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To Wage War Against The World
Sichos in English

Shabbos Parshas Ki Seitzei; 11th Day of Elul, 5750

This week’s portion, Parshas Ki Seitzei, begins, “When you go out to war upon your enemies.” The Torah, of course, is eternally relevant, but on the surface it is difficult to understand the lesson to be derived from this portion. Parshas Ki Seitzei describes the conduct of the Jewish people in war, especially a war not directly commanded by G-d, but a milchemes reshus, which is not at all applicable in the present era.

The lesson to be learned concerns our service involved with material things and matters of this world, refining and elevating its physical substance, making it a vessel for holiness, transforming the world into a dwelling for G-d.

This service is of a different nature than the service in the realm of holiness itself, the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvos. The latter service is characterized by peace, drawing G-dliness into the world. No enemy is involved. In contrast, when one is involved in refining the world at large, then one must “go out to war upon your enemy.” The nature of the material world opposes G-dliness and stands in contradiction to the establishment of a dwelling for Him. To create a dwelling for G-d where His essence is revealed in this world, it is necessary to wage war against worldliness and conquer it.

Concealment in this world — and its tendency to oppose the establishment of a dwelling for G-d — was created by G-d Himself. The power opposing holiness does not stem from the world’s material substance, but from its essential nature, endowed by G-d. It is, therefore, understandable that a Jew must summon powerful energies to wage war against such a force. For this reason, the Torah uses the expression, “When you go out to war upon your enemy.” A Jew “goes out to war,” i.e., he must leave his own realm, the involvement with holy matters, and involve himself with material affairs. When involved in this service, he must know that he has the potential to succeed. Therefore, he is told that he must wage war “upon your enemies.” Grammatically, it would have been proper to state “against you enemies,” or “with your enemies.” Nevertheless, the Torah used a somewhat unusual construction to teach us that before the war begins, a Jew has to know that he stands above his enemies.

In microcosm, this conception of war is relevant within our own lives as well. A Jew possesses a G-dly soul as well as an animal soul and a body. He must wage a war, the conflict with the yetzer ha’ra, to overcome the natural drives of the body and the animal soul, to conquer them and prevent them from disturbing his service of G-d. He should ultimately reach the point where he serves G-d, “b’chol levavcha,” interpreted by our Sages to mean “with both your desires,” the yetzer ha’ra also having become transformed. The potential for this service stems from the fact that, in essence, a Jew is “above your enemies.”

The Torah teaches us about two types of war: 1) milchemes mitzva, wars G-d commanded us to wage — the wars necessary to conquer Eretz Yisroel and annihilate the K’naanim, the war against Amalek, and any war defending the Jewish people against attackers; and 2) milchemes reshus, wars waged by a king “with other nations to extend the boundary of [Eretz Yisroel] and magnify its greatness and reputation.”

The purpose of the war with the seven nations of K’naan — and in the Messianic age, the war to conquer the lands of the ten nations — is the conquest of their land to transform it into Eretz Yisroel, the Holy Land. In contrast, a milchemes reshus is not a mitzva, and is intended merely to “extend the boundaries of Israel” to a place which by nature belongs to gentiles.

In the personal sphere, a milchemes mitzva involves waging a war against the material dimension of the world according to the Torah’s commands, to conquer them for Torah, making them like Eretz Yisroel. It involves only those aspects of the world that are necessities for life. In contrast, a milchemes reshus involves “extending the boundaries” of holiness beyond our minimum necessities. A person goes beyond the limits of the minimum that Torah allows him and elevates other aspects of the world, transforming them into holiness.

This can be illustrated using a comparison to eating. Instead of just eating bread and water, one can eat succulent meat and drink aged wines, doing so for the sake of holiness. Similarly, a person can go beyond the limits of his environment and seek new areas to refine, by establishing a synagogue, a house of study, or a place where mitzvos are performed.

However, a milchemes reshus does more than just involve a wider sphere of activity than a milchemes mitzva. It requires a different type and quality of service. To understand this concept, we must probe into the very nature of a milchemes reshus, because the concept of milchemes reshus is problematic. In a milchemes mitzva, the reason for war is because G-d commanded it. He told the Jewish people to conquer Eretz Yisroel and make it their land. What the Jewish people take rightfully belongs to them. As Rashi quotes in the beginning of his commentary on the Torah, the gentiles may claim, “You are thieves,” but the Jewish people can answer, “The land belongs to G-d...and He gave it to us.” But when it comes to conquering other lands, this rationale does not apply. These lands were given to the gentiles, not to the Jewish people. How can the Jewish people conquer these lands? It would seem that the claim “you are thieves” has validity!

