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Home » Shoftim

Shoftim: A True Enemy

Submitted by on August 31, 2019 – 11:05 pmNo Comment | 1,529 views

A true enemy attacks you because he wants to destroy you. You did nothing wrong, you didn’t offend him, molest him, or steal from him, yet, he attacks because your existence bothers him.

The Torah tells us that when the enemy attacks, we must not fear him even if he appears to be mightier than us. We must place our trust in G-d, who extracted us from Egypt.[1]

Who is the true enemy? Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa famously said that the Torah speaks of two enemies.[2] The physical enemy who attacks our homes, lobs rockets over our borders, sends terrorists into our midst and appears to be indefatigable. Says the Torah, don’t fear the enemy; G-d will not only protect you but will also grant you victory. The second enemy is within; it is our inner inclination to sinfulness.

Not Me
Suppose a poor man comes down the street and you give him a hundred dollars. You walk away feeling proud of yourself and suddenly wonder if you did the right thing. Your mitzvah led you to pride, should you perhaps have given less money and remained humble? The answer is no. You did the Mitzvah, your enemy introduced thoughts of pride.

This enemy is resourceful, creative, and sinister precisely because he works from within. He disguises himself and makes you think that it is really you. That makes him a fearful enemy. You might easily fall into the trap of despair. I am useless, you might think. Every time I try to do something nice, my mind and heart turn to something wrong. If I pray with sincerity, I feel boastful. If my study partner thinks of a brilliant idea, I’m filled with jealousy. If I see a friend in Shul on Yom Kippur, I am tempted to gossip.

The agonizing question is, am I capable of authentic goodness? Can I do even one thing sincerely without descending to shameful inclinations?

The first and most important message of this Torah passage is that your inclination to sinfulness is not you. It is an enemy. It infiltrates your consciousness and psyche, and speaks to you from within your mind, but it is not you. You are doing a mitzvah while your enemy, a foreign intruder, who has no control over you, lobs grenades at you by raising sinful impulses at the most inappropriate times. Secondly, the Torah reminds us not to fear the enemy. It is true that the enemy has access to your heart and mind, but you can overpower it. The G-d who extracted us from Egypt will help us control our impulses.

In Egypt, the Jewish people rubbed shoulders with pagans and learned from them. By the time the Jews left Egypt, most Jews had abandoned the teachings of the Patriarchs and were worshipping pagan gods. In other words, the Egyptian enemy had successfully infiltrated the minds and hearts of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, G-d extracted our ancestors from Egypt. If G-d extracted those who were fully infiltrated by the Egyptian enemy, He can and will extract those who are merely threatened by the inner enemy. The key is twofold: (a) don’t fear the enemy and (b) trust that G-d will extract you.

You Initiate
However, we can’t just sit back and do nothing—expecting G-d to come along like a knight in shining armor to extract us. The Torah tells us that if a fellow’s donkey is struggling under its load, we must help our fellow right the load. But this is only mandatory if our fellow works alongside us. If he sits back and tells us to right his load for him, we are not required to help.[3]

The same applies to G-d and us. G-d only helps those who help themselves. If we sit back and succumb to each negative impulse waiting for G-d to protect us, we will wait in vain. In Egypt, Jews were bare of Mitzvos. G-d gave them two Mitzvos, the Mitzvah of circumcision and the Mitzvah of the Paschal Lamb. The deal was that if, and only if, they would perform these Mitzvos, G-d would extract them from Egypt.

The message is that G-d is willing to help us, but only if we are willing to make the effort. If we sit back and allow our inner inclinations to run roughshod over us, G-d will not help. The G-d who extracted us from Egypt will save us from this enemy on the same terms that he offered in Egypt; if we help ourselves. However, once we take responsibility for ourselves and initiate the effort, G-d will come to our aid. And with G-d’s support, we are able to control our inclinations.

The Scholar
As a newlywed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv spent the festival of Simchat Torah at the home of his father in law. His in-laws were proud to introduce their illustrious son in law to the community and on the eve of Simchat Torah, Reb Levi Yitzchak was invited to lead the congregation. He approached the podium and reached for the Talit, the prayer shawl, but quickly set it aside. He reached for it again and set it aside again. This repeated itself several times.

The people began to stir impatiently and implored his father in law to tell him to begin the service. As his father in law approached, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak cried out, “if you are such a scholar, if you are such a Chasid, then you can lead the service.” His father in law was enraged but said nothing. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak stepped down and his father in law led the service.

When they arrived home after the service, the father in law asked Rabbi Levi Yitzchak why he had debased himself and the family in public? Rabbi Levi Yitchak explained:

When I approached the podium to begin the service, I noticed that my sinful inclination had stepped up to the podium with me. I withdrew my hand from the Talit and asked him what he was doing there at such a sacred time? He countered with, what are you doing here?

I reached again for the Talit and replied that I am a Torah scholar and ought to be up here. He retorted; I too am a Torah scholar. I challenged him, and where did you study Torah? He countered with, where did you study Torah? I replied that I studied Torah from the leading sages of our time. He replied that he was there right beside me and studied alongside me, so I withdrew from the Talit.

I then argued that I am a Chasid and once again reached for the Talit, but he retorted that he too is a chasid. I challenged him, where did you study Chassidut? He countered with, where did you study Chassidut. I answered that I studied Chassidut from the great Magid of Mezritch. He replied that he was right there beside me and became a Chasid with me in Mezritch. At this point, I called out, if you are such a scholar, and you are such a Chasid, then you lead the service, and I stepped down.

This story is instructive on many levels. Firstly, pride can accompany us even on the holiest occasions. We can be a Torah scholar and a Chasid, and still be vulnerable to our inner enemy. We can stand prepared to lead the congregation at the holiest occasion, and still be vulnerable to this inner enemy. Second, the pride is not us; it is a foreigner who has infiltrated us. Thirdly, we don’t need to give in to the enemy; we are stronger than the enemy. We have G-d’s support. We can, and therefore should, overcome the enemy.


[1] Deuteronomy 20:1.

[2] Imrei Harim ad loc.

[3] Exodus 23:5.

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