If you open any translation of this week's Torah reading, it will begin: "When you go out to war against your enemy." But if you look into the original Hebrew, you will see that this is only an approximate rendition. Al,
the Hebrew word translated as "against," really means "over" or "above."
With this choice of wording, the Torah teaches us a fundamental lesson about warfare. To be victorious in war, you've got to be "above your enemy." As long as two foes slug it out face to face on the same level, there will be no true victor; even the one who wins will suffer severe losses. The only way to achieve a victory is to be truly superior.
If this was true in the past, it is plainly obvious in the present era when warfare has become high tech. Gone are the days when brute strength and bravado alone will bring success on the battlefield. Today wars are won with weaponry that requires a mind to operate. When the know-how which designs and controls one country's weaponry is much more sophisticated than that of its enemy, there will be one-sided victories like the Gulf War.
When the Torah speaks about wars, it is speaking on two planes simultaneously. In the past - and in the present - there are times when our nation has taken to arms, and has applied the Torah's guidelines concerning war in an actual sense. For these are not merely philosophical pronouncements, but laws to be applied in real life.
On the other hand, for most of our people throughout the course of Jewish history, the wars of primary concern have been "wars of the spirit." The enemy has not been external, but part and parcel of our own being, for there is a battle within ourselves.
We have both material and spiritual desires and there is a dynamic tension between them as each seeks to control our consciousness. And when a person is intense about his life, this dynamic tension can be considered as war.
In this vein, we can appreciate the importance of being "above your enemy." If our spiritual tendencies are fighting with the same type of weapons - i.e., our ordinary type of feeling and thought - as our material tendencies, neither side is going to achieve a real victory. But we have within ourselves a truly superior spiritual potential; our soul is "an actual part of G-d." When we bring this spiritual core into expression, we are head and shoulders above the way our materially oriented thoughts work.
There is another dimension to being above the foe you combat. When you're dealing with someone on the same level, aggressiveness is often stimulated and you may feel an urge to destroy or at least harm your enemy. When you're above, you feel pity and compassion.
That does not mean that you are less thorough in seeking victory, but it's victory you're seeking, not vengeance. And once victory is achieved, there is a willingness to elevate and teach the enemy, not to stamp them out.
These concepts are alluded to in our Torah reading which speaks of taking captives in war, i.e., transforming opponents into assets, and of finding a beautiful woman among the captives - i.e., appreciating the positive qualities an enemy may possess - and after a period of transition and conversion, taking her as a wife, i.e., embracing them as part of our lives.
Similarly, with regard to the wars of the spirit, Judaism does not speak of vanquishing or destroying our material tendencies, but rather of harnessing and controlling them, and transforming them into positive forces. Ultimately, the intent is marriage, i.e., a fusion of the spiritual and the physical.