Quite often, the news has the ability to provide lessons for us in our daily lives.
For the past two decades, Joe Biden, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vice president and as president, has been agitating for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For most of that time, he did not have the ability to carry through on his desire, as the people with the real power ignored him.
That all changed when he became president. He could no longer be ignored. Immediately after the election, the Defense Department set out to convince him that it was imperative that the U.S. keep a military presence in Afghanistan. So did his pick for Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who continued trying to convince Biden until the decision was made. A group impaneled by Congress also recommended that American troops only be pulled out if and when the condition stabilizes.
But Biden, portrayed by Democrats and the media as a seasoned foreign relations expert, was convinced that an immediate withdrawal was the way to go. Eighty-three billion dollars was spent and over 2400 American servicemen lost their lives in the twenty year effort to dislodge the Taliban and keep them from reassuming power in Afghanistan.
Biden said one month ago, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.” As it happened, the army pull out was guided by a date, not a plan, and thousands of Americans and its friends were left stranded, clambering to escape the country before being killed by the invading terrorists.
At that same time, the president said, “The likelihood there’s going to be Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Instead, he presided over a humiliating end to American involvement in that country, which will be decried for years to come.
Last week Biden said that he did not regret the decision to leave. He said that the Afghan government and army “have the capacity” to defend themselves and he was confident they would.
As recently as Friday, the Pentagon spokesman said, “They have an air force, a capable air force. They have modern equipment. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided for the last twenty years.”
The State Department spokesman said also on Friday, “We are evaluating the threat environment on a daily basis. The Embassy is in regular contact with Washington with the most senior people in this building, who in turn are in regular contact with our colleagues at the [National Security Council] in the White House.”
Nothing to worry about. The experts were having meetings and discussions and everything was under control.
As the American pullout was being rushed, the Taliban began racking up victories. One region after another fell to them, and in no time at all they had taken over the country.
Powerful America stood by with its mouth agape and nothing of any consequence to say for itself. The president who started the whole mess remained holed up in Camp David. Nobody heard from him. He had nothing to offer. No good excuse. It took until Monday afternoon for him to fly to the White House to read a speech blaming others for the debacle and saying he stood behind the decision to pull up and leave. He then flew back to his bunker in Camp David, safely ensconced and detached.
His secretary of state was speaking for the administration on Sunday and was said to be “visibly shaken.” What a change from the previous administration, which spoke strongly and was feared by friend and foe alike. The best that Secretary Blinken could offer was that the Taliban had better behave, because the US would not recognize them. As if that would scare them.
How can something like that happen? How can so many years of human lives lost and money spent blow up in one week?
There are several answers to those questions and many more associated with the Biden debacle. It shows what happens when a person makes up his mind to do something and ignores the advice of experts. It also shows what happens when people who aren’t smart are given the reins of power. It shows what happens when a person’s judgment is clouded by preconceived notions and he cannot see what is plainly visible to anybody else.
Last week, in Parshas Shoftim, we studied the prohibition of bribing a judge. It is interesting that the Torah does not articulate the issur that way. The posuk (16: 19) states, “Lo sikach shochad – You shall not accept a bribe.” It does not say that you shall not give a bribe to a judge who is adjudicating your case.
The posuk continues and offers an explanation as to why the judge should not accept a bribe: “Ki hashochad ye’aveir einei chachomim visaleif divrei tzaddikim – Because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and confuse the righteous.”
Perhaps we can explain that the most important things a person possesses are his integrity and intelligence, allowing him to perceive what is going on in his courtroom and in the world. It allows him to study and understand Torah. It helps him correctly serve Hashem and do whatever he is doing properly. It allows him to correctly analyze situations and arrive at proper solutions.
I took a break from writing this column to go daven Mincha. I davened from the new siddur Tehillah L’Dovid, which my good friend, Rav Dovid Farkas, gifted me. It is an excellent siddur, with many halachos and peirushim to help enhance davening.
As I was following chazoras hashatz, I noticed that before the brocha of “Atah chonein l’adam daas,” the siddur offers the following introduction: “A person should understand that the beginning of the tefillah is the request for wisdom. Shlomo Hamelech, as well, did not request a long life, nor wealth. Rather, he asked for wisdom… We ask Hashem for intelligence and clear thinking so that we will detest evil, choose good, and understand taamei Torah, and through this, man is separated from animal, for without wisdom and intellect, a person is nothing.”
I took that as support for the explanation of why the Torah forbids bribery. It is to preserve our ability to maintain a proper thought process so that we can be proper bnei and lomdei Torah.
This week’s parsha begins with the words, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha – When you go to war against your enemy.” While the Torah is speaking of a time when the Jewish people will go to combat against a physical enemy, many meforshim understand the posuk to be referring allegorically to Jews battling their yeitzer hora. Our rabbeim teach us (based on Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh) that the most dangerous enemy man has is the yeitzer hora. We can never rest in battling him or we will be defeated by him.
In the month of Elul we determine anew that we must and can defeat him.
