Saturday, August 29, 2020
Ninth Day of Elul 5780
Shabbat Ki Teitzei
Today is Shabbat, the most holy day in Jewish tradition. It is our day of rest and our day of joyfully feeling God’s presence all around us.
This particular Shabbat is called Shabbat Ki Teitzei for the Torah portion we read today. Like last week, this week’s Torah portion focuses on laws of warfare. In one verse, the Torah states, “When you go out to war against your enemies, and Adonai your God will deliver them into your power, and you take some of them captive…” (Deuteronomy 21:10).
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th-century founder of Chasidism known as the Baal Shem Tov, personalized this verse into a lesson about t’shuvah. He said that in life we all must do battle with our own yetzer ha-ra, “the evil inclination” that leads us away from doing the right thing. When we join this battle, we should know that “Adonai your God will deliver it into your power,” that is, the Torah promises that we will be victorious in overcoming our own baser impulses when we truly choose to struggle with them. But, not only that, the Baal Shem Tov also teaches that we will “take it captive.” He explains that this means that we will be able to “harness the power of the yetzer ha-ra to the service of God.”
What does that mean? How can a person use her or his evil inclination to do good? This is one of the great insights of rabbinic Judaism into the human psyche.
You see, the yetzer ha-ra may be the part of our minds that responds to egotism, selfishness, greed, and eagerness to feed our cravings, but that does not make it all bad. Egotism can lead us astray, but it also can lead us to self-preservation, industriousness, creativity and ambition to do good. Judaism does not teach that we must all become self-denying monks, renouncing all comfort and pleasure. Not at all. Jewish teaching asks us, rather, to direct our desires and ambitions toward doing good for ourselves, for society, and for the world.
Practice for this day:
Consider the qualities you possess that can be used for both good or bad. Are you creative? Ambitious? Determined? Sensuous? Extravagant? Think about the times one or more of these qualities has helped you do good for others and for yourself. Think also of times when one or more of these qualities have led you into behavior you regret or that proved harmful. What choices can you make to avoid the negative consequences of your strongest personality traits? What choices can you make to use your strongest personality traits to turn you in the direction of improvement and benefit? Note these here: