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When you will go out to war against your enemies... (Deut. 21:10)
This week's portion begins with various laws concerning warfare. Our sages tell us that the opening verse is hinting at going out to war against our most fearsome enemy - the evil inclination. As the Chovos Halevavos writes:
Your greatest enemy in the world is your evil inclination. He gives you (bad) advice every step of the way. While you sleep he is awake, plotting against you. He appears to you as a friend, and he becomes one of your most trusted advisors... His greatest weapons against you are confusion and false arguments, which make you forget your true interests and doubt your confirmed goals and beliefs... (Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh).
The evil inclination always has something up his sleeve and never gives up. The Rebbe from Peshische said that a person should imagine the evil inclination as one who is standing over his head with an axe, waiting for the perfect moment to chop off his head.
Rabban Gamliel was once traveling in a boat when he saw that another boat was sinking. He noticed that Rabbi Akiva was one of the passengers on board. Mourning over the great loss, he got to shore and walked into a nearby shul. He was shocked to see that the one giving the lecture was none other than Rabbi Akiva! Astonished, he cried out, "Akiva, how did you get here? I saw you drowning!" Rabbi Akiva replied, "As I was drowning a wooden plank from the boat was floating right by me. I quickly stuck out my hand and grabbed on to it. It kept me above water. As each wave came, I put my head under the water until it passed, and then I kept on going." (1)
The Maharal explains that the waves were an allusion to the evil inclination. Rabban Gamliel saw that Rabbi Akiva was getting swept away by the evil inclination and was drowning in the sea of life. Rabbi Akiva replied that he grabbed on to the wooden plank - he grabbed on to the Torah which is referred to as the tree of life, and that saved him from drowning!
The only sure way to beat the evil inclination is by studying Torah. As the Talmud states: God created the evil inclination and created the Torah as its antidote.(2)
1. Yevamos 121a.
2. Kedushin 30b.