Monday, Jun 10, 2024

Battlefield Blues


I’ve had war on my mind lately. Who hasn’t? As we ride the roller coaster of current events and our own cartwheeling emotions, struggling to fit a new, wartime mentality into the contours of our everyday lives, it occurs to me that this is no new feeling. Both as a nation and as individuals, we are no strangers to war.

In fact, I’d venture so far as to say that, appearances notwithstanding, a fully functioning human being is in battle mode just about all the time. That’s the way Hashem set things up.

From the very beginning, He created opposites. Light and dark, day and night, dry land and sea. He created people that way, too. There’s our higher self, just short of angelic, versus our lower self, scarcely better than the beasts of the field. He provided us with the tool, bechirah or free will, to allow us to choose the side we’re on in any given situation.

But neither side is willing to give in without a fight. At each new crossroads, each new clash, our two inclinations roll up their sleeves and declare: “This is war!”

As a consequence of this setup, we are always at war with ourselves. And I mean always. There is a constant battle being waged within each person, and it covers every moment of every day. We may not be aware of it all the time. We are very good at distracting ourselves and thinking about other things. But every choice we make, large and small, is part of that all-encompassing personal battle. Even the choice to do nothing is a choice.

It’s war, and wars are all about winning or losing. The way we work to emerge victorious parallels the way human armies strive to win.

First, as any competent general knows, details matter. They say that an army marches on its stomach. It also marches on tents and clothing and everything else that a fighting force needs to survive and prevail. One of the wonderful things we’re seeing in Israel’s present war is an outpouring of caring for just that: the details.

The woman who bought up all the headlights carried by a certain Florida auto parts store, to send to the IDF… and the store owner who insisted on supplying them, free of charge. The members of a shiur who chipped in to buy hundreds of pairs of socks for the Israeli soldiers to wear. The women busy making thousands of portions of schnitzel for the soldiers to eat. Even the bubbies who volunteered to do laundry for the harried mothers whose husbands are at the front, or to make sandwiches for the thousands of refugees forced to flee their homes. And, of course, the yeshivah bochur who pours those extra few ounces of energy into his learning, as a zechus for his benighted brethren in Eretz Yisroel. Every act counts.

Details matter when we’re fighting our inner wars, too. We have a tendency to let things slide, “just this once.” To allow “small” transgressions to roll casually past, until an occasional slip becomes an out-of-control stampede. Whether it’s concentration on our tefillah or being scrupulous in carrying out a mitzvah, the way we say each word and the feeling we put into each act matters. Because a war is not won through big strategies alone. The little things are what keep the big things going.

Which is not to say that strategies are not important. In our personal battles as well as in the sweeping military ones, starting out with a plan is crucial. So is sticking to it in the heat of the moment… while leaving room for flexibility when needed.

Just as an army works with its strengths and tries to compensate for its weak areas, an individual needs to draw strength from his good qualities so that he won’t collapse under the weight of his negative ones. All of this calls for self-knowledge and strategizing.

It calls for knowing exactly what kind of battlefield you’re walking into and preparing yourself for it in advance.

It means doing everything in our power to keep our perimeter secure, to prevent the enemy, our own lower nature, from sneaking up on us while we’re looking the other way.

No army can operate successfully without a good command hierarchy. Everyone has to know whose orders are the ones that count. When he hears an order from a higher-up, instant obedience is mandatory. Here, as well, we can draw an analogy to our personal struggles. We need to have a ladder of values and priorities that are sacrosanct. To cling to certain behaviors, and eschew others, with full awareness of Whose will we are obeying.

And we need to remember that we do not face the enemy alone. We are all soldiers in the same army, carrying out the orders of the same Supreme Commander. A beautiful paradox: though our struggles are unique and intensely individual, we are all in this together.

The emotions that a soldier feels as he prepares for battle, fights the good fight and then withdraws to fight again tomorrow, are the emotions we each feel as we wage our personal battles to be our best selves. There is belief in the cause, and hope, and a certain measure of optimism. I can do this!

But sometimes optimism veers over the line into overconfidence. Vigilance wavers and weakens. The enemy gets in a few good shots. After we’ve taken some hits and are forced to face the fact that this is one war that won’t be over anytime soon, hope can turn into disappointment and even despair.

Day after day, year after year, we feel that we’re waging the same battles. We are so tired of fighting! We wish the enemy would just lay down his arms so we could do the same. We want so much to get it right, to be good, to earn the love that Hashem so generously bestows on us. But the enemy’s job is to wage this war, and therefore so must we.

But we needn’t do it out of a sense of hopelessness or despair. On the contrary: no war is ever won that way. True, we have an inbuilt enemy, with us from the day we were born. True, this is a battle that will span a lifetime. What is also true is that we have the most powerful Advocate of all on our side. To simply want to be a better person is to engage that Advocate on our behalf. In spiritual matters, Hakadosh Boruch Hu is eager to open all necessary doors. All we have to do is really, really want it.

And then there’s the adrenaline effect. In the clash and clamor of the battlefield, our blood is high and our arm is mighty. Klal Yisroel, whether at the front or behind the lines, is flying today on idealism and chesed and love for one another. We’ve been seeing an outpouring of all three since the first horrific salvo of this war.

Let’s keep the adrenaline going. Both personally and nationally, we need to hold onto the kind of ideals and feelings that prompt us to change for the better. As time goes by, such feelings naturally lessen in intensity and grow cool. It then becomes our job to stoke the fires. To remember our hopes and values, to cling to our priorities, to access the love and the caring.

We are told that Hashem Himself prays that His compassion should vanquish His attribute of Din. The analogy of war and conquest seems to apply even at the very highest levels. That’s just the way the world works.

Life is a war. To be alive is to be a soldier. May Hashem grant us the wisdom and the strength to win all of our battles, always!



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