We are now in the middle of Elul, with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Hoshanah Rabbah, Simchas Torah and so much more to look forward to.
We all have a personal mission now, the success of which brings us to a realm of blessing and happiness. We get there by undertaking a self-examination to see what we are doing correctly and what needs improvement.
In order to be able to properly prepare ourselves for the yemei hadin, we need to use our daas. It takes wisdom and courage to correctly assess where we are holding at this stage of Elul and what lies ahead of us. If we fool ourselves, we will lose the opportunity to take advantage of these days of rachamim Hashem gave us to straighten ourselves out.
In Parshas Shoftim, we learn about the preparations Am Yisroel engages in prior to going to battle. Weak soldiers are weeded out, lest their presence lead to defeat.
The posuk (Devorim 20:2) relates that before the Bnei Yisroel go to war, the kohein announces to the nation not to fear battling their enemy, for Hashem will be with them, assisting them and ensuring their victory.
Following that, the shotrim address the people and seek out those who fear war: “Mi ha’ish hayorei verach haleivov? Yeileich veyashov leveiso – Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him leave and return home” (ibid. 20:8).
What is it about this fellow that causes him to be afraid to go into battle after the kohein promised that Hashem will be joining them in the war and guaranteeing their success? Rav Yosi Haglili (Sotah 43a) explains that the man who leaves is afraid to fight because he is a sinner. In order to be worthy of fighting in Hashem’s army, every soldier must purge himself of sin.
In order to be worthy of victory, there can be no ra – no evil or sin – because ra separates man from Hashem. In order for a soldier to merit Divine beneficence, there can be no aveiros disconnecting him from Hashem.
Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha. We are now in a battle against the yeitzer hora. We must beat him so that the barrier that has been erected between us and Hashem can come down. That barrier brings us down and can lead to our defeat r”l during the yemei hadin.
Where do we start? What can we do to enhance the meaning of Elul personally and for others, thus helping ourselves and those around us merit a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leading to a joyous, successful and healthy year? The parshiyos that we lain these weeks offer many lessons and examples for us to follow.
We learn the parshiyos of the week and find in their pesukim hints of support and encouragement in our daily exercises and battles. Without honesty and wisdom, we cannot expect to overcome the yeitzer hora, our ever-present enemy who seeks to detour us from our missions and intrude on our efforts to improve ourselves.
Every time we have an urge to do something, we need to consider whether that urge is coming from the yeitzer hatov or the yeitzer hora. If it will bring us closer to Hashem and make us a better person, then we should follow the urge, but if it will lead us away from Hashem and take us from our Elul mission, we should refrain from doing it and seek to rid ourselves of the urge.
It can take honesty and strength to recognize which acts will help us and which will not. We need to engage in the study of Torah and mussar especially in this period. We should pay special attention to davening and concentrate on what we are saying and the translation of the words, so that we can effectively be inspired and advocate for ourselves.
We need not look further than the news pages to see what happens when people do not have wisdom, failing to properly comprehend a combat situation. America spent twenty years in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven again. The war in that region began following the terror attacks of September 11, which emanated from that part of the world, where terrorists were allowed to operate with impunity.
People who read the map and understood the situation in that region realized that without rooting out the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and their compadres from those areas and robbing them of a foothold and home, the forces of evil would not be defeated. They would be ever-present, lurking, plotting and carrying out deadly attacks on Western targets.
The present administration determined that twenty years, 2,000 lives, and billions of dollars were enough. We can’t continue the war. It’s time to declare victory and leave.
The world quickly saw what happens when you quit the battle.
It happened now during Elul so that we will see for ourselves what happens when you decide that you can’t fight the yeitzer hora anymore. What happens when you decide that you are tired of fighting and have fought enough. What happens when you negotiate with the yeitzer hora and think you got him to come around and stop battling you.
The yeitzer hora never sleeps. He never tires. He never gives up. He lies in wait, plotting his moves. He wears you down, inducing you to think that there is a common goal, that he will behave, and that he means everything for your good. The minute you acquiesce to him, he comes in for the kill. As soon as he senses weakness, he is all over you, pulling you down, destroying you.
You can never negotiate with him. You can never think that he might mean it all for your benefit. You can never be fooled into doing something that if you would use your intelligence, you would know that it is wrong and detrimental to your well-being. There is no bribe that makes it worth doing an aveirah.
How did they do it? How did America blow this so badly? The same way someone skips Mincha one day and buys something very tasty but not really kosher. How did they do it? The same way someone skips out of the bais medrash and takes a drive down to the beach instead.
The battle against the yeitzer hora is constant, but it is winnable, especially in this month of chesed, when we receive huge assists as we arm up to defeat our eternal enemy. We use our daas and chochmah. We don’t allow our thought process to be corrupted. We do what good Jews have done since the chet ha’Eigel and seriously regret our errors and missteps. We fight our way back, every day getting a little better, showing improvement and getting closer to our goal of keeping ourselves free of any smattering of evil, because that is what chet is – evil.
The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we get to work, the easier and more victorious we will be in our battles.