When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives . . . Deuteronomy 21:10
The Torah portion for this week is Ki Teitzei, which means "when you go out," from Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, and the Haftorah is from Isaiah 54:1-10.
The Jewish sages teach, "Who is strong? He who vanquishes his evil inclination." True strength has nothing to do with physical might. Rather, the strongest of men and women are those who can face temptation and overcome it.
I am reminded of the story of Samson, the Nazarite whom God had imbued with supernatural strength. Samson could defeat any enemy with his own two hands, but when it came to the inner enemy - the evil inclination which seduces and confuses - Samson lost the battle. Falling into the temptation of Delilah's allure, Samson revealed that his physical strength came from his hair. In turn, she shaved his head, Samson lost his physical strength, and finally was defeated by his enemies.
This week's Torah portion begins, "When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives . . ." The sages ask two questions regarding this verse: First, why does the verse start, "When you go to war," when it clearly is addressing the time when the Israelites came back from war? Second, why does the verse add, "and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands," if it is addressing a situation where the Israelites had come back from war with captives? Clearly, they had won the battle!
Sensitive to the fact that every piece of information in the Bible has meaning and nothing is superfluous, the sages find an important lesson embedded in the seemingly extra information. They interpret the verse like this: "When you go out to battle your evil inclination, the Lord can deliver it into your hands."
The greatest battle of all - the one that requires the most strength - is the battle against ourselves, the struggle with our desires and temptations. The verse is teaching us to expect this battle and to be ready for it. We need to be on guard at all times, every single day, because no one knows when temptation may strike. Adopting this perspective alone is an important teaching. It prepares us for the challenges that we will encounter throughout our lives. It cautions us that the struggle is a battle, one that we must fight with all our strength.
However, the second teaching is no less important. Our verse concludes that the battle can be won with God's help. As difficult as it may be to subdue our desires, we do not struggle alone. "God delivers them into your hands," and we can overcome them.
Every morning, in Jewish prayers, we bless God as the One who "girds Israel with strength." May He strengthen us both physically and, most importantly, spiritually for the battles ahead.