OBLIGATORY WAR VS OPTIONAL WAR
Rav of the Chabad Community in Tel Aviv
The War On Israel On Another Level
By Rabbi Chaim Ashkenazi
As discussed at a farbrengen
A person is even obligated to make war regarding the
permissible, and it's a war with oneself over why we need it. In the language of
the Zohar, “Bread is eaten by the sword” – and in the language of the Rebbe
Rashab, at the moment that a person sticks his fork into a piece of meat, he
determines whether it will be in the realm of holiness or G-d forbid, in the
three klipos of impurity.
THE NEVER-ENDING WAR
The Chassid, R. Zalman Moshe, of blessed memory, once sat
at a farbrengen and said “L’chaim” – again and again and again...and his face
turned red, while those assembled waited impatiently to hear his words. He
raised his voice and said: Do you think that life is a “shpilalaike” (a child’s
This is a war! There’s a yetzer tov and a yetzer ha’ra (a
good inclination and an evil inclination)
Torah speaks about two wars that are liable to occur at the
time of the entry into Eretz Yisroel and its settling.
a) Milchemes mitzva
(an obligatory war) – in which
everyone must go and take part.
b) Milchemes Reshus
(an optional war) – where there
are all types of “exemptions” by which a person can stay home and remain behind
in a protected area, such as the Home Front Command and the like.
According to their simple interpretation, these two forms
of war are explained as follows:
An obligatory war is within the framework of the
requirement to destroy the seven nations that were in Eretz Yisroel prior to the
arrival of the Jewish People from Egypt. Since their actions were so utterly
corrupt, we were commanded “you shall not allow any soul to live,” in order that
we shall not learn from their conduct. An optional war is waged for the purpose
of expanding the borders of Eretz Yisroel, which is not an obligation, and
particularly not for every individual.
As is known, everything written in the Torah is eternal and
exists forever, and although it must be fulfilled at every moment, even now, it
is not always possible to do so in the physical sense. In our times, it is often
only possible to carry out a mitzvah’s inner meaning. Therefore, mitzvos of this
type require guidance and direction in the service of a Jew.
Thus, despite the fact that situations of obligatory war
and optional war simply don’t exist now in the simple sense, they do exist in
Avodas Hashem in all generations and at all times.
As is explained in Tanya Chapter 9, there is a constant
state of war between two kings over one small city – the body – and the good and
evil inclinations serve the G-dly soul and the animal soul respectively.
Even in the spiritual war of our times, there are two
Milchemes mitzva and Milchemes Reshus (Obligatory war and
WHAT IS AN OBLIGATORY WAR IN SPIRITUAL TERMS?
Milchemes mitzva is a war on the fulfillment of Torah and
mitzvos – if his hand will put on tefillin, if his body will wrap itself in a
tallis, if his ears will hear the sound of the shofar, Kaddish, K’dusha, the
reading of the Torah, and Torah classes, if his mouth will speak words of Torah,
if his eyes will look upon a seifer Torah and other holy objects, if his legs
will go to shul and the beis midrash, etc. – or not.
The good inclination wants the limbs of the body to do only
mitzvos, good deeds, Torah, and tefillah. In contrast, the evil inclination only
desires things that are halachically forbidden (by Jewish Law), and it has no
desire whatsoever for any of the obligatory mitzvos.
The entire Jewish People are on the same level in this war;
men, women, and children old enough to do mitzvos must all go out to battle.
There is no excuse that can be used to avoid the issue, except in a case of
pikuach nefesh, when Torah permits certain things.
However, if there is no problem of pikuach nefesh, there
can be no excuses. Furthermore, if a person won’t do the mitzva or if he
transgresses with one of his limbs, he is deemed wicked, meaning that he lost
this obligatory war.
In the case of obligatory war, a person can’t choose
whether or not he will participate, because he is sent to the front against the
evil inclination, even against his will. However, it is possible and even
necessary to request in davening each day the following: “Don’t lead me to a
trial,” i.e., no war should occur in my lifetime. This means that we request
that G-d not bring us to the front to wage a dangerous war in which we don’t
know for certain if our protection is suitable or if we have the appropriate
weapons for such a serious battle.