A similar and perhaps even deeper question applies regarding the parallels to this concept in our service of G-d. A Jew can transform the material substance of this world into holiness because of the potential granted to him by the Torah. Materiality was created with the intent that it ultimately be transformed into holiness. A war is necessary to bring about this transformation because G-d desires a dwelling in the lower worlds. The material world was created to appear as an “enemy” to the service of holiness.  Nevertheless, it was intended to be transformed into holiness.

We see this concept in regard to Eretz Yisroel. Although G-d promised Avrohom that He would give Eretz Yisroel to his descendants, when the Jewish people re-entered Eretz Yisroel, they had to assert their control over the land through waging war. Before the Jewish people’s conquest, the Torah referred to Eretz Yisroel as “the inheritance of the nations.” Nevertheless, at the very beginning of Creation, the potential was already granted that the Jewish people would conquer Eretz Yisroel and transform it into a land of holiness.

This concept can be understood as follows. Since G-d created Eretz Yisroel, He is entitled to give it to whomever He pleases. He granted it to the Jewish people, however, in a manner that will enable them to appreciate it not as a gift given from Above, but rather as something they acquired through their own efforts. This requires that they wage a war to transform the land from being the heritage of gentiles into Eretz Yisroel, the Holy Land.

This applies regarding wars that are mitzvos. There is a Divine command to conquer this portion of the world for holiness and reveal its essential connection to the Jewish people. But with a milchemes reshus there is no Divine command involved, nor does the land belong to the Jewish people. Taking it away from the gentiles — or in the personal sphere, taking it away from worldliness — seems improper.

The purpose of this portion of the Torah, Parshas Ki Seitzei, which describes a milchemes reshus, is to teach us that we possess the potential for a new and different service – a war fought according to the directives of the Torah that was not obligated by its command. This endows the Jewish people with the potential to conquer additional portions of the world and make them and the entire world — not only the limited area of Eretz Yisroel — a dwelling for G-d.

This is the purpose of Creation. The Torah states that only Eretz Yisroel was given to us from Above, not the world at large, because G-d desired that the task of making the world a dwelling for Him should be dependent totally on the service of the Jewish people. Torah does not give any commands regarding these matters, leaving them solely in the hands of the Jewish people.

Thus, a milchemes reshus brings out a new dimension of service, serving G-d voluntarily, on one’s own initiative, reaching a more complete level in the efforts to make this world a dwelling for G-d. Through this service, even what belongs to the realm of worldliness — as opposed to what was at the outset designated for holiness — becomes part of G-d’s dwelling.

Since there is no obligation from the Torah to carry out a milchemes reshus, and there is even danger involved, why should the risk be taken? Similarly, in the personal sphere, since the “war” to transform the material substance of the world requires that one become involved in material things, there is a possibility that the person’s spiritual level will decline. Although danger also exists in a milchemes mitzva, a) we have no choice, for it is a commandment, and b) the Torah’s command itself protects us from danger.

In a milchemes reshus, however, there is no such command. The question remains: Why should a Jew expose himself to danger? The Torah commands us to protect ourselves from physical harm. Although this service can bring a person to a higher level, since there is a risk involved it would appear more appropriate to devote time and energy to the service of holiness, where one will surely succeed. Plus, if there is a failure in a milchemes reshus, there is a possibility that there would no longer be any service at all. It, therefore, seems preferable to devote oneself to the service of holiness, where one’s future will not be jeopardized.

Despite the danger, a Jew must commit himself to this service. He is granted a Divine promise for success: “The L-rd, your G-d, will give the enemy into your hand.” On the one hand, the Torah teaches us that the Jew must choose to go to war despite the danger involved. But at the same time, he must fulfill the command to preserve his life. This is possible because a Jew is connected with the essence of G-d, which is the source of the fusion of opposites.

The world and worldliness (“your enemy”) has a power granted by G-d. It appears as being separate from the realm of holiness. That is why it is necessary to wage war to conquer it and also why this war possesses a certain amount of danger. But since a Jew is connected with G-d’s essence, he has the potential to bring about a new development in Creation, conquer these elements of existence, and cause them to be included in the dwelling for G-d established in the lower worlds. G-d promises him success in these activities: “The L-rd, your G-d, will give the enemy into your hand.” In addition, “you will take captives.” This phrase can be interpreted that even those aspects of existence “captured” by the “enemy” can be redeemed and transformed into holiness.

