At War with Ourselves
The portion we will analyze this week is named Ki Tetze, meaning “if you go to war.” In this portion, we are told — through the example of the Israelites — that if we go to war, God will strengthen us and thus ensure that we are able to defeat our enemies. Moses also states in this portion that, during this war, we may capture a woman to be our wife. Specific instructions are given that before the wedding she should cut her nails and her hair. How on earth can we learn from this strange passage and apply it to our own lives, then?
It’s understandable to feel confused. After all, the portion seems to advocate for violent action, going as far as to detail which rituals a captured woman should go through before her wedding. At first reading, then, the lessons sound at best irrelevant to our lives and at worst completely unacceptable to our morals. A literal interpretation would lead us to believe that God is somehow promoting violence and the abusive treatment of women. Of course, then, this is not how we should interpret it. That would be missing the point.
As we have seen in horrific cases around the world and throughout history, it can be very dangerous when religious parables are taken literally; often they require a deeper analysis to unveil their true meaning. In this case, the war that is being promoted is not to be fought against any kind of external enemy at all. Instead, our battle is with “oyvecha,” the enemy within ourselves, and that represents our addictions, our selfish desires, and our moral weaknesses. Far from promoting violence, then, this portion guides us to examine what we are doing wrong in our lives and fight to overcome it.
It’s true that if we go to war with oyvecha, God will strengthen us to win. It’s also true that when we do, we must remember the help we have received and feel grateful, because it is the Divine who has empowered us to overcome our inner demons. From this, we learn that when we decide to do good and commit to making a positive change, we will be seen by God and we will feel the support of the Divine. Then, there is no violent war to be waged, only a daily struggle that we must engage in against our own worst impulses.
Don’t worry — if there is no war to be fought, there is no woman to be captured either. According to Rabbi Isaac Luria, the woman mentioned in this portion is actually a metaphor representing the soul. This makes sense since the soul in Hebrew is called Neshema, and it’s coded as female. Further support for this reading comes from the fact that the hair and nails explicitly referred to in Moses’ speech are also the two immortal parts of the physical body. From this, when you overcome oyvecha, what you actually capture and connect with is your own immortal soul.
At the end of this portion, the nation of Amalek is discussed. Amalek has the same numeric value — 240 — as the word safek, which means doubt. This emphasizes the fact that this battle is internal, because we can see that every problem we encounter in our daily lives has fear and doubt at its heart. In fact, real wars are started on the basis of fear and doubt too! And right now, of course, we are living in a time where these feelings are heightened thanks to the very real worries we have about our health, our economy, and our relationships in this moment of pandemic. We must not surrender control to these feelings.
It’s our responsibility to improve ourselves. Although the prospect of overcoming oyvecha may be intimidating, wrestling with the ways in which fear and doubt manifest in our behavior is crucial to our spiritual growth. As we are closing in on the New Year and coming closer to Rosh Hashanah, each of us should take this opportunity to identify our inner enemy and take the first steps toward overcoming it. The moment we do, we will feel God’s support in our resolve: if we go to war, the Divine will bring us strength.