“When you build a new house, you shall make a fence (guard-rail) for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood to be spilled in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof].” (Devorim 22:8)
We must learn to be vigilant. We must take great care to avoid harming or injuring a fellow Jew. We must even make sure that my property doesn’t pose a risk to the other. In Biblical times, roofs were often flat (as they were used to dry produce and for other related activities of daily living) and therefore, fences had to be constructed around one’s roof to ensure that no one would fall. On the most basic level, the Torah is instilling within us a heightened sensitivity for the other. We can’t harm with our words, our fists or our roof; we must be ever cognizant and aware of the safety and security of the other.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson 1902-1994) explains this verse as a metaphoric message:
“Ki sivneh bayis chadash, (when you build a new house)” – The home represents a new life initiative. When you embark upon something new …
“V’asisa maakeh l’gagecha, (you shall make a fence for your roof)” – You must set boundaries. Just as the fence is the boundary for the roof, we must learn to make boundaries in life.
Life is filled with much new construction. We build new relationships and careers. We start new journeys and explore new possibilities. Whenever we start something new, we must learn to establish appropriate boundaries and erect the necessary fences. Our careers may thrust us into a world that does not share our values and ideals. The demands and expectations of the work force may put us in situations of spiritual and moral discomfort. What fences must be created to ensure that we don’t lose our spiritual identities while climbing the ladder of success? What can we each do to protect our personal holiness even while spending our days in environments which may not be conducive to personal growth?
Marriage requires a great deal of effort and attention. At times we take liberties with the dignity, honor or feelings of a beloved spouse. At times we do things which are hurtful, insensitive and demeaning. What fences do we need to create in our marriages to ensure that we are each behaving as a proper spouse, nurturing marital love and growth.
On a personal level, we are often bombarded by temptation and desire. What fences should we create for ourselves to ensure that we continue down the path of growth and not fall into the abyss of personalistic darkness?
In life, we are constantly embarking on new construction. We construct homes of careers, marriages and develop ourselves. Each of these beautiful homes require a fence. It is the fences of self-discipline, moral clarity, spiritual motivation and desire for growth which ensure that which we build will be beautiful, fulfilling and safe for ourselves and for those whom we love.
“כי תצא למלחמה על אויביך”
“When you go out to war against your enemy ….”
War – it is something we try our best to avoid yet, we know it to be a reality of our national existence. We understand the difficult truth that national survival often entails difficult battles. Still, the Torah also understands that not everyone is fit for battle. As the Jewish army prepares to meet its enemy, the Kohen stands before the assembled troops and announces those who are exempt and ordered to return home.
“And the officers shall speak to the people, saying, what man is there who has built a new house and has not [yet] inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it. And what man is there who has planted a vineyard, and has not [yet] redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man redeem it. And what man is there who has betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her.” (Devorim 20:5-7)
What is the common denominator between these exempted individuals? Each of these men will be focused on something other than the battle. For the soldier to be effective he must think of nothing other than subduing the enemy. If his thoughts are diverted to home or family, or if he longs to enjoy the literal fruits of his labor, he becomes a liability and puts his fellow soldiers in danger. The Kohen orders these individuals to leave the front and serve the war effort from home.
However, there is one additional exemption that is particularly intriguing; “And the officers shall continue to speak to the people and say, “What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his hear.” (Devorim 20:8)
The Talmud (Sotah 44a) quotes two opinions as to the meaning of “fearful and fainthearted.” Rabbi Akiva explains that it literally refers to one who is scared of the “drawn sword.” This individual is simply too scared to fight. Rabbi Yossi HaGlili explains that it refers to someone who is fearful of the sins he has committed. The solider is concerned that as a result of his sinful behavior he may not deserve spiritual protection during battle. What types of sin are we discussing? The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) answers that we are referring to one who speaks between putting on the Tefillin of the arm and the Tefillin of the head. Such an individual has committed a sin that excuses him from going to battle. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) explains that it refers to one who speaks between Yishtabach, the concluding blessing of Psukei D’Zimra, (introductory psalms in the morning service) and Yotzer Or, the opening blessing of the blessings of Shema. An individual who spoke during these prohibited times during prayer would not go to battle.
How are we to understand these two views? Although neither of these behaviors is praiseworthy they hardly seem to represent the type of sinful behavior for which one would worry about losing Divine protection during battle.
Rav Gershon Stern (1861-1936) in his sefer Yalkut Gershuni explains that there are two components to waging a successful war: skilled officers to plan strategy and brave soldiers who are physically capable of executing the commands. If everyone is an officer then there may be detailed plans and incredible strategy but there is no one to carry out the orders. However, if everyone is a soldier there will be a flurry of chaotic activity but no strategic framework. The synergistic relationship and partnership between leadership and the men on the ground is required in order to be successful.
