One of the major shul-based practices of the month of Elul is listening to the clarion call of the shofar following the recitation of Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”
The Rambam notes a number of actions that the sounding of the shofar should ideally engender: “Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year and devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.”
In sum, the shofar’s blast is multidimensional and capable of evoking a variety thoughts and deeds. Then, too, it challenges us to remember the eternal truths of the Torah and eschew “vanity and emptiness which will neither benefit nor save.”
The Rambam, writing in the 12th century, decried those “who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year.” If this was a common problem then, it is exponentially the case in our pleasure-seeking, digitally focused culture that caters to a public with an unquenchable thirst for that which is scandalous, obscene, and demeaning.
What accounts for this endless attraction to the ugliest side of the human condition? I believe our parasha, Ki Seitzei, provides us with a strong foundation for answering this question.
The first phrase in our Torah portion, “When you go to war against your enemy,” precedes the words: “the Lord, your God, will deliver him [your enemy] into your hands, and you [will] take his captives.” The Chasidic masters universally understand the expression, “your enemy,” as referring to the yetzer hara (the evil inclination).
The first rebbe to suggest this interpretation was the Baal Shem Tov, who notes that even though the verse is speaking about going to war, which necessitates a massive public undertaking, it is nonetheless written in the singular construct.
He opines that this is the case, since “every member of the Jewish people has no greater enemy than the evil inclination.”
The Baal Shem Tov states, “If you go to war against him [that is, the yetzer hara],” then the Torah promises that “the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands.” Perhaps most powerfully, he interprets the expression, “and you take his captives,” as a further assurance that “even the powers of the evil inclination will be able to be harnessed in the service of Hashem.”
Without a doubt, the yetzer hara is the most cunning and corrupting influence in our lives. It intuitively knows “what buttons to push” to lead us away from the Torah and Hashem and coerce us into doing its bidding. Clearly, we must wage an unceasing war against it, for as the Baal Shem Tov said, we have “no greater enemy”
Fortunately, the Mishnaic sage Ben Zoma taught us that it is possible to be a spiritual hero and overcome even our strongest yetzer hara-suffused desires: “Who is strong? One who overpowers his [evil] inclination. As is it is stated: “One who is slow to anger is better than a mighty man, and one who rules over his spirit [is better] than one who conquers a city.”
With the Almighty’s help, may we hearken to the shofar’s call and do our best to reject the nearly ceaseless negative influences of our time. In this way, may we harness “even the powers of the yetzer hara … in the service of Hashem.” V’chane yihi ratzon.