must truly be within you, as it is written: “Your Torah is in my innards” (Tehillim 40:9). In that case, you will have completely acquired and internalized it, and it will never leave you.

You will then fulfill: “She shall shave her head” (Devarim 21:12) – the shaving of the head being an allusion to the fact that everything which hinders and prevents you from learning Torah will be “shaved” and removed. You will be able to study Torah with even greater strength, all evil will disappear, and only good fruit will remain.

The verse continues: “and [she shall] make her nails” (ibid.), which means that she will let them grow. The Holy One, blessed be He, “made for Adam and his wife garments of skin [ohr: ayin-vav-resh]” (Bereshith 3:21). This signifies the exclusive development of good things for man, especially since the Sages tell us that in the Torah of Rabbi Meir it is written: “garments of light [ohr: aleph-vav-resh]” (Bereshith Rabba 20:12). This is the light of the Torah, as the Sages have said: “Light means the Torah, as it says. ‘For a mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light’ [Mishlei 6:23]” (Megillah 16b). It is to man’s greatness to “let his nails grow,” for the nail is smooth and shiny, an allusion to the light of Torah.

This fully corresponds to what we have said. It consists of growing and donning them [i.e., words of Torah] like a garment, for the Torah itself wears garments of glory and honor. The honor of the Torah will also grow in our eyes, for this is what the Torah “makes.” All this happens the more that we put an effort into learning. In that case, the reward comes next:

“She shall remove the garment of her captivity” (Devarim 21:13) – the Holy One, blessed be He, will remove all the kelipot of the Satan, which surrounds us and lies in wait, as it is written: “My heart is wounded within me” (Tehillim 109:22). As the Sages have said (Yerushalmi, Berachot 9:5), this teaches that David killed the evil inclination in such a way that it could no longer tempt or wrong him. As a result, we attain a true connection to G-d by our study of Torah, without any self-interest coming into play. We will be purified by one cleansing after another, and its sanctity will make us so holy that we will never again become prisoners of the evil inclination. Instead, we will remain the “prisoners” of the Torah.

In fact we will reach a point at which we “shall go to her and be her husband” (Devarim 21:13). We will be completely connected to Torah, and we will find new explanations in it, as the Sages have said: “Happy is he who comes here in full possession of his learning” (Bava Batra 10b). This refers to new Torah explanations, and it represents fertility in Torah. It signifies that we feel like a part of the Torah itself, truly as if it was our wife – that it is part of us – part of our very essence.

It is not by chance that Parsha Ki-Teitzei is read every year precisely during the month of Elul, the parsha which conceals the best instructions for the days of judgment. These instructions remain concealed, awaiting anyone who reflects upon the best way to fight the extremely difficult battle against the evil inclination and its legions. It is a battle for life, for the mission that we must fulfill on earth, and for our existence in this world and the World to Come.


The Virtue of Performing Mitzvot in Joy
Book ofDevarim Index
Living with Constant Joy


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