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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Ki Setzei 5775 "Lifelong Battle"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Years ago one of my Rabbeim related this humorous, yet acerbic, anecdote:

It wasn’t that Zev was bad or apathetic. In fact, in his heart Zev loved to do what was right. It was just that when it came to action, he had a hard time overcoming his lackadaisical nature.

Zev’s Rebbe was becoming exasperated. Zev was consistently late to davening and to class. He would mosey in to shul well after davening had begun with a sluggish demeanor that drove his Rebbe bonkers. Gentle prodding, stern rebuking, guilt trips, and severe warnings had accomplished little. Zev wanted to be on time and he understood the importance of prayer. It was just that his bed was so appealing in the morning and he lacked the willpower to leave the warm confines of his cozy blanket.

Then, one morning Zev decided that enough was enough! When his alarm clock rang at 6:15 a.m. he decided that this was going to be the day he began his ascent to greatness. He was going to jump from his bed, hurriedly get dressed, and then proceed to learn for an hour before davening. Then he would daven like he had never davened before, following which he would eat a quick breakfast and then return to learn with gusto. Yes! Today was going to be the beginning of the new Zev.

But just before Zev jumped out of bed an inner voice gnawed at him. “If you jump up now you’ll be dizzy and won’t be able to learn properly. Get those extra few minutes and then you’ll really daven well.” Well, that inner voice certainly had a point. Zev closed his eyes and began to drift back to sleep.

He quickly shook himself awake. “What am I doing? If I go back to sleep, it’ll end up being another wasted day. I can’t allow that to happen.” He was about to swing his covers off when the other voice returned, “Who are you fooling? You can’t just start being the top student. Go back to sleep!” His conscience shot back, “Why not? Who said I can’t become great today? Besides, I at least have to try.”

Back and forth it went. Zev’s inner struggle continued as he lay in bed contemplating his next move. Finally he wisely decided that he could not allow his evil inclination to win him over. With iron-like determination and incredible will Zev hoisted himself out of bed and got dressed. He quickly made his way into shul and at 9:45 a.m. he began to pray. Our hero!

“When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity.”

The Master Ethicists see in this verse an allusion to the personal battle that we are all compelled to contend with. Our nemesis and most implacable foe is our personal Evil Inclination who is relentless in his mission to cause us to stumble in sin.

Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l notes that the most important aspect of war is the strength and will-power to fight. As soon as one surrenders, the war is over and the defeated are shamed and chagrined. But as long as one is fighting, even if the odds are stacked against him, the war rages on and all hope is not lost.

In our personal struggles as well, the most important concept is, “When you will go out to war”. It is the fortitude and strength of character to rise and proclaim that no matter how many times he has fallen and stumbled, he will resiliently rise and fight on! One who does so is assured that eventually, “Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture his captivity”. The growth lies in the struggle.

The Mishna relates, “Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma said: Once I was walking along the road, when a certain man met me. He greeted me and I returned his greeting. He said to me, “Rabbi, from what place are you?” I said to him, ‘I am from a great city of scholars and sages.’ He said to me, ‘Rebbe, would you be willing to live with us in our place? I would give you thousands upon thousands of golden dinars, precious stones and pearls.’ I replied, ‘even if you were to give me all the money in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah.’… Furthermore, when a man departs from this world, neither silver, nor gold, nor precious stones, nor pearls escort him, but only Torah study and good deeds…”[1][2]

The Mishna’s story is very intriguing. Why did Rabbi Yosi immediately assume that there was no Torah in the stranger’s city? Wasn’t the fact that the man was interested in bringing Rabbi Yosi to become the leader of the city an indication that it was a city which sought spiritual growth? Perhaps the city was bustling with scholars and if Rabbi Yosi would have acquiesced he could have studied and enjoyed the money as well. Also, what was the point of Rabbi Yosi’s harangue? He could have simply said, “No, thank you”. Why did he have to deliver a speech about the value of Torah and about the transience of life?

There was once a king who had a dear and trusted servant whom he loved dearly. One day the king decided that he wanted to show his servant how much he appreciated his years of faithful service. He summoned the servant and told him that the following day he was going to give him exactly one hour to enter his royal vault containing his endless treasures and that he would be able to take whatever he wanted.

The king had another servant – Gustav - who was consumed with jealousy. When he heard the incredible offer that the king was offering the other servant he contemplated how he could cause the servant to blow the opportunity.

Gustav went before the king and said, “Your highness, I am so pleased that your highness has decided to bestow such well-deserved honor upon my friend. I would only humbly add that I know him well. He really loves beautiful music, a good bottle of scotch, and grilled lamb-chops. If your highness really wants to show him love and honor, you can allow his servant to enjoy those pleasures while he is collecting his treasures in the vault.”

