Let’s Call a Spade a Spade

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

When going out in battle against their enemies there is a vital tool that must not only accompany the soldiers at all times, but must also be placed in the exact location on their belts, the left side, where their swords were suspended from. (תרגום יהונתן, לקח טוב)

ויתד תהיה (דברים כג יד) — You must also keep a spade, על אזנך — with your weapons. 

The Torah explains that this was necessary ‘so that when you have to sit down to relieve yourself, you will first dig a hole with it, and then sit down, and finally, cover your waste. For G-d your Lord, walks in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you.’

In contrast to other nations whom during times of war permit a loosening of proper protocol, a Jewish soldier would not only have to leave the camp to find an appropriate spot to relieve himself, but must also be careful to cover his waste.

This notion was evidently so significant that the ‘spade’ must be given equal status with the mighty sword being situated directly beside it.

Not only was this important, the entire success of conquering our enemies was contingent on it.

להצילך ולתת (שם טו) — to rescue you and to deliver, איביך לפניך — your enemies before you.

It has been observed that embedded within this verse is a reference to the month of Elul, as the first letters of each word in this sentiment spell out א-ל-ו-ל.

Even more intriguing than this random reference to Elul, is the Baal HaTurim’s observation that the word used to describe this ‘instrument of war’; ויתד, and a spade, is numerically equivalent to והאבות, and The Patriarchs! (420)

In what way are we to understand this parallel between the very mundane and ‘practical’ spade and our holy and noble Patriarchs?

It is reported in the mystical traditions of Kabbalah that Yaakov and Esav split the twelve months of the year between themselves. Yaakov took Tishrei, Chesvan and Kislev, while Esav took Teves, Shevat and Adar. Yaakov took Nissan, Iyar and Sivan, while Esav took Tamuz, Av and Elul. Eventually Yaakov wrested from Esav the months of Adar, which became a time of rejoicing, and Elul, which became the month of Divine mercy and repentance. This is possibly alluded to in  Esav’s complaint to his father Yitzchok when he reported that Yaakov ‘outwitted him twice’, referring mystically to these two months that he snatched from him.

Every year during the month of Elul, this battle between Yaakov and Esav is pitted once again. Esav seeks to retrieve his rightful due of this the month for himself. He attempts to prevent us from knowing of the sweetness of repentance. He tries to paint for us a picture of a troublesome month, one that we long to be done with. (ראש בשמים ע”ש ליקוטי מהר”ן)

The Tzror HaMor points out that immediately prior to this paragraph the Torah refers to our ‘brother’ Esav. He is the enemy the Torah is speaking about in these subsequent verses, that we hope to overpower perforce our maintaining this מחנה קדוש, a holy camp.

The very first directive when going out to battle is:  ונשמרת (שם שם י)— You shall guard, מכל דבר רע — against anything evil. 

The Talmud says that the vigilance required here is to avoid viewing inappropriate images during the day that may bring one to impurities by night. If one experiences impurity he must leave the camp until he purifies himself. 

The Torah then segues to instructing how to tend to our bodily needs with modesty, even during wartime. It concludes with the charge to keep the camp holy in making sure, ולא יראה בך ערות דבר (שם שם טו) — ‘that He will not see seeing anything lascivious among you.’ The Jerusalem Talmud expands the term ‘ערות דבר’, which literally means ‘naked speech’, to imply the need to refrain from uttering profanities. (תרומות פ”א) 

We are all familiar with remarkable work of the Ramchal, the Mesilas Yeshorim. The entire book is premised on a famous teaching of the great Tanna, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who taught famously: Torah leads to Watchfulness; Watchfulness leads to Zeal; Zeal leads to Cleanliness; Cleanliness leads to Separation; Separation leads to Purity; Purity leads to Holiness; Holiness leads to Humility; Humility leads to Fear of Sin; Fear of Sin leads to Holiness; Holiness leads to Divine inspiration, and Divine inspiration leads to the Revival of the Dead.

We are taught that the catalyst for Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair’s ascent up the ladder of spiritual growth was this very first verse  that prods us to ‘guard against anything evil’ and avoid gazing at arousing images. (ע”ז כ)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discovers that nearly all the steps in this process are alluded to in these terse verses: ‘You shall Guard’/ Watchfulness; ‘Keep a spade’/ Zeal; ‘You shall… cover’/ Cleanliness; ‘He ( one who is impure) shall go outside the camp’/ Purity; ‘Your camp shall be holy’/ Holiness; ‘That He will not see seeing anything lascivious among you’/ Humility and Fear of Sin; ‘For G-d your Lord, walks in the midst of your camp’/ Divine Inspiration.

