Over Thine Enemies: A Sermon for Parashat Ki Tetzei
Some of you may remember how the Tigers were virtually untouchable the summer of 1984. Others may remember Gremlins in the theaters or the Ghostbusters. I spent 4 awesome weeks that summer at Camp Tamarack and otherwise, practicing for my Bar Mitzvah. September 7, 1984, 30 years ago tomorrow, I shared the bima of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan with Steven something or other as we read from parashah Ki Tetzei. I gave the drash on this very parashah. Steven spoke about the Haftorah. I recently got my hands on the VHS recording of that memorable day. It was less than stellar. I don’t mean me of course, I mean the recording. They failed to capture most of the service and so today there is no written nor video record of my wisdom.
So, we are left with the present day and a very full plate. You see, Ki Tetzei is a virtual smorgasbord of Mitzvot. 74 of the 613 commandments are contained here, more than any other parashah. There’s 20 or so dealing with marriage and divorce and more on family laws and birthright and punishment of wayward children. There’s laws for returning a lost object, for shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs, and laws against forbidden plant and animal hybrids, against transvestitism and against marital and sexual misconduct. There are some about the proper treatment of debtors and the prohibition against charging interest on loans. There are a bunch about showing mercy and respect to others, both people and animals and many dozens more in quite diverse categories. This litany puts me in mind to consider my walk with HaShem over the past year. It reminds me of my shortcomings and failures, of times I’ve messed up and just how far I have to go in my learning and observance of Torah. And while I think of these things, I’m also reminded that these weeks of Consolation and this season of Elul are a time for introspection, a time for self-examination, but also a time for renewed hope, a time for Teshuvah and a time to recharge with the divine.
Our parashah begins…
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹֽיְבֶ֑יךָ
“When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies” (JPS, Deut 21:10)
“When you go out to war against your enemies” (CJB, Deut 21:10)
“When you take the field against your enemies” (Etz Chayim, Deut 21:10)
Whichever translation you use you’ll notice they all say “against” your enemies. The Hebrew word here is “AL” which is better translated as “over” and with this choice of wording, the Torah teaches us a fundamental lesson about warfare. To be victorious in war, you’ve got to be “over” or “above your enemy.” As long as opponents are evenly matched, there cannot be a true victor; even one who wins will suffer great losses. A great example of this from history was the trench war stalemate of WWI. In our most recent war example, Israel certainly was “above” Hamas militarily both offensively and defensively but more importantly I would also argue morally. From what I’ve read, the IDF used every means available to them to protect and safeguard civilians both Israelis and Gazans. The same cannot be said of their opponent. Now I don’t want to get distracted into a discussion of the politics of that war. There are certainly lots of angles. What I want to bring your attention to is the formula for victory provided by Torah; be above your enemy.
Think about a time you were fighting with someone. I mean a serious, aggressive, knockdown, drag out fight. Or if you can’t picture that then try recalling a time when you were competing with someone at a very intense level; perhaps playing sports, or a game, or even a video game. The stakes are high. Tension is mounting. Adrenaline is pumping. Perhaps you’re taunting each other. You’re mama wears army boots!
When you’re somewhat evenly matched, aggression gets stimulated and we often feel the urge to destroy or at least seriously harm our opponent. For football fans, think about the culture and language the game and how rival fans often treat each other. However, when we’re above, when we engage with the help of HaShem we can feel pity, mercy and compassion. That doesn’t mean that you’re less thorough in seeking victory, but then it’s victory you’re seeking after and not vengeance. Once victory is achieved, there is a willingness to elevate, to rehabilitate and teach your former enemy, and not the overwhelming desire to stamp them out.
This is important because war is not just an external phenomenon. This also applies to us. Our sages explain that the Torah’s lesson here applies to our inner spiritual battles as well. We are all at war within ourselves. On one side lies our Jewish ideals and Torah with our goal of making G-dliness a part of our daily lives through keeping HaShem’s commandments, creating harmonious and wholesome homes and families, and walking the path HaShem has planned for us. Against this comes all kinds of threats from matters of selfishness, conceit, convenience, indulgence, and self-gratification; from materialism and greed to pleasures of the mind and body; from anger and pride and laziness. Even HaSatan may tempt us away from the path of HaShem. He may entice us like Yeshua in the desert.
There is this constant dynamic tension within us; physical versus spiritual. We are confronted with choices every day. These choices effect not only ourselves but everyone around us and the question is with each decision, which side will win the battle. Yetzer HaTov? or Yetzer Hara?
It seems to me that, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, we’re all human. We all make mistakes. Over time, most of us fall away in some degree from the righteous path HaShem has laid out for us. It’s easy to take shortcuts. It’s easy to think of yourself first. It’s easy to point the finger of blame. And it’s really easy to make excuses. I’m too busy to… I don’t have time for… I was just… I didn’t think… It won’t matter if…
The thing is, if we fight against these base, selfish and materialistic tendencies with conventional weapons, our ordinary feelings and thoughts, then we’re not ever going to achieve true victory over them. We will continue to fall away from HaShem’s path. Repentence and Yom Kippur becomes an annual reset button and we’ll continue to suffer great losses as life’s battles go on.
You see, true Teshuvah is more than just repentance. It’s a return to our original state; a return to unification with HaShem. So how do we do that?
We have within ourselves a truly superior spiritual potential. I’m talking here about atomic bombs of spiritual weaponry. Our sages say that our souls are an actual part of HaShem, a divine spark. And when we bring this spiritual core onto the battlefield of our daily lives, we are light years over and above the way our materially oriented thoughts work. When we practice sincere Teshuvah, where we partner with HaShem; He robes us in the body armor of the Ruach. When we seek Tikun Olam in all aspects of life; He arms us with best of guns. When caring for the widow and the orphan; when Tzedakah becomes our first thought rather than something we consider as a tax break, He builds up our defenses. When we engage with the divine, we elevate our lives to the spiritual over the material giving life, healing the world, and bringing forward the return of Mashiach. When we partner with HaShem in our everyday decisions, in our everyday battles, what can stand above? Furthermore, as Messianic Jews, Mashiach’s Tevilah arms us with the Ruach and HaZicharon HaMashiach empowers us with His love. It’s like we bring stealth bombers and laser defense systems to the battlefield.
Now I don’t mean all of this to suggest that we should live like monks or as angels, wholly spiritual beings. That is not our lot. Judaism does not speak of vanquishing or destroying our material tendencies, but rather of overcoming them, of harnessing and controlling and transforming them into positive forces.
We do this in partnership with HaShem.
During Elul, our sages say that HaShem makes himself even more available to us than normal. This time between Tisha B’Av and the High Holy Days are likened to Moshe’s 40 days and nights on Sinai receiving the second set of tablets directly from HaShem. And then, during the Day’s of Awe, when the gates of prayer and repentance are at their widest HaShem is listening. This is the time for true Teshuvah; returning to unification with the L-rd.
Every day is another war consisting of many battles. Use this time of Elul to re-engage with HaShem, to replenish your armory, to reset your weapons and to recharge your batteries. Fortify the battlements of your mind by engaging with your divine spark and together, let’s elevate our lives above. Let’s overcome and transform and bring Mashiach. Repent, return, re-unify with HaShem and be “Al Oyvechah” – Over thine enemies.