The Enemy Within
Translated and Adapted by Rafaella Levine
If Torah is supposed to apply to us in this day and age, the focus of this week’s parsha needs some explaining. The opening verse is “When you will go out to war against your enemies.” Unfortunately, war and violence are not yet obsolete. But personally, I don’t consider myself as having enemies, and if I did I would not run out with a sword and shield. I’d probably give them the silent treatment.
Psalms is also full of references to war and enemies; much of King David’s life was spent fleeing from adversaries, personal and military, and expanding ancient Israel’s borders. And the special, symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana are good omens for, well, eradicating our enemies.
In a historical sense, this preoccupation with enemies makes sense. But does it have any place in our democratic, non-violent society?
Perhaps especially there. We just have to read a little more deeply.
Because on second thought, I do have enemies. Quite a number of them in fact. I won’t go into all of them; they’re personal. But despite their personal quality, my enemies are ultimately so universal, that I’m confident I share many of them with you. I’m referring to the human drive to destructive behavior of all kinds. Often it’s subtle: we don’t think of going to “war” against our lazy urges, our bad habits, or our negative thoughts. But we all struggle with it. And if, for a few moments, you agree to consider the battlefield analogy, despite your Western sensibilities, perhaps some Torah insights can accompany you back on the warpath.
Does the analogy ring true to you? Perhaps in some areas of your life, but not in most?
It has been said that when we don’t realize that we are involved in this constant battle with various destructive instincts, it is a sign that we have lost that battle. And assuredly, growing cognizant of the fact that you are (or should be) struggling with yourself – that there is no real growth without strength and will power – exponentially ups your chances of winning.
The first rule connected to waging this war is the most basic rule in all battles. Do not give in to fear. The Torah instructs its soldiers, “when you will go out to battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot – a people more numerous than you – you shall not fear them” (Deuteronomy 20:1).
The Torah does not intend that a person should be full of unwarranted self confidence; the verse does not encourage haughtiness. Overcoming our fears should be the result of complete reliance on the all-powerful Creator. The knowledge that the Almighty is present among our forces is the source of our confidence, and gives us hope and courage in the face of our internal enemies.
Where do we need courage and bravery in our “war”? Are we afraid of ourselves as one would fear an armed battalion?
When I fall into a destructive pattern, when no matter what I do, the behavior keeps reappearing, yes, I fear myself. I think I’ll never overcome this particular struggle; I feel like giving up. That is what the Torah is warning me against: “when you are trying to improve, and you try and try, and you think you’ve made headway, and then something happens and you realize you’ve been thrown back to square one, do not fear yourself. Do not fear that the negative trait is more powerful than you are.”
Because ultimately, we have made progress even though we had a regression today. Spiritual work never goes down the drain.
There is yet another piece of advice concerning this battle (with negativity, laziness, overeating, you name it). Much wisdom is necessary in overcoming any enemy. A successful strategy is at least as important as the quality of firepower.
King Shlomo (Solomon), the wisest of men, declares in Mishlei, "For with wise advice you shall make your war” (Proverbs 24:6). Without a well thought out plan, a battle will end in defeat: "Where there is no wise direction, a nation falls" (Proverbs 11:14).
We can’t just keep on with our routines, and hope it will go away. If we’re struggling with something – a character trait, an instinctual response, a fear, a habit – we need a plan. Usually, the thing we’re trying to uproot is deeply embedded into our emotional response system: we can’t just spray it off with one dose of Windex. It needs something more like St. Moritz oven cleaner, steel wool, and elbow grease. A lot of elbow grease.
In a spiritual war, a lot of thought is required in order to be successful. There is no simple recipe, and it is worth investing a bit of forethought into developing a plan, or coming up with a strategy that will allow us to achieve our goals.
Reading and research can come into play here, if we aren’t really sure how to go about improving our, say, relationship with our mother. We can reach out for help as we turn inward to instill the solution.
In this war, as in other areas, there is the famous principle: “I have gained wisdom from my enemies.” There is much to be learned from our enemies.
One of the primary principles that can be learned from our spiritual enemy is that we should not be dismissive of small details. A good part of our struggle, if, again, we are aware that it is indeed a struggle, takes place among the details. Perhaps they seem relatively insignificant to us and we are therefore accustomed to giving in on the little things.
The legendary Serpent in the Garden of Eden, who represents the human base drives, sometimes known as the “evil inclination,” is described as biting man’s heel (Genesis 3:15). He is known to attack the heel, which represents those sins that do not seem important to us, the things that are trodden with the heel. But the Serpent does not consider these areas to be insignificant, because he knows that a bite there will affect the entire body. The little things do make a difference. Human relationships are constructed from all the “little things.” And from this, too, our personal integrity, and our relationship with the Almighty. (see Parshas Ekev, “Minor Mitzvoth”)
Where our analogy falls short, is that while two armies can last only a limited amount of time on the battlefield, the battle within ourselves will last as long as we live. A defeated enemy will not often return for a second round, and in the event that a fight does flare up again, the enemy can eventually be vanquished for good. But in our inner struggle, even when we fight courageously and come out on top, the war is never over. We can work through layer upon layer of negative behaviors, responses, and thoughts, as though there is an Emperor of Negativity, sending out wave after wave of soldiers.
It is not the same battle, however. Each time I display heroic swordsmanship and best my enemy, I gain strength (like a soldier who gathers medals and rises from rank to rank). Then my battle today is deeper than that of yesterday. It’s the next level. Perhaps I am now dealing with more subtle issues, or perhaps I’m closer to reaching the psychological core of a problem. Each struggle that we push through draws us closer to our selves, to our most optimum way of being. And as such, it refines our quiet connection to our Creator.