Potential for this service is by virtue of the fact that a Jew is essentially “upon (i.e., above) his enemies.” He is one with G-d, transcending the limits of the material world. This reflects a higher dimension of the soul than the service to conquer Eretz Yisroel. This is because from the outset, Eretz Yisroel was the part of the world destined to become included in the realm of holiness. It involves a service limited in nature that relates to worldly matters. The service of milchemes ha’reshus relates to that aspect of the Jewish people that is “above your enemy,” transcending all aspects of material existence, and one with G-d.

These concepts are also reflected in the personal realm, in a Jew’s war with his yetzer ha’ra, his struggle to refine his body and animal soul. On the verse, “And you shall...see the difference between one who serves G-d and one who does not serve Him,” our Sages comment, “‘One who serves G-d’ is one who reviews his subject matter one hundred and one times. ‘One who does not serve Him’ is one who reviews his subject matter only hundred times.”

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe differentiates between these individuals and a tzaddik. A tzaddik is called “a servant of G-d.” He has already completed his battle with the yetzer ha’ra and is referred to by a title that attests to the acceptance of his service as an established fact. In contrast, the expression “one who serves G-d” indicates that the person is in the midst of his struggle with his yetzer ha’ra and is a beinoni.

The Alter Rebbe explains the difference between “one who serves G-d” and “one who does not serve Him.” In the time of the Gemara, it was customary for a student to review his subject one hundred times. The one hundred and first time, when the person went beyond his habit and normal practice, caused him to be distinguished as “one who serves G-d.” On account of his striving (“war”) to rise above his nature and personal habits he merits this title.

These ideas can be related to the concepts of milchemes mitzva and milchemes reshus. If a person has already waged the milchemes mitzva required of him and refined his nature and habits so that he is worthy of the title tzaddik, one might assume that he need not be involved in “wars” any more. On the contrary, he should proceed from strength to strength in the realm of holiness. But in order to merit the title “one who serves G-d,” he cannot be satisfied with previous achievements. He must “go out to war,” striving to change and elevate his habits and nature and reach an even higher level of holiness. This applies even to one who has previously engaged in milchemos reshus. Although after refining his behavior to be included in the realm of holiness, he strove to seek greater heights – having attained those heights, he cannot remain passive, but must “serve G-d” by seeking an even higher achievement.

This is particularly relevant in the month of Elul. The yetzer ha’ra may try to tempt a Jew by saying, “Surely you have already carried out all of the service of Elul, observing Torah and mitzvos b’hiddur. Now it is time to rest. If you want, continue your service, but do it in a regular manner, in a pattern that fits your accepted norms. Don’t risk anything. Devote your energies to holiness.” In the present generation in particular, the yetzer ha’ra will add, “This is the last generation of exile and the first generation of the Redemption. Our   energies should be directed towards preparing for the coming of Moshiach by devoting our energies to progress in holiness, to rising higher spiritually, rather than “go[ing] out to war.”

For this reason the Torah teaches us, “When you go out to war...” emphasizing how a Jew must constantly wage war, both against his own personal nature and against the world at large, to make the world a dwelling for G-d. Even Moshiach will “fight the wars of G-d” to bring the world to its ultimate state of refinement.

Each person must apply himself to the service of Elul in a manner that challenges his nature. This includes the establishment of a bond of love and happiness with G-d, as emphasized by the verse, “I am my Beloved’s.…” This relationship is expressed through Torah study, in which a complete bond is established between a Jew and G-d. It is appropriate that each individual increase his own Torah study and also influence others (particularly children) to attend public sessions of Torah study. Similarly, there should be an increase in tzedaka, which reflects the unity of the Jewish people. This unity brings about the love of G-d and motivates the expression of His love for the Jewish people.

*  *  *

Our Sages state that thirty days before a holiday we should learn the applicable laws. It is already less than thirty days before the holidays of Tishrei begin. It is, therefore, necessary to mention the importance of providing Jews with their holiday needs so that they will be able to celebrate Rosh HaShana (and the holidays that follow) in the manner stated in the Bible, “Eat sumptuous foods and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those who do not have anything prepared.” This is particularly relevant this year, when Shabbos comes directly after Rosh HaShana, Sukkos, and Simchas Torah. Festive meals will have to be prepared for three consecutive days.

May these activities bring each person a k’siva va’chasima tova for a good and sweet year and may it conclude with the greatest blessing, the coming of Moshiach, who will “fight the wars of G-d and be victorious.” Then he will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, where we will fulfill the mitzvos mentioned in the coming week’s Torah portion, bringing our first fruits as an offering to G-d.



To create a dwelling for
G-d where His essence is revealed in this world, it is necessary to wage war against worldliness and conquer it.







A Jew must constantly wage war, both against his own personal nature and against the world at large. Even Moshiach will “fight the wars of G-d” to bring the world to its ultimate state of refinement.


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