Parashat Ki-Teseh: Beyond the Letter of the Law
Parashat Ki-Teseh begins with some Halachot relevant to warfare, opening with the words, "When you go out to war against your foes…" Many Sages noted that these verses allude as well to a different kind of war, the war that we must each wage on a constant basis against our Yeser Hara, our sinful instincts. Studying these verses can thus offer some insight into the way we should go about the constant struggle against our evil inclinations.
Rashi, commenting on the first verse of the Parasha, writes that the Torah speaks here about a "Milhemet Reshut," or "optional war." According to the simple meaning, Rashi refers to a war that the nation decided to wage for the purpose of expanding its borders and the like. The Halachot presented in this section, which outline the procedure whereby a man may marry a woman captured during battle, apply only in wars that are not mandated by the Torah, but not in obligatory wars, such as the battle waged against Amalek. On a deeper level, however, Rashi’s comments allude to the fact that our "war" against the Yeser Hara must be fought in the domain of "Reshut," of the "permissible."
Let us consider a simple example of a father walking with his young son, and he instructs him to walk only on the sidewalk, and not on the street. The boy decides at one point during the trip to walk on the curb, just inches away from high speed traffic. The father grows angry with the son and shouts at him for endangering himself, but the son innocently defends himself, noting that he obeyed the father’s command not to walk in the street.
Clearly, the father is correct. Staying out of the street also means staying a couple of feet or so away from the street. Walking along the edge is risky. Pedestrians are advised to not simply avoid the street, but also to avoid the area immediately next to the street.
Similarly, our Sages throughout the generations enacted "fences" to safeguard the Torah. They understood how fragile people are and how easily the Yeser Hara can push us a couple of feet over into the "street," to wrongful behavior. There are countless examples of Halachot and customs that we observe for this purpose, refraining from actions which the Torah technically permits, in order to protect against Torah violations.
Rabbis will sometimes warn against certain modes of behavior even though they are, technically speaking, permissible according to Torah law. And people might be tempted to object, wondering why the Rabbis are being so strict, why they disallow that which the Torah permits. We must recognize the importance of fighting a "Milhemet Reshut," waging the battle against the Yeser Hara in the permissible domain, in the middle of the sidewalk, and not near the edge. The time to fight the Yeser Hara that seeks to dissuade us from attending Shaharit in the morning is not at 5:30am when the alarm rings. This fight must be fought the night before, by resisting the temptation to stay up late. We should not be putting ourselves in inherently "permissible" situations if they bring us to the "curb," too close to danger. We must instead steer clear of spiritual risks, and fight the Yeser Hara before he gets too close.