This week’s Parsha, Ki Teitzei, begins by talking about war. “When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies/כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ.” The Yalkut Shimoni teaches that, “the Torah is only referring to the war against the yetzer hara (the evil inclination)/לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע.” Much of our tradition has taught that the everlasting battle that this week’s Parsha talks about is an internal one. We must constantly fight against our inclination to be self serving.
A couple of summers ago, I was the football coach at camp. Don’t worry, it was flag football, and the likelihood of injury was low. I had played some football in high school and this seemed like a fun opportunity to work in a different capacity at camp and get to know a lot of different kids. What was truly amazing to me, is how much the younger campers wanted to play a real game, pretend to be professionals (“I am Peyton Manning!”), yet, barely knew the rules or had enough skills to actually play a game. I would run drills with them, and they would complain. They wanted to play now. They wanted to play immediately, despite the likelihood of their not being able to play, and that often leads to injury. We are living in a world where discipline is lacking, and we often seek out what we want immediately, even if it might be harmful for us down the road. As long as it works right now, at this very moment, I will do it.
It is precisely this societal trend that the Torah is trying to preach against. Later on in our Parsha, we are told, “When thou comest into thy neighbour's vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes until thou have enough at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel/כִּי תָבֹא בְּכֶרֶם רֵעֶךָ, וְאָכַלְתָּ עֲנָבִים כְּנַפְשְׁךָ שָׂבְעֶךָ; וְאֶל-כֶּלְיְךָ, לֹא תִתֵּן.” Rachi Kadosh teaches that “it seems as though the spirit of humanity has not changed in the last twenty-five hundred years. Then, also, it was necessary to warn passersby to not pluck more than their stomachs can hold...The Lawmaker had hoped, apparently, at least some passersby, those who want to do the right and moral good, remember the Scripture and listen to it, and not the sound of greed and instant gratification.”
I have heard a number of respectable and intelligent rabbis tell me that we do not need the Torah or our tradition to tell us how to be good. Most of us would be good, they say, without it. The Torah offers us a framework for figuring out the scope of our responsibility so we are not paralyzed by the overwhelming needs of the world around us. While there is some truth in this, I have tended to disagree with this position. The divine call to slow down and not bite off more than we can chew is necessary. We tend to not be very good at limiting ourselves. And there is no reason to think we would value discipline without the Torah’s command.
As we continue to examine our lives and actions in this month of Elul before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, let us look inwards and struggle with that part of us that wants more and more. We do not need to limit our ambitions, but it is a good time of year to listen to the voice of the Torah that tells us take what we need, not what we want.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.