Finding our path during Elul


Our parasha, Ki Tetze, begins with the following pasuk:, “If you go out to war against your enemies, and the L-rd, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives” (Devarim 21:10). Basing himself upon the Midrash Sifri, Rashi notes that our verse refers to the common practice of taking captives during a standard war scenario. Most of the classic meforshim follow Rashi’s lead and employ it as the basis of their analyses.

A very different approach, however, is offered by the kabbalistic work Zohar Chadash which emphasizes our ability to conquer the yetzer hara in spiritual battle:

“And regarding the matter, ‘if you go forth against your enemies,’ — this refers to the yetzer hara [whose power] we are obligated to remove [from ruling over us]. [The most efficacious manner of so doing] is through acceptance of the Torah’s words, in order to fight against it. [If we are successful in this endeavor, then] he [i.e. the yetzer hara] will [finally be] under the hegemony of mankind. As the text states: ‘And the L-rd, your G-d, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives’” (Parashat Ki Tetze 96a).

In many ways, the Zohar Chadash’s ethically-infused explication is precisely what we need during this period of the year. After all, we are in the middle of Elul, the month that represents our desire to draw closer to Hashem and reinvigorate our relationship with Him. Once again, we are preparing ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we will stand before the Master of the Universe and beg Him for long and healthy lives, successful and honest livelihoods, and the overall happiness of our families, friends, and entire nation.

As our passage notes, laser-sharp focus upon the Torah and its mitzvot will enable us to overcome the yetzer hara and its temptations, and bring us closer to achieving the physical and spiritual outcomes that are first and foremost on our minds during this time of teshuvah.

The Talmud Bavli presents the practical steps that an individual must undertake in order to win the spiritual and ethical war against the yetzer hara:  “Rabbi Levi bar Chama said in the name of Reish Lakish: At all times an individual must rouse the yetzer tov [against] the yetzer hara … If one is successful [in this approach], then all is good. If not, one must occupy oneself with Torah study … If one is successful [in this approach,] then all is good. If not, one must occupy oneself with the recitation of Kriat Shema … If one is successful [in this approach,] then all is good. If not, one must remember that someday in the future one will ultimately encounter one’s day of death” (Berachot 5a).

In Reish Lakish’s estimation, the steps for achieving complete victory over the yetzer hara are quite clear:

• Rousing the yetzer tov over the yetzer hara

• Torah study (re-establish correct priorities)

• Kriat Shema (refocus upon Hashem’s presence and existence)

• Reflecting upon the notion that one day we will pass from this world to the next (and stand in judgment before the Almighty) 

Fascinatingly, he provides us with four different modalities for going to war against the yetzer hara. With deep psychological and spiritual insight, he recognizes that teshuvah is not “one size fits all.” Instead, each step is designed to reach the heart, mind and soul of a particular group of people and encourage them to re-examine and re-fortify their relationship with the Almighty.

Perhaps this is the underlying rationale behind the plural form of the celebrated pasuk, “Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old,” (Megillat Eichah 5:21) — to teach us that there are many different paths to bring us closer to our Creator. With Hashem’s help, may we each find our own.