By Rabbi Debra J. Robbins
Parashat Ki Teitzei
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), begins, “When you (singular) go out to fight against your enemies (plural) and God delivers them into your (singular) hands and you (singular) take them captive…” (Deuteronomy 12:1). In Hebrew it is obvious if nouns or verbs are in the plural but the nuance can be missed in English, and often these seemingly mundane grammatical details yield meaningful spiritual insights.
Rashi notices the Hebrew word for enemies is plural. He suggests the text is not about a battlefield. “The Torah speaks only about the fight against our evil inclination (our yetzer hara).” He understands there are many negative temptations and destructive behaviors in our lives (spiritual and ethical enemies and obstacles) and we have to constantly battle with them to live holy lives.
The Baal Shem Tov notices the Hebrew pronoun, “you” is not plural as we might expect when addressing a military battalion. He teaches, “Every individual Jew has no greater enemy than his/her/their Evil Inclination. ‘Adonai will deliver it into your hands.’ The Torah promises you’ll emerge victorious. Not only that, but ‘you will take it captive,’ so that you will be able to harness the forces of the Evil Inclination to serve God.”
This Torah portion is always read midway through the month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holy Days and get ready to confront the values and vices of our lives. We can use this metaphor to ask: What or who or where are the enemies in my life? Throughout the month of Elul and all the way to the end of Sukkot, many people also read Psalm 27. It too uses the metaphor of enemies, and this week, in the light of Ki Teitzei, I invite you to consider this interpretation of Psalm 27:2.
“When evildoers approach me in battle to feed on my flesh —
my pursuers, my adversaries [they are mine] —
They have stumbled, they have fallen down.”
(Psalm 27:2, translation by Rabbi Richard Levy)
Five times, the first person singular pronoun is used in this one verse.
“…Evildoers come near me. They threaten to consume me.
My pursuers, my adversaries, li they are mine…”
I read these words, hear the repetition,
and instantly I know, these words, like the fears, are mine.
What are the old narratives that pursue me?
What are my adversaries, convictions and habits that trap me in their grip?
Which obstacles block my path, force me to run away
or remain immobilized?
My grief, my guilt, my old grudge?
My addiction — to something chemical or emotional?
My competition with fellow workers, siblings, friends or neighbors,
the stranger next to me at the gym, with myself?
My fear — of something new, of something old?
I feed the fear with my denial of it, with my avoidance of it,
and so while it grows stronger, I become smaller, more broken.
These pursuers and adversaries and obstacles — they are all mine.
I know each one, well.
They are real and powerful and now I want to overcome them.
I name them in God’s Presence —
wherever I am, God shelters me, encourages me, raises me up.
There are times when I do this work with others.
United, we face an opposing camp,
make war against a shared enemy, overcome an obstacle.
But not now.
This enemy is not an external threat,
it is personal, emotional and spiritual,
it is here.
My pursuers, my adversaries, I can name them all,
Now, in this safe place.
They are mine
(“Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year,” published by CCAR Press, pages 20-21)
May each of us have the strength and the courage to engage in this sacred work, find success in our battles, and be blessed with a New Year of light, hope and peace.
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves as associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas. She is the author of “Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year” and its accompanying online app, both available from CCAR Press.