Tough problem Step back, seek help, remove self-interest

Chukat 5767
Numbers 19:1-22:1
Judges 11:1-33

Sometimes one can learn more from the battles that are lost than from the ones from which we emerge victorious. There is a three-verse story in this week’s Torah portion that could easily be skipped right over. “The king of Canaan from Arad, who dwelled in the southern desert … warred against Israel” (21:1). He enjoyed a degree of success and took captives, causing the people to pray to HaShem and say that if we would win the next round of battle, we would donate the spoils of war to the Temple instead of enjoying them. Verse 3 tells us that “HaShem heard the voice of Israel” and we overcame our attacker.

The Midrashic analysis of this passage points to several issues. Why does this king attack us from out of the blue? And why do the Jewish people lose the first round of battle? We will soon see the Children of Israel fighting wars against the mighty Sichon and Og with no trouble, so what went wrong here?

Also, it is interesting that in their prayer, the Jewish People ask HaShem to save them from this enemy, but do not specify who that enemy is. Why not ask for exactly what we want? Finally, why resort to a vow of dedicating the property to the Temple?

In explanation, Rashi (quoting the Midrash) makes an innovative set of suggestions. A careful reader may recall that it is actually the nation of Amalek, the original archenemies of the Children of Israel who are said to live in the southern desert. He picks up on this and suggests that the king who attacked us was indeed a king of Amalek, posing as a Canaanite king to confuse us and throw off our battle plan.

This helps explain the seeming randomness of the attack; we have a history of battle with these people. So we went into the first round of battle praying for help against “the Canaanites,” a fruitless plea.

Noting from our initial defeat that something was wrong here, we took a new approach and asked HaShem in more vague terms to save us from this enemy, whoever he may be. Feeling desperate and panicked, we added the offering of the spoils to the Temple. At that point it all works out.

It seems possible that we see here a plan and strategy offered by the Torah as a map for dealing with our own life struggles. What should we do when we encounter a problem or challenge and our efforts to resolve it come to failure? When we have tried and tried our best, but keep knocking our heads against the wall but find the issue unresolved? This was the problem faced by our people in battle when they were caught off guard by a shocking defeat in the first round.

Step one was that instead of repeatedly trying the same ineffective solution on the problem, they took a step back to see if perhaps they had misdiagnosed the issue.

Perhaps we too are not facing the enemy we think is in front of us. Take a step back, and consider what the problem really is, not what we want it to be because we have an answer easily available for it. If need be, we have to admit that we don’t really know what the problem is and need to consider it further.

Second, they prayed and asked HaShem for help. In approaching a particularly sticky problem, it pays to realize that we don’t necessarily have all the answers on our own. Bringing in outside help can change the entire dynamic.

Finally, they swore off any personal gain. The message: Try to remove self-interest from the picture. It only clouds our thinking and makes us want to skew reality in a certain direction. Instead of wanting the reality to be a way that suits us, we need to get free of our personal interests and see the issue for what it is.

Indeed, these three verses left our people, and perhaps their Torah-attentive descendants as well, better prepared to face whatever issues and surprises would next come their way.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected] .