Yet, at that moment that we are already enlisted (and in
the midst of battle) on a fiery battlefield, it is forbidden to show fear and
retreat, for this is a Milchemes mitzva (obligatory war) and as such, there’s a
responsibility for us to do away with evil, as is said: “And you shall destroy
the evil from among you.”
There are no changes in these matters. Throughout all the
generations, we have been commanded to achieve victory in this war, and not to
give the evil inclination a foothold in any of the limbs of our body. Therefore,
a person must stand strong and be on guard!
From generation to generation, our sages have added more
and even more restrictions, because they foresaw the need to protect the Jewish
community. Otherwise Jews might
God forbid fail this test in one of the mitzvos we do with
the limbs of our body.
What is the reason for the additional stringencies,
customs, and hiddurim?
The reason will be understood when we contemplate the
parable of a war:
Since today’s weaponry is so much more destructive,
therefore, the form of protection needed must be different. In previous
generations, there was no need for bomb shelters because there were no bombs.
There was no need for gas masks because there weren’t biological or chemical
It should be clear to everyone that we cannot compromise
and say that since all of these modern weapons of war didn’t exist at one time,
it is therefore possible to go out to battle with just a spear, a sword, a
lance, and a shield. Only someone who has absolutely no concept of reality and
lives in the distant past could possibly say such a thing.
Similarly, we find in relation to the spiritual Milchemes
mitzva. (Obligatory War)
Since a person is obligated in this war, and today the
weapons of the yetzer ha’ra are more developed, more harmful, and more
destructive, transmitting its poisonous contents and even causing damage from
great distances, we therefore must add in our own protection – and in every
generation, the wise ones of the congregation of Israel, (our sages) established
the mode of protection and how far one must distance ourselves from evil.
Even if they didn’t do so explicitly, they made certain
that each and every person understood the need to interpret from the seventy
permissible gates – as is brought in the book Reishis Chochma – in order that
they shouldn’t come (God forbid) to one of the forbidden gates.
Just as in relation to a physical war, when it’s impossible
to say that: “In the old days, soldiers didn’t used to protect themselves in
such a way, yet a fighter remained alive, healthy, and whole.” So too when we
are talking about a spiritual war, one cannot say that “My grandfather didn’t
have all the stringencies like people have today. Yet he still remained an
outstanding, G-d Fearing Jew.”
First of all, no one knows who remains complete in his
Yirat Shamayim and who doesn’t, because this is a personal matter of the soul.
Secondly, and most important, these updated weapons of destruction we face
(Movies, Internet, chat rooms...) pertain to you today (and not to ones
grandfather), and they are most dangerous! So much so, that we need the double
and triple protection that our Rebbeim taught us about.
The Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Law) sets the limits on the area
under a Jew’s control, and one mustn’t be a wise guy and start cutting corners.
Jewish Law doesn’t change over the generations. Rather,
there are additional restrictions, because the weapons of “the opposing forces”
in our times try more than in the past to question the control of the Shulchan
Aruch over our lives, and even G-d Forbid to conquer our homes from within.
Therefore, we have to defend ourselves with all our
strength in the territory we have conquered until now: Clothes that were once
immodest are also immodest today, even if they are publicized by “models” who
Speech and body language deemed in the past as crude are
still inappropriate today for a Chassidic young man to express, even if it is
already accepted practice among “chassidishe” singing groups. Meetings in places
with immodest displays or visiting sites where it is quite easy to come across
them were forbidden and remain so today, despite the fact that we no longer have
to go out of our way because of them...
It is interesting to note that this general principle is
clear and understood to everyone when applied in the area of kashrus, e.g., what
food was forbidden to eat – impure animals, treif, neveila, etc.
It would never cross a person’s mind to say that such
things are permissible today.
However, there are foods that would never have been placed
upon a kosher table before, despite the fact that they are totally kosher,
without a drop of anything forbidden mixed in. Today, such products are
manufactured with the highest quality kashrus supervision, yet no one would ever
consider the possibility that totally forbidden food had become permissible in
our times, to the point that someone who was not a card-carrying chareidi would
dare to eat it. G-d forbid!
