The theme of war is everywhere at this time of year.
Twice each day, we recite the chapter of Tehillim referred to as “L’Dovid,” in which we proclaim that we feel no fear from enemies and traps that abound. Im tokum olay milchomah, even if there is a war threatening to engulf me, bezos ani votei’ach, our faith in Hashem remains rock solid.
This week’s parshah, Ki Seitzei, describes going to war against our enemies. Battle has been part and parcel of life since the days of Kayin and Hevel, and it will remain that way until we arrive at the tikkun hasholeim with Moshiach’s redemption. However, when it comes to actually fighting, we are squeamish. Nobody wants to raise hackles being the one to confront evil.
It is uncomfortable to face the concept of war, to see ourselves as warriors. Everyone wants to be able to get along, even if that means not being honest with themselves and playing along with social convention. Under the guise of peace, lies are permitted to fester and gain credibility, abusers aren’t confronted, ruptures aren’t repaired, and huge vacuums are created and filled by unworthy people.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Among other things, I asked for a brochah for shalom. I was feeling overwhelmed after a campaign waged by this newspaper, which had been a lone voice for truth, and the prospect of harmony seemed attractive.
Rav Chaim raised his eyes and looked at me. “Who says that’s a brochah? Ah mohl, sometimes, one has to wage wars. Milchomah lesheim Shomayim is a mitzvah.”
The Sar HaTorah perceives and appreciates that every tool a Jew has in his arsenal has a use and a function. Eis milchomah ve’eis shalom.
The theme of milchomah in this week’s parshah continues from the end of last week’s parshah. After the pesukim detailing Klal Yisroel’s foray into battle, there is a brief interlude to discuss the halachos of eglah arufah, when a body is found outside a town and the assailant is unknown. The last posuk of Parshas Shoftim (21:9) states, “Ve’atoh teva’eir dom noki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem – And you shall remove innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is upright in Hashem’s eyes.”
Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Kesubos (37b) which states that the posuk teaches us that if the murderer is found following the eglah arufah ceremony, he is put to death.
This, explains the Baal Haturim, is essentially an introduction to Parshas Ki Seitzei, because before we go to war to make the world a better and safer place, we have to ensure that the murderers in our midst are removed. If our own evil-doers are dealt with, our nation will emerge victorious in battle.
In order to win battles, we must be firm, honest and righteous. If there is a murderer among us, we do not cover for him and we don’t say that we have mercy on his family. We don’t claim that since the eglah arufah was already offered, the statute of limitations has run out.
We are charged with eradicating evil. It is a mission, and we turn inward before setting our sights outward.
Sometimes, waging war is the greatest sign of love. The posuk says, “Ohavei Hashem sinu ra – One who loves Hashem abhors evil” (Tehillim 97).
Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn was the rov of the Israeli city of Kfar Ata before assuming the rabbonus of Komemius, where he became the father of modern-day Shmittah observance. Kfar Ata was populated by a mixed group of bnei yeshiva, Chassidim, Mizrachi Jews and irreligious residents. All of them respected the rov, who was blessed with the ability to effectively relate to all types.
A leading political activist once visited the town for Shabbos and asked to address the kehillah from the shul pulpit. Rav Binyomin noticed that the man had shaved and taken a haircut lekavod Shabbos despite the fact that it was during the period of Sefiras Ha’omer. The rov explained to his visitor that he could not allow someone who transgressed an explicit halachah in Shulchan Aruch to speak in his shul.
The community erupted. Many members were upset that the rov embarrassed a respected figure. They said that what he did was much worse than shaving during Sefirah. Rav Binyomin held firm and refused to back down.
At the next opportunity, the rov shared this incident with his mentor, the Chazon Ish, who assured him that by standing up for principle even in the face of pressure, he had acted properly.
The Chazon Ish related that the Kovna Rov, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, was asked to serve as the mesader kiddushin at a local wedding. The rov agreed, but when he arrived at the wedding, he saw that the chupah was being held indoors, rather than outside, which is the view of the Rama and was the prevalent custom.
The rov informed the young couple that he would be unable to officiate. A furor ensued, with many people feeling that the rov was being too rigid. The people claimed that the rov’s action embarrassed the chosson and kallah publicly and ruined their big day.
A spokesman for the aggrieved approached the rov and asked how he was permitted to cause the baalei simchah shame and aggravation,
“The Krukeh Rov (the rov of Krakow, the Rama) is a good friend of mine,” said Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, “and I think it’s wrong to get into a fight with him.”
The Chazon Ish indicated that the proper approach is not to submit to public pressure under the guise of peace. Rather, peace means existing in harmony with the ratzon haTorah.
Now that we are in the month of Elul, the call of these days is to be honest with ourselves, looking inward, seeing our imperfections, and addressing them on communal and individual levels.
Following the Second World War, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein made his way to Yerushalayim. He did not occupy a position, and although his reputation preceded him, he was basically unknown to the local Yerushalmis.
One Friday, Avrohom Ravitz, a talmid in Yeshivas Chevron, was walking down a street when he came upon a strange sight. On one side of the street, a man was standing next to his car, which had broken down. He was checking under the hood, pulling and prodding in different directions. When that didn’t help, he got under the car and tried tinkering from there.
