When you go to war, you need a winning strategy. It doesn’t matter how strong or weak your army is, success depends on the strategy. If the generals devise a winning strategy, you have a chance of winning the war. If they don’t have a winning strategy, you have lost before you even began.
Every war requires its own strategy. A winning strategy in a desert war, will be a losing strategy in a mountainous region, and vice versa. A winning strategy for a naval encounter, can be an utter disaster in a tank battle. Each theatre of war and each kind of war requires its own strategy. But no matter which war you are fighting, there is a basic element that every strategy needs, the confidence in your army’s victory.
The Torah speaks of going to war and says, “If you go out to war over your enemies, and G-d your G-d will deliver him into your hands, and you will take his captives.”
What kind of war is the Torah talking about?
Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa, one of the early Chassidic masters, explained that it depends on the kind of war you are fighting. If you are a soldier in the Israeli army fighting a physical war, this passage speaks of a physical war. If you are not in an army, this passage speaks of the spiritual war that we all fight against our natural impulses, obsessions, proclivities, and addictions.
Whichever war you fight, the Torah tells you that you are fighting from a place of strength. You are “over your enemy,” stronger than your enemy. Don’t think that your enemy will outfight, outlast, and outfox you. On the contrary, you are smarter, stronger, and more enduring than your enemy. If you know it and believe it, you will fight that way. And if you fight that way, your enemy will know it too.
Now of course there are times when the enemy is better equipped, better staffed, and better funded. At times, your enemy’s strength is superior to yours. Nevertheless, there are tides in every war and no matter how imbalanced the armies might be, at some point the tide will turn in your favor. If you honestly believe you can win, you will be ready to strike in those fleeting moments. If you take advantage of those opportunities, you can and will win the war.
That is the first message that the Torah gives us in this passage, and it is equally relevant to physical and spiritual wars. Suppose your war is against your inner fears and insecurities, whether they were drilled it into you as a child or perhaps resulted from a traumatic event. Under ordinary circumstances you are in the grip of your fears and can’t break away. But in life, there are occasions when we feel a strong desire to dispense with caution and step up. If we train ourselves to believe that we are capable, we will move forward in these moments and succeed. If we believe that we can’t succeed, we will hesitate and fail.
If we break out of our fears once, we will have learned how to break out of them again. Once we prove to ourselves that we are capable, we have found a key out of our prison. The key is in our pocket and we can use it whenever we choose. All we need to do is pull it out, unlock the door, and step out.
By the Hand Of G-d
The next thing the Torah tells us is that “G-d will deliver him into your hands.” Suppose you develop the confidence in your strength, and you feel certain that if the opportunity strikes you can take full advantage of it. You wait for days on end, but the enemy never makes a false move. No matter how vigilant you are, you can’t find a gap to exploit or a weakness to attack. What should you do?
Remember that you can only control your own forces and your own morale. You can’t control what the enemy does. That is up to G-d. You can set the stage, but only G-d can place the right actors in the right place at the right time. If you believe that you are superior and you trust in G-d to deliver your enemy to you, then “G-d your G-d, will deliver him into your hands.”
Suppose the enemy that you are battling is your vice, be it gambling, drinking, overeating, or any other. You enjoy your vice very much. You are absolutely convinced that you can overcome it, but every time you try, it seems to overcome you. You try to stay away, but the allure is too strong. What can you do? The answer is to put your trust in G-d.
Keep fighting and don’t give up. You never know when your efforts will be successful, but they will be successful one day. The right confluence of circumstance and resolve will come together in a way that will enable you to overcome it. If you give up and stop fighting, you will never win. But if you keep up the fight, G-d will deliver the opportunity.
We are now in the month of Elul, a time when G-d allows us to correct all the mistakes we made throughout the year. We can break all the negative habits that we developed. We can reverse all the sins that we committed. The key is to endure without fail. Each day during this month, we must wake up and map out a list of habits that we want to break or a list of sins for which we need to repent. If the day goes by and we have not completed our list, we need not be disheartened. We need to wake up tomorrow and try again. If we keep it up, G-d will deliver our victory.
The last part of the passage is an assurance that we will take the enemy’s captives. The purpose in taking captives is twofold. A, it wears down the enemy. When they realize that their best soldiers were not only vanquished but captured, they lose heart. B, it transforms the enemy into an ally. When the captive is among your ranks, you can demonstrate the righteousness of your cause and recruit them to fight alongside you.
In the spiritual battle against our impulses and cravings, the captive is the craving itself. When we want to overcome a vice, we need to begin by shutting it down completely. If one spends too much money, the answer is to never spend an unnecessary penny. If we are vane about our appearance, the answer is to remove the mirror from the wall. This can last for a while, but it is not the ultimate victory.
The ultimate victory is when we can take our vice captive and recruit the vice to work for us. Once we break free from the vice and are no longer under its spell, it is possible to utilize our previous vices for a mitzvah. For example, if our vice is vanity, our closets are likely filled with beautiful outfits. Don’t throw them away, capture them for G-d. Once we are no longer vane about our appearance and no longer feel compelled to look in the mirror at every turn, we can start wearing our beautiful outfits for G-d’s glory. That is taking the vice captive. We will now wear our wonderful garments, but not for us. It will be in honor of Shabbat, or the holiday, or for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It will be to honor the Torah, not ourselves.
This can be applied to any vice that we battle. The most important element of victory is not to vanquish of the enemy but to recruit the enemy. If we can get the enemy to adopt our cause, we have truly and absolutely won. May we all win our battles this month and may G-d bless us with a wonderful New Year with blessings for good health and for happiness.