What’s forbidden is forbidden “until his soul departs,” in
the words of the well-known Chassidic singer: “Someone who is not a Chassid
says: What’s permissible is permissible until his soul departs, and what’s
forbidden is also a little permissible. But the Chassid says: What’s forbidden
is forbidden, even until his soul departs, and what’s permissible – is also a
WHAT IS AN OPTIONAL WAR IN SPIRITUAL TERMS?
The final words of the song “What’s permissible – is also a
little forbidden” allude to the spiritual Milchemes Reshus (Optional War) waged
over optional matters, i.e., all worldly matters which are within the realm of
the clean and permissible, yet a state of war exists in connection with them.
A person is obligated to make war even regarding the
permissible, and it’s a war we have with ourselves over why we need it. In the
words of the Zohar: “Bread is eaten by the sword,” and in the language of the
Rebbe Rashab, at the moment that a person sticks his fork into a piece of meat,
we determine whether it will be drawn into the realm of holiness or God forbid,
into the realm of impurity. (shalosh klipos ha tamayos)
In addition to the fact that this is called an optional war
because it is waged over optional matters (not necessary things), we have yet
another reason: We have the option to decide if we will wage this war or not.
This means that there’s also a positive commandment of the
Torah, as is written, “And you shall be holy.” G-d tells the Jewish people:
“Sanctify yourselves in what is permissible for you.” If a person doesn’t
sanctify oneself, he is deemed “degenerate with the permission of the Torah.”
However, the realm of the permissible covers a very wide area. This is something
each person must assess for himself properly on how we can (and must!) sanctify
ourselves in those things which are permitted.
Some people may require greater measures to properly
sanctify themselves regarding permissible thoughts that serve no real purpose in
their Avodas Hashem. While for the next person, the same thing is a permissible
speech or action.
For example, in matters of eating and drinking, what types
of food and drink can and must we give up: Ice cream, butter, sugar in our
coffee and tea, bread fresh out of the oven, or other delicacies?
In this, each person has a different requirement of what he
needs and he is not required to give such things up, but anything more than that
falls into the realm of overindulgence in physical desires. Something from which
he must distance himself. To know exactly where the distinction is between an
actual need and a mere desire; what is essential and what is superfluous- A
person must be “one who speaks truth in his heart,” (dovver emess bilvavo). It
would be proper for him to consult with his mashpia (Rabbi).
Among other things, it would be appropriate to check,
together with his “Aseh lecha rav” (make yourself a rav), to see whether he’s
stretching the rope a bit too far, trying to prevent himself forcibly from
permissible things that he truly needs for his bodily existence, and turning
instead to forbidden desires. (By not channeling the energy into an equal
For if he pulls the rope too tightly, it will snap, and he
may tumble God forbid into forbidden desires.
For example, a person starts observing Torah and mitzvos,
and he misses very much the noisy music that he was accustomed to hearing in the
past. If he will allow himself to listen only to niggunim, it’s possible that he
will be unable to withstand the serious restrictions that he has imposed upon
Therefore, at a certain stage, the mashpia suggests that he
listen to what is commonly called today “Chassidic music,” consisting of
rhythmic styles reminiscent of today’s music, yet with stringently kosher
EACH PERSON AND HIS OWN “SANCTIFY YOURSELF”
This means that we have here a ladder with many rungs and
levels, and it is impossible to jump to the top of the ladder if we’re still
holding at the simplest and lowest stages. Everyone knows that you cannot demand
from a child that from the moment he becomes bar mitzva he must refrain from
eating even permissible things just as it is forbidden for him to eat non-kosher
You can’t tell him that he must sustain himself on dry
bread and plain mineral water.
Even fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish... He should eat
only what his dietician says he has to eat in order to live.
Not only do we not demand this of a bar-mitzva boy, we
don’t even place such restrictions on adults.
One of the reasons is because this is an extremely high
level on the ladder. Someone going down starts from the top of the ladder,
whereas someone climbing upward starts
from the lower rungs of the ladder, and he must make
certain that he is established firmly at the level where he’s holding before
moving up to the next stage.
