> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

Two Kinds of War

Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's portion begins (Deut. 21:10) with a description of how we must treat prisoners of war. The Midrash (Sifri) explains that this protocol refers to an optional war rather than a mandatory one. Rashi clarifies this statement by saying that, in a mandatory war, we are commanded to annihilate the enemy (Deut. 20:16) - meaning that there are no captives at all! Therefore, if the opening verses of our parsha describe the treatment of captives, we can infer that the Torah is discussing an optional war, not a mandatory one.

The Slonimer Rebbe (in Netivot Shalom) suggests that these two types of wars - mandatory and optional - symbolically represent the two types of war that each one of us wages against our yetzer hara (inclination toward negativity). A mandatory war symbolizes a spiritual battle where the yetzer hara tries to convince us to transgress outright Torah prohibitions. An optional war, on the other hand, symbolizes a spiritual battle where the yetzer hara tries to convince us to overindulge in areas that are technically permitted.

The Torah hints to this area of confrontation in the verse that charges us to be holy people (Leviticus 19:2). What does it mean to be a holy Jew? Nachmanides explains that we are not supposed to use the Torah's approval as an excuse for gluttonous or vulgar behavior. For example, we should not overindulge in food and drink, even if the products are kosher and we recited the proper blessing before partaking of them. Overindulging in permitted areas causes us to lose focus on the true goals in life, and eventually could even lead us to transgress outright prohibitions.

In order to prevent ourselves from transgressing in prohibited areas, we must implement an approach in serving God that the Kabbalah calls "itkafya." This means forcing ourselves to take action when action is called for, and forcing ourselves to refrain when passivity is necessary.

In other areas, we must implement a different approach in serving God. The Kabbalah calls this approach "ithafcha," which means transforming the inclination toward negativity (yetzer hara) into an inclination toward positivity (yetzer tov). When we learn how to transform destructive energy into positive energy, we can channel all the materialism of this world toward constructive, purposeful, meaningful goals.

We find a proof to this idea in the verse, "Love God with all your hearts" (Deut. 6:5). It seems strange that the word "hearts" is in the plural. Doesn't a person have only one heart? According to the Talmud (Brachot 54a), we learn from here that we must serve God not only with our yetzer tov, but even with our yetzer hara. By using the physical world responsibly, we can use every moment of life in a positive way and elevate all mundane matters into meaningful experiences.

May we grow to be the highest-ranking soldiers and win the war on both fronts, so that we can infuse every moment of our lives with positive purpose.

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