A group of children gathered to watch the man pull and test every plug, connection and wire in an attempt to get his car going. Avrohom saw that across the street, a very dignified man stood watching, engrossed in the scene. As he got closer, he recognized the man as the newly-arrived Rav Yechezkel Levenstein.
The yeshiva bochur was surprised to see the man he had heard described as a great tzaddik standing and watching the person trying to fix his stalled car. It seemed like such a childish thing to do and a waste of time. Could it be that this man was indeed so great? He asked around and found out the Rav Levenstein delivered a mussar shmuess every Friday night. He decided to attend that week’s shmuess and see for himself what the man was all about.
That evening, Rav Levenstein spoke about tikkun hamiddos. To demonstrate his point, he compared a person to a car. When a vehicle stalls, its owner expends much effort to locate the problem and fix it. So too, he said, when man “breaks down,” he needs to be repaired. Just as repairing a car requires close scrutiny of every part that makes the car work, when a person’s neshomah is ailing, we must dig inside it to find what is broken and repair it.
Avrohom then understood that while the others were looking on with childish curiosity, the mashgiach was learning lessons to apply to matters of cardinal importance.
Elul is a time when we should examine what’s going on inside our neshamos, inspecting and taking inventory of our actions throughout the year.
The Vilna Gaon, at the beginning of his sefer Even Sheleimah, states, “All avodas Hashem depends on tikkun hamiddos… Bad middos are at the root of all sin… The main task of man is to always strengthen himself to break his bad middos, and if he doesn’t, for what purpose does he live?”
The Gaon continues by stating that a person who wishes to do teshuvah must begin by pondering his negative middos and recognizing his situation. Then he must begin the process of rectifying himself, slowly, step by step, until he trains himself to act properly.
It is a difficult, time-consuming task that requires honest, painful probing, but it is the first step in improving our lives. If we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot correct them. If we remain mired in our gaavah and selfishness, there is no way we can rise to do teshuvah and act the way we are expected to. If our middos are faulty, then our mitzvos are as well.
Living with introspection and honesty means living with harmony – not war, not peace; just the Torah’s will.
One can be humble, yet firm and unyielding, self-aware enough to laugh, yet responsible enough to speak up.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld once arrived to officiate at a wedding and noticed that another rov had been honored with siddur kiddushin. Many of the wedding guests were upset at the slight to the senior rov of Yerushalayim, but Rav Yosef Chaim waved away their concerns with a wink.
He sensed that people were becoming agitated about the perceived lack of respect, saying that the baalei simchah should reconsider their decision about who should serve as the mesader kiddushin. The wise old Yerushalayimer rov removed a paper from his pocket, wrote a few words on it, and then presented it to one of the young agitators.
Rav Yosef Chaim had written a letter of resignation. “This should end the problem,” he told the young man. “You can no longer stir up trouble, saying that you are doing so because of the respect of my position.”
Another story is told regarding Rav Yosef Chaim and his rabbinic position.
A speaker was holding forth in a secular kibbutz, delivering a familiar speech targeting the religious community. As he railed on, he began referring to his antagonists, mocking them by calling them “Sonnenfeldim.” A man stood up and protested. “Listen,” he said, “I have no more love for those religious people than anyone else in this room, but I nevertheless resent the term you just coined.”
He told the group why he was opposed to the term.
“Let me tell you about my relative, a well-known, prominent Zionist leader, who became sick,” the man said. “Believing that the religious Dr. Wallach at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital would refuse to treat him, he sought treatment at the Missionary Hospital. The doctors there were not able to help him and his condition rapidly deteriorated, until, in desperation, his family brought him to Dr. Wallach.
“They knocked on the door. The doctor looked at them suspiciously. They explained the nature of his illness. ‘Where was he until now?’ he asked.
“‘In the mission hospital,’ the said.
“Dr. Wallach slammed the door in their faces.
“The family had only one option left. It was definitely a last resort. They hurried to the home of Rav Sonnenfeld and pleaded that he write a letter to the doctor. They said that in a situation of pikuach nefesh, differences should be set aside.
“Rav Sonnenfeld responded to them, ‘I can write the letter, but Dr. Wallach won’t believe you that I actually wrote it.’ The rov put on his hat and said to them, ‘Follow me.’
“They went to Shaarei Tzedek, where Dr. Wallach welcomed the rov with respect. Rav Sonnenfeld asked him to treat the patient. ‘I cannot do that,’ said Dr. Wallach. ‘He is a rosha.’
“Rav Sonnenfeld stood up straight. ‘I command you, with my authority as the rov of this city, to admit this patient and do your best to heal him.’
“Indeed, Dr. Wallach did, and under his care my relative recuperated and his life was saved.”
A person who lives his life with responsibility and introspection is not impressed by outward challenges of war and peace, but rather seeks to live in perfect harmony with creation and the will of the Creator. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld knew when to forfeit his title for the sake of peace and when to use it as a means of enforcing what he believed to be Hashem’s will.
He knew himself and understood what was expected of him.
These are the days when we can look inward and chart a course of action – firm enough to lead, strong enough to fight evil, and soft enough to ensure that our own honor is not what motivates us.
Then we will triumph, winning both the battle and the war.