The king was delighted with the idea. The next morning Gustav accompanied the honored servant into the vault. Throngs of relatives and friends gathered at the entrance of the vault, hoping that the servant would share the incredible wealth that was soon to be his when he emerged.

When they entered the inner rooms the servant could not believe his eyes. A handful of anything in the room would make him one of the richest people in the kingdom. But as was about to proceed, Gustav told him to stand quietly and listen. There was enchanting music coming from the outside room. They walked outside the room to where a symphony orchestra was playing the most intricate pieces of music, perfectly synchronized. The servant became lost in the dazzling beauty of the music. He stood with his eyes closed, mesmerized by what he was hearing.

When he finally opened his eyes a half-hour had passed. “Oh my goodness”, he cried out, “I have wasted so much time.” But before he could proceed Gustav emerged with bottles of the most expensive scotch available. “Why rush?” he called out to his friend, “just a couple of shots never hurt anyone. Besides you have plenty of time!” The servant could hardly resist and Gustav kept refilling his cup as they laughed and drank.

Within a short time, the servant was completely inebriated. Gustav smiled, “Ahh my friend, what better way to indulge then with a few lamb chops.” Indeed the smell of fresh lamb chops wafted through the room. The servant felt weak as Gustav led him to a plate of fresh lamb chops seasoned and grilled to perfection.

By the time the servant finished consuming the lamb chops there were just minutes left. He stood up and staggered over to the treasures and tried to grab what he could. But he was so drunk that he kept stumbling. Suddenly, a loud bell rang and a guard called out that he was not allowed to touch anything else.

The crowds waiting outside could hardly contain their excitement. But when the servant walked out they were shocked. He staggered out clumsily and obviously drunk; there was grease and stains all over his clothing, his face, and his hair. The people called out to him, “Where is all the wealth you amassed?” they assumed he had left wagonloads of treasures inside that would be carried out imminently.

The servant incoherently replied, “Well, I had a good couple of drinks and really good lamb chops and that’s important too!”

Needless to say, from that day on the once highly acclaimed servant was disparaged and scorned. He was forevermore known as the imbecile who wasted the greatest opportunity one could ever have!

Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma’s story contains a deeper meaning. When Rabbi Yosi related that he was traveling along the road, he was referring to the road we all traverse, i.e. the road of life. The ‘certain man’ who met him and warmly greeted him was the Evil Inclination.

Life invariably takes us in many different directions, and we are constantly challenged to veer off the proper path. The Master Ethicists explain that one of the greatest keys to maintaining our balance and not being swayed is to always remember our roots. “Know from where you’ve come![3]”When one has a strong cognizance and sense of perspective and purpose, he is better equipped to pursue his goals and aspirations, despite all hindrances and obstacles that challenge him.

The question is when we are asked the ubiquitous question, “From where are you?” how do we answer. Rabbi Yosi did not reply that he was from a certain village in Babylonia. Rather, that he was from a great city of scholars and sages. It is a city beyond this world, from where all souls are dispatched and ultimately return to. The vicissitudes of life were unable to cause Rabbi Yosi to forget where he truly comes from.

The offer of “the man” that Rabbi Yosi join him in his city so that he could offer him material wealth and prosperity, represents the challenge we are all confronted with on some level. The Evil Inclination approaches us with sincerity and earnestness. He offers us valid reasons why we should become involved in externalities, and we convince ourselves that doing so is necessary and proper.

Then, as soon as we open the door slightly, our Evil Inclination slams the door open, and drags us deeper and deeper into the morass of sin and iniquity.

Rabbi Yosi saw through that farce. If the man truly wanted Rabbi Yosi to become a Torah leader in his city he should have told Rabbi Yosi about the spiritual potential that the city contains. The fact that his offer was strictly for physical greatness and prosperity indicated that the offer lacked spiritual value. Thus, not only did Rabbi Yosi refuse the proposition but he proceeded to explain why the offer was futile.

One only takes with him the Torah and mitzvos he has accrued during his lifetime. When ‘the man’ returns to take our soul and send us back to the real world of the living all the money and prosperity isn’t worth a dime! Rabbi Yosi explained that it was that realization that protected him from falling prey to the man’s convincing argument.

This world is a temporary existence where we have the opportunity to seize the greatest eternal treasures. But we become so side-tracked by the vanities and futilities of life. That was the message of Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma: Never forget where you really come from and never forget why you were sent down this road!

The month of Elul and the weeks preceding the awesome impending Days of Judgment afford us the opportunity to take stock of our own spiritual level. We are all in the vault for a set amount of time. The question is are we grabbing the treasures available to us or are we too busy drinking scotch and eating lamb chops?

“When you will go out to war against your enemies”

“I am from a great city of scholars and sages”

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[1] Avos 6:9

[2] The following thought was adapted from a lecture given by Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, parshas Balak 5768.

[3] Avos 3:1

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