The purpose of this test is to determine whether abstaining
from permitted things have an influence on him and to what degree. The question
is not only if he can live without eating certain foods, but whether his
spiritual state is firm and at ease, and whether those around him feel
comfortable in his presence. In other words, does his abstinence take its toll
in other things, i.e., his physical and mental health?
Therefore, there are no special and detailed sections in
Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Law) on the concept of “Sanctify yourself in what is
permitted to you”; it is expressed in most general terms: A person should not
think that since wine and meat are permissible, there are no boundaries
whatsoever. This is not the case. Rather, we must strive that things should be
done for the purpose of our sustenance, all for our Avodas Hashem.
Every person’s needs and intentions are different. Rabbi
Yehuda HaNasi was blessed with considerable material wealth, yet he derived no
benefit from this world.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa sustained himself each week on a
small quantity of carobs. Yet, not everyone is on the level of Rabbi Yehuda
HaNasi or Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. Therefore, each person must make certain for
himself which level of war is suitable for him in both qualitative and
However, this assessment is not enough. In addition, a
person must determine whether his abstinence from different things influences
his surroundings, i.e., it shouldn’t interfere with others. For in matters
pertaining to the individual, he can decide how and to what degree he can devote
himself. However, there are many things permissible for him that he can
sacrifice, but when he is living with someone else who needs these things very
much and can’t go without them, such a person has no right to deny them to
This principle pertains to relationships between friends,
husband and wife, parents and children. One such example is a person who works
with people who need the air conditioner turned on, while he is interested in
denying himself the pleasure. Another is
someone who considers it a luxury to buy new clothes for a
baby who can easily do with hand-me-downs from older siblings, whereas his wife
feels that without new pink outfits, she won’t be able to experience properly
the joy of her daughter’s birth.. This is similar to a father who eats his
omelet only after it gets cold in order that he won’t enjoy the taste, and he
doesn’t consider how his children don’t like their omelets when they lose their
The above applies only to the realm of the permissible,
meaning that they are part of the “optional war,” in which participation is not
mandatory. This stands in contrast to the “obligatory war” against things that
are forbidden to all and thus there can be no compromise.
What is forbidden is forbidden to all, except for things
included within a vow regarding a ban that a person placed upon himself.
ISKAFIA – FOR HIMSELF, BUT NOT UPON OTHERS
In the spiritual avoda called “Milchemes Reshus,” there is
another most important level: A person must wage war with himself on permitted
matters and not force others to adhere to his standards.
No person has the right to refrain from giving to others by
claiming that it’s a non-essential physical craving, and how can I cause this
person to fail through this worldly pleasure? Maybe it is preferable to give him
bread and water? If a person needs help in his household expenses or in making a
wedding, we have no right to say, “Settle for less – buy used furniture, get
married without a band or floral arrangements...” G-d forbid that we should do
such a thing! We are not the masters over the property that G-d has placed in
our hands in order to give to others. If G-d says that these things are
permitted, then we must make certain that others have the material good they
need. As for what they do with it and how much of it is for the sake of Heaven,
that’s none of our concern.
A Jew must raise to holiness those things that are within
the realm of the permissible, and when he gives them to others he has already
brought about their spiritual elevation. (In contrast, forbidden things are
elevated by resisting them, albeit in an incomplete sense, as only a small
portion of the klipa within them is refined when a Jew ejects it.)
This is the claim of the nations of the world in Rashi’s
first commentary on the Chumash: “You are thieves, because you conquered the
lands of the seven nations.”
Similarly, the Gentiles claim: “We’re prepared to accept
the fact that a Jew has to keep his distance from forbidden things,” as Tanya
states that a Gentile’s evil inclination is from the non-Jewish demons that lust
for forbidden pleasures. But a Jew’s evil inclination is from the Jewish demons
that desire only permitted pleasures, and this is something the
Gentile simply cannot understand, as he says: Why does the
Jew abstain from what is permitted, “isn’t it enough what the Torah has
If the Torah permitted it – it is permissible without
limit. How can we place limitations upon the inclination towards permitted
things when the Torah allows them and gives us permission to enjoy them?
