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When you go out to the battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot -- a people more numerous than you -- do not fear them, for Hashem, your G-d, is with you, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. It shall be that when you draw near to the war, the Kohen shall approach and speak to the people. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your hearts not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your G-d, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you” (Devarim 20:1-4).
Rashi brings the explanation of the Sages: “‘LET YOUR HEARTS NOT BE FAINT; DO NOT BE AFRAID, DO NOT PANIC, AND DO NOT BE BROKEN BEFORE THEM’; these are four admonitions corresponding to four things which the kings of the nations do in battle - they bring their shields close together in order to strike them one against the other and thereby make a loud noise so that their opponents should panic and run away; they trample the ground heavily with their horses - and make them neigh - in order to make a noise through the beating of their horses' hoofs; they themselves shout aloud; and they blow trumpets and other noisy instruments. LET YOUR HEARTS NOT BE FAINT - from the neighing of the horses; DO NOT BE AFRAID - from the noise made by the clashing of the shields, DO NOT PANIC - at the sounds of the trumpets, AND DO NOT BE BROKEN BEFORE THEM - by the noise of the shouting.”
What was the purpose of this psychological warfare? It was two-fold. Firstly, it was to fool the enemy into thinking that the opposing army is much greater than it actually was. Secondly, it was to eliminate the enemy’s peace-of-mind which is so important in battle when crucial decisions must be made in split seconds.
Those who interpret the Torah homiletically explain these passages to refer to the battle of Man with his Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination). This formidable enemy too uses similar tactics to overwhelm the person and distract him from the composure which he needs to overcome him. The Torah offers us encouragement in this major battle and advises us how to be victorious. We are not to feel faint, nor be afraid, nor panic nor be broken, but to trust in Hashem Who will surely help us win.
This is especially pertinent today, as we begin the month of Elul, the period of preparation for the Judgment days which are rapidly approaching. When one begins the process of honest introspection, he may be traumatized by what he finds. One who runs his business all year, believing that he is making a nice profit, will be shocked when, upon assessing his inventory and poring over his books with his accountant, he discovers that he is actually bankrupt. Similarly, one who goes through his daily routine in life, the whole year, assuming that he is doing lots of mitzvahs and a minimum of aveiros, can be totally stunned when he takes a proper accounting of his ways before Hashem. He will discover how lacking his mitzvahs were, both in quantity and in quality; and he will find how many and how mighty were his sins. This could cause him to panic and paralyze him; preventing him from getting his act together properly, because he fears that it is useless. He is too far gone, he imagines, to be able to make amends.
But all this is the psychological warfare which our shrewdest of enemies uses against us. Although one should surely not make light of his sins and his shortcomings in serving Hashem, still his attitude must be only one of constructive self-criticism; with a goal of correction and an aspiration towards perfection. He should never be afraid nor panic, knowing that Hashem is at his side helping him achieve his lofty goals.
The holy books discuss the difference between broken-heartedness (shivron lev), which is a great virtue, and depression (atzvus), which is a great fault. Both are the result of one’s recognizing his shortcomings and imperfections, so what is the difference? The Chassidishe explanation (I believe found in the Tanya), is that after broken-heartedness comes joy (simchah), whereas after depression comes more depression. The Ba’alei Mussar (masters of Jewish Ethics) say it this way: After broken-heartedness, one sits down to learn; after depression, he goes to sleep.
Like every other positive mitzvah in the Torah, the mitzvah of teshuvah (repentance) must be done with joy. Our greatest of enemies, the Yetzer Hara, tries to take this joy away from us and throw us into a deep depression, one which will put us to sleep throughout the holy month of Elul, only to awaken and find that the holiest and most important of days have slipped through our fingers. We must be shrewder than he by never forgetting the words of encouragement in this week’s parashah: “Hear, O Israel, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your hearts not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your G-d, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.”
May we all return to Hashem properly, prepare for the Judgment days appropriately, and be privileged to a kesivah vechasimah tovah (a good written and sealed decree); a year of peace and prosperity, health and happiness among all of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world, Amen.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network