Each of us fights a battle.
Each person lives in a struggle to hold onto high-minded values and lofty aspirations—the ideals we hope to live up to. It is a battle we wage against the pressures of our own ego, fear and selfish desires. In some moments we win by rising above our own pettiness and base impulses to reach a place of compassion, hope, kindness and love.
And sometimes we lose.
Yet, Jewish commentators have interpreted the opening verses as a metaphor for something different. They read the words, "When you go out to battle against your enemy and Adonai your God delivers it into your power" (Deuteronomy 21:10), as a reference to that great war we fight within against our own baser selves. They notice that the verb, teitzei, "you will go out," is in the singular, suggesting that it is not addressed to an army. Rather, it is addressed to one person—to you in your own, personal battle.
Rabbi Moses ben Samuel Schreiber, the 19th-century authority better known as the Chatam Sofer, wrote that we must understand how our impulse toward evil—the yetzer hara—does not overtake us all at once. Rather, it takes control of us in small increments:
One day, it comes at you saying, “do this,” and tomorrow saying, “do that.” So, if you wish to be victorious over it, do not try to do it in great leaps. Rather, go from from one small step to the next small step.
The Chatam Sofer advises us to use the yetzer hara's own weapons against it. Just as we fall into bad habits gradually, we should gradually develop good habits, one step at a time. Do not expect yourself to transform your behavior overnight. Rather, select one small change to make your own—such as expressing gratitude before eating, putting a coin in a tzedakah box every day, or taking a deep breath before speaking in anger—and allow the new habit to take hold before taking the next step.
There is great wisdom in this suggestion. Too often, I see people who make resolutions for themselves that are too big to keep. If you swear up and down that you will change your eating habits and lose twenty pounds by next month, you are certain to give up in despair the next time you catch yourself eating that second helping of dessert. Real change does not work that way.
All personal growth is like this. When we set goals that are unrealistic and unobtainable, the result is often worse than not setting any goal at all. It is far better to start small, grow in confidence and in success, and then to go further.
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th-century founder of chasidism known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, had a similar teaching. He said, "Every single Jew has no greater enemy than the yetzer hara. But, if you go out to war against it, 'Adonai your God will deliver it into your power.' The Torah promises that you will be victorious over it."
There is reassurance here that the only thing necessary to overcome our baser instincts is to take up the battle. The war is won in the moment that we decide to become the champions of our own lives.
When we recognize and confront our proclivity to anger, arrogance, hard-heartedness, dependency or greed—and decide that those impulses within us are actually our enemy—then we already have won. You turn the yetzer hara's own weapons around and, in the Ba'al Shem Tov's words, "Use against it all the agility, exertion and determination that it will use against you."
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