It is the same in life. We each possess a particular life hashkafa (outlook) and have a picture in our mind’s eye as to how these values should inform the way we live. However, sometimes there is a disconnect between what we believe and what we do. Our most important task is to make sure that what we believe is clearly mirrored in how we live. Values and beliefs are hollow if they are not expressed in the way one behaves, and conducts oneself.
This idea is symbolized in the Tefillin. The Shel Yad (Tefillin of the arm) represents action, while the Shel Rosh (Tefillin of the head) represents thought. If a person speaks between putting on the Shel Yad and the Shel Rosh, he is interrupting the connection between belief and action.
In the same vein, the blessing of Yishtabach is a beautiful praise to God, in which we recognize the multi-faceted dimensions of God’s splendor in the world. Following this blessing we recite “Yotzer or u’borei choshech, He who fashions light and creates darkness”, which discusses the fact that God created the world and has given us a mandate to build beautiful and meaningful lives. If we sing God’s praises but fail to build a life where He is a dominant fixture, then our praise is empty.
Both the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi are echoing the same sentiment. God accepts the fact that we have and will sin. He understands that we are frail and subject to temptation and as a result He does not ask us to be perfect. What God does ask is for us to demonstrate sincerity. If we “believe” in something we must be ready to act on it as well. If we commit ourselves to a certain set of values and ideals we must make sure that we are ready to live them.
If there is a disconnect between what we believe and what we do, God asks us not to fight His battles. It is only those who do not speak between the Shel Yad and the Shel Rosh, only those who do not converse between Yishtabach and Yotzer who have earned the right to defend the honor of God.
This message resonates with acute importance during this month of introspection. As we continue to take a spiritual accounting of what we have accomplished and in which areas we must improve, we must take the time to analyze and review our beliefs. What do we each stand for? What is important to us? What are our priorities? After answering these questions, we must make sure that these answers are not just contained in the words we use but must also be apparent in the things we do and the lives we lead.
כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ וְשָׁבִ֥יתָ שִׁבְיֽוֹ
“If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives (Devorim 21:10).”
War is an unfortunate reality. We must fight for our survival, we must fight for our land and we must fight for our ideals and beliefs. But wars are not always fought with swords and bows. The seforim explain that this verse alludes to the most acute battle we each must wage. This is a battle waged internally; a battle we must fight within ourselves. The battle, to which we refer, is the battle against the yetzer hara (evil inclination), the negative and harmful desires and proclivities we each possess.
Ki Teitzei La’milchama al Oyvecha, when you will go out to war against your enemies, refers not only to the external enemy but to the enemy within as well. We each have our inner battles to wage. For some it has been the same battle, trying to overcome the same weaknesses for many years, for others it may be different challenges in different stages of life. But one thing is clear – we all fight, we all struggle, we all wage the inner battle.
The Eish Kodesh, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), the rebbe of Piacezna explains this dynamic in a different way.
Ki Teitzei La’milchama – when you will go out to war – life is a battle. If you want to accomplish things you must go out and engage in the struggle. Your dreams and aspirations will not simply materialize without effort. If you want something in life you have be willing to fight and fight hard.
Al Oyvecha, against your enemies – you will encounter many “enemies” in the pursuit or your dreams and aspirations. There are enemies like apathy and complacency. There may be people who will try to tell you that you “can’t.” There may be people who are not supportive or kind to you. There are all kinds of “enemies” which try to prevent us from being successful in our life battles.
If despite the enemies which lurk in all corners, if despite the hurdles, I still choose to continue down the path of person accomplishment and actualization; U’nisano Hashem Elokecha B’Yadecha, God will deliver your enemies in your hands – God will give you the strength to overcome the adversity and accomplish your life objectives.
We must learn to accept the premise that life is not easy. There is an ongoing war, a battle which unfolds in front of each of us, each and every day. But if we commit ourselves to the “fight,” if we commit ourselves to engaging in the battle, God promises us that we will succeed.
In this month of Elul we contemplate how we have spent this past year and what we want to accomplish in the year ahead. Too often we don’t cross the finish lines we had hoped to, simply because we stopped fighting. The path to my dreams was fraught with challenge and difficulty and so I gave up. If we have made this mistake in the past, let’s promise ourselves to do things differently these last remaining days and in the year ahead.
May we find the courage to gird ourselves with the necessary strength to wage the battles of life. May we receive the blessing the providence of God and merit to see the actualization of our dreams.
Rabbi Silber shares some thoughts on the parsha from the Nesivos Shalom (Slunimer Rebbe). If we are proactive instead of only responding once we have been attacked we can overcome the challenges presented by our Yetzer Harah. Instead of a reactive response, our best posture in this constant battle is to take on offensive approach.