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When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver them into your hand, and you will capture its captivity (Devarim 21:10).The commentaries write that this passage, which is always read in the month of Elul, the preparatory period to the Days of Awe, is an illusion to the battle one must rage against the Forces of Evil who are trying to destroy him or her spiritually. The following moving story, which I heard from Reb Shalom Shvadron, zt"l, is an important lesson in how to be skillful in that battle and not leave time for good resolutions to lose their effect.
When the Gaon and Tzaddik, Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, ztvk"l, was a young boy, his parents moved into a new home (I believe it was a temporary residence, like a summer home or something like that). After their arrival, they realized that their neighbor was not religious and they were concerned that he may do things on Shabbos which would disturb them. Therefore, they instructed their son to visit the neighbor and ask him nicely and politely to practice neighborly love and refrain from desecrating the Holy Day in any manner or form. Young Shlomo Zalman went to speak to the fellow and explained his family's sensitivities and asked him if he would mind refraining from working one day a week while they were there.
To his pleasant surprise, the neighbor was very cordial and promised that he would not do anything which might disturb their Shabbos rest.
On Shabbos afternoon, however, the Auerbachs were shocked to see their neighbor sitting at his dining room table, opposite his front window, writing letters; publicly violating the laws of the Holy Day. Shlomo Zalman was promptly sent to him to demand an explanation for reneging on his promise to them. Upon being confronted, the neighbor immediately put down his pen and apologized profusely. He explained that he had no idea that sitting and writing was prohibited on the Sabbath. He had understood that the constraint against "work" meant heavy labor or, perhaps, operating loud machinery. He hadn't realized that something as quiet and relaxing as writing could be considered a desecration of the Shabbos. Since he had promised not to disturb his religious neighbors, he concluded, he would refrain from writing too, at least publicly.
Having accomplished his mission, Shlomo Zalman now decided that he wanted to understand this strangely polite and cooperative man; the likes of which he had never encountered before. He began probing the fellow to tell him about his life and explain why he was so cordial and so understanding of the needs of his religious neighbors, whose practices he obviously did not share. The man invited the boy to take a walk with him and listen to a very interesting story.
"When I was a young man," he began, "I was drafted into the Russian army, taught to use a rifle, and commanded to shoot the enemy. I was very upset that I had to kill innocent people, only because my commanders had branded them as 'enemies of the Motherland,' but I knew very well that there was no way I could refuse orders, lest I find myself serving in Siberia instead. Every day I got more and more depressed, until I thought of a novel idea.
"One day, I turned my eyes upwards and began to speak. To Whom? I did not know. But I spoke, nevertheless. And this is what I said:
"'Almighty, G-d, I do not know if You exist. But if You do, it is not my fault that I do not know You. Although I am Jewish by birth, I was taught by my parents and my teachers that there is no G-d. And You never appeared to me to convince me otherwise.
"'One thing I do know, though: that it is wrong to kill innocent people. And I don't want to do what I am being forced to. Therefore, I turn to You now, in this, what might be called a prayer, and I beg of you; reveal yourself to me by making it impossible for me to shoot innocent people. Then I will know for sure that You exist and I will serve You properly.'
"No sooner did I finish my 'prayer,'" the man continued to tell young Shlomo Zalman, who was listening to every word intently, "when a bullet went into my thumb. I fell back, unconscious, and awoke in the hospital, several hours later. The doctors explained to me that I had been wounded in battle and that I would never be able to shoot again! After leaving the hospital, I would be discharged from the army with honors.
"I lied in my bed stunned and amazed. My 'prayer' had been answered. G-d had revealed that He does, truly, exist, and that He accepts the supplications of those who turn to Him with a full heart. I had no more doubts and I knew that this realization obligated me to change my lifestyle completely. As I lied in bed pondering about what I would do now that I was free from the army, the idea struck me like a bolt of lightening: I would join the Army of Hashem and become His loyal soldier. After I get out of the hospital, I thought to myself, I would join a yeshiva, full time, and become a fully observant Jew.
"I was in the hospital for a few days," the man continued his poignant story, "and I rethought my plans many, many times. I had no doubt that I had to fulfill my new commitment; however, I began to question the wisdom of the timing. Since I had only one more semester to complete my university studies and get a degree, I thought that it might be foolhardy to just throw away something I had worked so many years to achieve. Why the rush, I thought to myself. G-d lives forever and so does His loyal People. I would join them half a year from now and realize my vow. Everything would wait for me, I thought. I would certainly never forget what I had experienced this week and its impact upon me.
"And so, I recalculated my route and took a detour. I returned to the university to get my degree, intending, all the time, to join a yeshiva upon completion. However, half a year later, I felt different. Although in my brain I remembered the miracle I had witnessed myself, and I fully recalled the impression it had made on me; in my heart I did not feel it anymore. And I am an idealistic person," he declared proudly, "who cannot do something that I do not actually feel at the moment (Reb Shalom stressed that this 'ideal' too is one of the strategies of the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, to prevent a person from succeeding spiritually). Consequently, I met with a Rabbi and learned a bit about the basics of Judaism, but I could not make the total commitment I had envisioned.
"However, I remained with a great respect for the religion and those who uphold it properly. That is why I am so agreeable to do whatever is necessary not to offend the feelings of people, like your family, who are truly Orthodox."
Shlomo Zalman returned home, shaken to the core. When his parents asked him what had transpired, he cried out, "Gevald (woe). Judaism lost someone who could have been another Birnbaum" (Nathan Birnbaum was a penitent returnee Jew who became an Orthodox leader and did a lot to help the Jewish People before WWII).
From this we learn how important it is to implement our good intentions as soon as we can; before the Satan has a chance to steal them away from us. Then we will be truly happy in this world and in the World-to-Come.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network