On this point, Rashi comments that this is the reason why
the Torah starts with “In the beginning, G-d created,” etc. – in order that we
can understand that “when He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He
took it away from them and gave it to us.” Yet, while these things were given
for a person’s enjoyment and they are permissible, nevertheless, the same
Creator Who created them permissible is also the One Who said that everything
depends upon His will. If it is based upon His will – for the sake of Heaven,
for the needs of a Jew’s Avodas Hashem in this world – it is given to us. If
this will is lacking, it is given to the nations of the world. In other words,
despite the fact that these things are permissible, since a Jew doesn’t use them
for the sake of Heaven, they derive from the power of the klipos.
THE BATTLE FOR OUR HOME-LAND
Until now, it was clear what belonged to the realm of the
forbidden and thus included in Milchemes mitzva, and what is within the realm of
the permitted, belonging to Milchemes Reshus. (Optional War)
However, there is another category which consists
essentially of permitted things, yet they border on the forbidden. This means
that they were formed with the objective of bringing a person close to the
border of the forbidden, and he needs to pay special attention to the smell of
neveila concealed within them. For example, let’s take a
certain garment regarding which it is possible to argue
whether it looks chassidish or not, however, upon taking a much closer look,
particularly when you contemplate upon who made it and with what purpose in
mind, you reveal that the purpose is bring the wearer closer to the forbidden
Similarly, we find regarding certain places to eat, e.g.,
restaurants and coffee houses, where one can debate whether it demonstrates
proper modesty or not, and if refusing to patronize such an establishment is
warranted and not just being overly “far-frumt.” (Overly religious) For the
purpose of this type of leisure to appeal more to the “Eirev Rav,” (Non-Jews who
pretend to be Jews) who make the claim that we appear too “chareidi,” a fact
that certain people wouldn’t find particularly complimentary or respectable.
These borderline examples seek to bring us closer to a
treacherously steep slope, from where we might God forbid, slip into the depths
of the “other side.”
While a war over things of this type may be regarding
optional matters, this is an obligatory war, similar to what’s stated in
Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Shabbos, sec. 329: When non-Jews come to a city, even
for straw and stubble, i.e., purely economic matters not directly related to
human life, if this is a city close to the border, it is permissible to violate
the laws of Shabbos to go out to war against them.
This is because the situation mandates an obligatory war,
and it’s a mitzva to violate the laws of Shabbos under such circumstances, since
the city is close to the border and its capture can open the path G-d Forbid to
the interior of the country being easily overcome and conquered.
Maybe it would be better to channel our resources elsewhere
and not waste them on such insignificant matters? Nevertheless, Jewish Law rules
that the Shabbos must be violated!
This is an obligation, and we are not allowed to come up
with excuses, because this is a war for our home.
The Torah reveals to us that the Gentile isn’t really
looking for straw and stubble but uses it as an excuse to invade the boundaries
of Eretz Yisroel. (The Land of Israel)
Likewise we have a goy within us – called the “yetzer
ha’ra” who wants us to break the holy boundaries that G-d has established in the
Torah regarding how and what distinguishes the Jewish People from the other
Therefore, even if the changes he’s trying to instill seem
very small and insignificant, since his whole purpose is to bring us closer to
going over the forbidden spiritual border, we must fight him in a total war,
until we achieve the true and complete victory of the Jew within us – our G-dly
soul and the yetzer tov.
Guarding the borders is doubly important in these times of
darkness and confusion, when the “forbidden side” tries to dress up in a
rabbinic cloak to penetrate our home with innovative norms of behavior.
In the merit of our placing firm boundaries that repel
these forbidden forces, our using the permissible to fight them at the border.
Not letting them pass over the border and conquer the interior, by placing
limits on permitted things we deem unessential, so in this merit, we should
merit to see very soon: Hinay Moshiach Bah! (“Here comes Moshiach”)
When at the time of Moshiach in the future, the boundaries
will be made indistinct in a positive sense, and then Eretz Yisroel in the
future will expand to encompass the world. This will begin from Yerushalayim and
the Beis HaMikdash, meaning that the holiness will break through these
boundaries and add from the holiness to the mundane when “He who breaks open the
way goes up before them” and “Yerushalayim shall be inhabited like un-walled
Amen. May His will be fulfilled
Reprinted from Beis Moshiach Magazine Issue 626
Translated By Michoel Leib Dobry
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