“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 its captive.” (Devarim 21:10)
During the month of Elul, every weekly parashah contains hints and references to the Yamim Nora’im and the battle with our evil inclination. Job one is teshuvah, repentance, and the Torah reading is one of the tools providing the penitent with assistance in achieving success.
Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, known for his most famous composition, the Ben Ish Chai, uses a parable to explain that the opening verse of this week’s portion gives an effective tactic for spiritual warfare.
A gentile astrologist had a very close relationship with the king. Unfortunately, for a reason unbeknownst to the stargazer, the king turned against him. The situation got so bad that the king decided that he wanted to execute his former confidant. However, political restrictions would not allow the monarch to satisfy his desire to eliminate this man; an unjustifiable execution would reduce the ruler’s stature in the public’s eye. Therefore, he summoned the astrologer to his court, which was fully attended that morning by members of the royal entourage.
“I command you to tell me the day you will die,” said the king with authority. “If you should err in your calculation, the penalty will be immediate death by hanging.”
The frightened victim of the king’s ruse realized that whatever date he picked would allow the king to kill him on any other date and then claim that he was forewarned of the consequences of an inaccurate prediction. He stood silent, deep in thought, and then responded.
“Your Majesty,” he said, “forgive me, but I am truly unable to give you the exact date as you asked. However, I do see in the stars that I will die 30 days before you do.”
The king immediately changed his conduct towards his potential victim. Not only did he not execute the astrologer, but he provided him with superior preventative medical care and full-time special-service guards to protect him from harm, whether intended or accidental.
The plan was successful. The connection the man made between his fate and that of his ruler not only saved his life but culled for him extra lifesaving tools going forward.
The Ben Ish Chai then suggests that each and every Jew should “capture” (subjugate) his evil inclination by turning the tables on him. One should use his tactics (those of the yetzer hara) against him to defeat him.
That is the intention implicit in the words “capture its captive.” When the evil inclination tries to deter mitzvah performance by saying an etrog is too expensive, one should reply that theater tickets are also quite high-priced. When he tries to convince you that you are too tired to get up and join others in a minyan, learn to “be tired” when the activity is a sin or might lead to sin. In other words, capture his techniques and use them to serve our Creator.
Your ability to stay close to Hashem and His Torah, strangely enough, can grow from your ability to behave just like your evil inclination. You must be too tired to do bad — just as the yetzer hara tries to convince you that you are too tired to observe Hashem’s commandments.
Hatzlachah rabbah in all your battles.