This week’s Torah portion begins, “When you go out to war upon your enemies... and you take captives,”1 relating laws regulating the conduct of the Jews in war time. Despite Judaism’s desire and striving for universal peace, the Torah itself lays down rules for war.

The Torah did not institute these rules merely out of necessity, because of the possibility of conflict that exists within the world at large. On the contrary, G‑d commands us to wage certain wars, (milchemas mitzvah),2 clearly indicating that, at time, He desires that wars be fought.

Furthermore, the Torah also mentions guidelines for wars for which there is no direct command (milchemas reshus). [Indeed, the content of this week’s Torah portion describes such a war.] Here, we are granted permission to engage in battle for purposes that the Torah does not consider as absolute necessities. Why is such permission granted and what is the redeeming virtue of such war?

Whenever a war is fought, there is an inherent danger. For this reason, the Torah absolves a bridegroom, a person who constructed a new home, and the like from combat duty.3 Similarly, battle causes destruction in the world at large. What is the purpose and value of such wars?

These questions can be resolved by an abstract analysis of the meaning of war. War is a conflict between two opposing natures. Sometimes, when one entity desires to exert influence over another, it can do so peacefully, with the latter accepting the basic thrust of the former and gradually modifying its behavior until ultimately, its powers can be harnessed and used for the goals of the first. When two powers are diametrically opposed, however, and one tries to exert its influence over the other, conflict will ensue.

In an ultimate sense, the concept of war reflects the efforts to transform this physical world into a dwelling place for G‑d. This is the purpose of creation, the goal to which our lives and similarly, every aspect of existence at large, should be directed. Certain elements of existence can, in a gradual and peaceful way, be refined and directed to holiness. There are elements in this world, however, e.g., self-centeredness and the search for personal gratification, which stand in direct opposition to G‑dliness. In their present form, they cannot be refined or elevated, but rather to borrow an expression from our Sages, “only through destruction, they can be purified.”4

This is the Torah’s conception of war, a struggle to transform even the lowest elements of existence into a dwelling for G‑d. For this reason, the Torah commanded the Jews to fight wars to conquer Eretz Yisrael, to turn a land which was renown for its depravity5 into a land, “which the eyes of the L‑rd, your G‑d, are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.”6 Furthermore, even when there is no explicit command for war, the potential is also given to extend the boundaries of holiness and encompass areas which were previously governed by worldliness.

In microcosm, this conception of war is relevant within our own lives as well. On the verse, “And you shall... see the difference between one who serves G‑d and one who does not serve Him,”7 our Sages comment,8 “ ’One who serves G‑d’ is one who reviews his subject matter one hundred and one times. ‘One who does not serve Him’ is one who reviews his subject matter only hundred times.”

In Tanya,9 the Alter Rebbe explains that, in that era, it was customary for a student to review his subject matter one hundred times. Therefore, it was the one hundred and first time, the time when the person went beyond his habit and normal practice, which caused him to be distinguished as “one who serves G‑d.” His striving to rise above his nature and personal habits merited that he be awarded such a title.

A person must challenge himself. Gradual progress is not enough. To “serve G‑d,” we have to break our natures and show there are no limits to our commitment to Him. When a person’s service of G‑d is confined within the scope of his nature and habits, he is serving himself as much as he is serving G‑d. It is only when he goes beyond his self, when his self-image and even his fundamental personality are no longer of consequence to him and he rises above them entirely, that he can be called “one who serves G‑d.”

This service reveals the essential and unbounded Divine potential each Jew possesses within his soul. Transcending the limits of one’s own nature, reveal the existence of a potential which is above all concept of limitation.

The Torah assures us that we have the potential to carry out this service. This is the implication of the phrase, “upon your enemies,”1 in the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion. Grammatically, it would have been proper to state “against you enemies,” or “with your enemies.” Nevertheless, the Torah used a somewhat awkward construction to teach us, that before the war begins, a Jew has to know that he stands above his enemies. He possesses a fundamentally infinite Divine potential, which if tapped, will ensure him of success in any conflict in which he is involved.

In this context, war is part of the process that is necessary for — and will lead to — the complete refinement of the world. Thus, the process of Messianic revelation involves a stage when “he will fight the wars of G‑d and be victorious.”10 Nevertheless, in an ultimate sense, war is only a temporary phenomenon. After Mashiach has established his rule, “There will be no war, envy, or competition... and the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.”11