Monday, September 08, 2008

Ki Tetze

The ploys of the "Yetser"

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Our Torah portion opens with the following verse: "When thou goest forth to war against thy enemies, and the Lord thy G-d delivereth them into thy hands, and thou takest captives of them" (Deuteronomy 21,10)

The verse, understood literally, talks about a war against an external enemy. But is this indeed so? Chazal has already hinted that we are talking here about a war of a different kind, a battle against evil inclinations ("yetzer hara").

Hassidism explains that the war against "yetzer hara" takes place mainly during Yom Kippur. On this day we overcome our evil inclinations as all material desires and needs are set aside and are strictly forbidden and we experience only spirituality.

In any event this is not a one-day battle, but a daily struggle that is difficult and painful because "yetser hara" uses ploys and ruses that are difficult to overcome. "Yetzer hara" entices man to sin and to avoid his responsibilities. These tricks and deceptions are "weapons" used by "yetser hara" to achieve its aims.
What are these ploys?

There are many, but I would like to talk about one of them. I would describe it as "making excuses", a speciality of "yetzer hara".
From time to time we justify our actions by convincing ourselves that, for example, we don't give more "Tzedakah" because we don't have enough money, or that we don't volunteer to help our community because we don't have enough time or that we are too tired when we come home. (This excuse is used by people of all ages. A child will also say that he didn't study enough because he didn't have enough time ….to which his mother would respond "You had enough time to play with your Playstation, didn't you?"!)

One way to fight "yetzer hara" is to ask yourself difficult questions. You didn't give "Tzedakah" because you didn't have enough money...but did you have money to pay for frivolous entertainment? Did you have enough money to upgrade your mobile phone for no particular reason?
Perhaps you really did not have enough money…but you have to continuously ask yourself these difficult questions.

You did not volunteer for your community or for society in general because you didn't have enough time! Ask yourself: Did you have enough time to surf on the internet or to watch T.V even if there was nothing worth watching? To go shopping even though you didn't really need to buy anything?
Perhaps you really did not have enough time …but ask yourself if that is really the case.

The same is true for tiredness. Ask yourself if it's just an excuse and another ploy of the "yetzer hara".

Perhaps we can try to understand the "making excuses" ploy using a very apt example also found in Parashat Ki Tetze. A few verses after our portion we find the very strong and permanent prohibition of "An Ammonite and a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord". The Torah rules that even after the tenth generation, the Ammonite and the Moabite are not fit to be accepted into the nation of Israel.

Two reasons are offered as to to why they are to be rejected by the people: "For the reason, that they met you not with bread and with water on the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because he hired against thee Bilam the son of Beor of Pethor of Aram-naharaim to curse thee." (Deuteronomy 23, 5).

Each of these reasons is serious in its own right. It is a terrible thing to meet starving and thirsty people without bringing them bread and water, and even worse to hire a sorcerer to curse them. Why is it necessary to give two reasons?

In a certain village the people started to build a synagogue but did not manage to complete the building. For a long time the building stood unplastered and unpainted. One day a famous Chazzan happened to pass through the village and they hired him to officiate on the High Holidays.
Rabbi Aizel Charif heard what they had done and said "I have never understood why the Torah gives two reasons for rejecting the Ammonites and the Moabites. Only now have I understood. If the Moabites had not hired Bilam for a large sum of money, they could have apologized and said that they did not meet the people of Israel with food and water because they were poor and that they could barely support themselves. Since they had paid Bilam such a large sum of money they could not use poverty as an excuse." And he finished by saying : "He who has money for a Chazzan, has money for the completion of the synagogue."

If we want to, we can always find an excuse for anything. That is the "yetzer" way. We are champion excuse-makers. No time ,no money, too tired...whatever…

This is the battle that the portion recommends, a struggle that will ultimately make us stronger, more responsible and more mature.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


The Supreme Value of Life

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The Torah portion Shoftim brings us, among other things, the section about the axed heifer (eglah arufah). Today, this portion seems anachronistic, lacking all practical meaning for us.

The portion speaks about an unsolved murder when it is impossible to punish the murderer, simply because no one knows who the murderer is.

The portion presents a situation that is fairly absurd. The Torah demands that a whole complicated ceremony take place in order to atone for the death of an anonymous person about whom nothing is known.

But there is another point that is no less interesting.

Not only does this portion seem anachronistic, but its very place in the Torah is also puzzling.

The section about the slain heifer is found between two sections that deal with war and begin with the words "When thou goest forth to war" (Deuteronomy 20:1, Deuteronomy 21;10)

What is the connection?

I read a brilliant answer to this question by Rabbi Ya'acov Ruderman. He says that there is no place more fitting for this portion than the place where it appears, between two wars.

He thinks that war – any war – where there are hundreds or even thousands dead, both soldiers and civilians, brings in its wake a meaningful decrease to the value of human life.

The place of the portion of the slain heifer proves that human life is a very holy thing, so much so that a whole city and its elders are required to take responsibility for murder that took place near their territory.

Our portion protests against the concept that "human life is cheap". There is no such thing in Jewish tradition; life is always of great value.

There is not in Judaism – almost – a more crucial command than that referred to as "Met Mitzvah".

"Met Mitzvah" refers to a dead person having no one formally obligated to bury him (her). The law is that anyone who encounters this corpse is obligated to perform the burial rite even at great expense to himself or even if it means canceling other important mitzvot.

For example, the High Priest, under normal conditions is forbidden to come into any contact with a corpse, including his family, closest relatives and even his parents. However, the High Priest is obligated to defile himself by carrying out the necessary rites of burial for a "Met Mitzvah" even on Yom Kippur!

In my opinion, this synthesis with respect to human life is found in a story that is told about former Prime Minister, Golda Meir of blessed memory.

In the days of the War of Attrition, Gold Meir said: "I gave an order to my advisors to inform me of the death of every Israeli soldier in battle, even if it happens in the middle of the night. On the day that President Nasser gives the same order to his advisors, there will be peace between us."

Perhaps this is the greatest gap that divides us and our bitter enemies. For us, human life is always a precious value.