What is going on here? We are talking about soldiers getting ‘down and dirty’ in the heat of battle, trying to avoid the temptation to let things simply ‘hang loose’, attempting to not be lured toward  the easier path and natural tendency to discard inhibition in these most vulnerable moments. Is this a time for Mussar seder, to open a Mesilas Yeshorim and aspire for Divine inspiration? 

Clearly it is! The ability to hone our pure souls to develop the ability to maintain our dignity in the most undignified settings; to train ourselves to control and monitor even our most instinctive body functions and maintain our poise; to withhold from our lips the vulgarities that so easily pour forth when we are strained, tired, anxious and in mortal danger, is the hallmark of our Patriarchs that we so strive to emulate.

This is the ultimate battle between Yaakov and Esav, the forces of those who claim mastery over their strongest urges against those who allow instinct and reflex to govern their lives and define their relationship to it.

Yaakov mastered his instincts; meriting to proclaim that he never experienced an unintentional impurity having never lapsed in his vigilance to be exposed to images that might affect him.

Esav, the beast of instinct who despite moments of inspiration simply can’t creep out of the grasp of his urges, plunging headfirst into the inviting red porridge, discarding every value for the pleasure and comfort of the moment.

When Yaakov finally confronts Esav, displaying before him his radiant family that reflects the greatest attributes and aspirations of the Patriarchs, he places beautiful Rachel at the end of the procession so as to prevent Esav’s lecherous and wandering eyes from falling upon her countenance. 

This is the ultimate showdown. 

If we really want to claim rights to this marvelous month of Elul and G-d’s promise to draw close to all who seek Him, we must start at the very beginning of this ladder.

We live in a world influenced and permeated with the philosophy of Esav. 

Have we given up? Social media, the internet, movies, entertainment, music, assault us incessantly with its powerful lure to our most base instincts. Yet we continue to expose not only our already tainted eyes and ears but the pure eyes and ears of our children with images, sounds and ideas that stain their souls. It all starts out as merely a glimpse, but fester beneath the surface until it consumes them completely in a bear hug that is impossible to break out of.

Our problem is that we rationalize our behavior claiming to be ‘normal’ and not ‘farfrumt’, overly zealous. But we are only fooling ourselves. We often wonder why we aren’t successful, yet the Torah clearly states that if we indulge in seeing inappropriate images and speaking vulgarly, ושב מאחריך (שם שם טו), He will turn away from behind you, removing His protective and loving embrace.

The verse assures us that if we sanctify our camp G-d promises להצילך, to rescue you. The Midrash sees in this word the root צל, shade, intimating that this relationship begins by our willingness to sit in His shade, to forfeit our fleeting desires for a greater pleasure, to bask in His presence. 

The verse goes on to say that G-d assures, ולתת איביך — to also deliver your enemies, לפניך — before you. This is an odd phrase, shouldn’t it have said to deliver your enemies ‘into your hands’? What does it mean to place them before you?

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that if one is ready to ‘guard against anything evil’ by sitting under the ‘shade’ of G-d, one will merit to identify and face those enemies more clearly and defiantly. When we stand tall and proud living the credo of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs our foes succumb easily and fall away, without the need to raise even a sword. It is the ‘spade’ the legacy of our Patriarchs, which have endowed us with the ability to bury the negative influences of this world that is our most potent weapon.

It is high time to call a ‘spade a spade’ and be honest with ourselves in assessing how entrenched we are by the culture we are exposed to constantly. Be it Facebook or other social media that allows for venomous, vulgar, and uninhibited expressions to destroy others and ourselves in the process, we must fight the battle in finally burying this waste. Rav Shimshon Pincus referred to the internet as the largest cesspool in the world.

It’s Elul and merely two weeks before Rosh Hashana when we will beg G-d for his loving protection and blessings. Let us create a ‘holy camp’ by ridding ourselves from the evils that seek to destroy us. 

Let us call a spade a spade and once and for all bury this shamefulness so that we may merit that G-d walk in our midst.

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