Shoftim: The Hardest Struggle

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Shoftim 
 
When you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord, your God is with you Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/ D’varim 20:1)
 
We’re back after a summer of. . well, not really so much vacation but diversion to other projects, which took longer than I expected. I think we’ll have a weekly commentary throughout the Days of Awe and as always I thank you for joining me in Torah study. 
 
This week’s portion, Shoftiim, means “judges” and has many laws pertaining to the judiciary, the king, and legal procedures.The end of the portion deals with the laws of warfare and the conduct of the military, but one commentator, known as Or HaChaim, uses an unusual vowel to take the discussion in a very different direction. D’varim 20 begins with the practice of excusing certain classes of soldiers from the battle, but the Or HaChaim notices that the Hebrew of our verse above suggests a definite article: lamilchama can be read as “to the war,” which suggests to him that the Torah is talking about something specific and immediate and important. 
 
According to the Or HaChaim, going out to “the war” means a battle not against any internal enemy but an internal struggle with the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is often called the “evil urge” but really means the egocentric or self-centered inclination present in every human being. Especially as we prepare for the Days of Awe, we remember that the greatest struggle is internal, to become the people we aspire to be, exemplars of holy compassion and forgiveness and generosity. 
 
This extraordinary reading of “the war” is connected to the end of the verse, which exhorts the Israelites not to be afraid, because the Holy One who took them out of Egypt is with them. Read in its simple meaning, the verse suggests divine intervention in military affairs, but read in reference to the internal struggle, the Torah reminds us that we need not be afraid of imprisonment within ourselves. The Holy One freed us from the place of bondage, and that means we can boldly confront our inner Pharaohs: fear, negativity, shame, addiction, resentment and despair. The yetzer hara uses these emotions and more to keep us stuck and shrinking from bringing light into the world, but spiritual growth is all about changing ourselves to change the world. When you go out to war- you aren’t going out at all. You’re going in, to the deepest place of soul-accounting, and raising yourself up as a mighty deed. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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