Returning from the Front

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Shoftim

Returning from the Front

By Rav Michael Hattin

INTRODUCTION

With the people of Israel poised on the Jordan's eastern bank, anxious to enter the new land but also filled with apprehension, Moshe continues his final address. He has already reviewed with them the pivotal episodes of their brief but dynamic national history, recalling the revelation, the golden calf and the incident of the spies. He has reminded them of their astounding victories, first over Pharaoh and later over the Amorite kings, emphasizing to them in no uncertain terms that they need not fear as long as they remain steadfast in their faith. And he has impressed upon them repeatedly that their success will exclusively depend upon the choices that they make: keep God's charge and succeed; abrogate it and perish.

Now Moshe turns his attention to national concerns, to the instruments and to the institutions that will regulate Israel's life as a people in the new land. First, he describes the need for a functioning judiciary, for devoted judges who are accessible but impartial, learned but involved. He calls for officers, who will fearlessly enforce the rulings of the judges and ensure that the laws are taken seriously (16:18-20). Next, he emphasizes the necessity of a priesthood, not only to perform the rituals but also to interpret the Torah, to instruct the people in God's ways and to inspire them to follow Him (17:8-13). Then, he raises the issue of a king, setting out the parameters of a monarchial system that is meant not to replace God with a temporal ruler but rather to complement His dominion with good and equitable governance (17:14-20). Finally, Moshe mentions the matter of a prophet, reassuring the people that God's direct communications to them will continue even after his demise (18:15-22). The discussion concerning these four critical offices – judiciary, priesthood, king and prophet – that together constitute a rudimentary but effective system of checks and balances, is not unexpectedly interspersed with a number of references to the hazards of idolatry and to the attendant need to extirpate it utterly. Where idolatry thrives, Moshe indicates, Godliness withers and moral corruption holds sway.

THE ISSUE OF WARFARE

There is of course one more topic that is featured prominently in our parasha and in many other sections of sefer Devarim, a matter that is especially pertinent to a people about to enter a new land, and that concerns the issue of warfare. In fact, most of the second half of parashat Shoftim is devoted to this subject (Chapter 20), and the discussion continues into the next parasha as well. And as sefer Devarim progresses and the people draw closer and closer to their destiny, the discussion takes on a progressively more practical as well as more urgent quality. Our parasha introduces the subject with an inspirational flourish, and this is quickly followed by the particulars concerning what might be termed "non-obligatory warfare." This type of conflict, known in the Rabbinic sources as "milchemet reshut," is a type of defensive war in which it is resources and not lives that are at stake. Israel may choose to engage in milchemet reshut in order to secure needed assets or else to enhance its strategic depth by seizing the territory of belligerent but currently non-engaging foes. Since this type of conflict is regarded as being less urgent than a direct response to unprovoked enemy attack, the Torah provides a number of important exemptions from what would otherwise amount to universal conscription:

When you go out to war against your foes, if you should see horses, chariots and armies that outnumber you, then do not be afraid of them, for God your Lord is with you who took you out of the land of Egypt. When you draw close to the battlefield, then the priest shall step forward and address the people. He shall say to them: "Hearken Israel, today you draw close to wage war against you enemies. Let not your heart be irresolute, neither fear nor be afraid nor be frightened from before them! For God your Lord goes before you, to fight your enemies on your behalf and to save you!"

The officers will then address the people saying: "Is there a man who has built a new house but has not yet dedicated it? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man dedicate it instead. And is there a man who has planted a vineyard but has not yet eaten of its fruit? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man eat of it instead. And is there a man who has betrothed a woman but has not yet taken her in marriage? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man take her instead." Then the officers shall continue to say: "Who is the man that is afraid and timorous? Let him go and return to his house, so that he will not melt the hearts of his fellows like his own!" When the officers have finished addressing the people, then they shall appoint the captains of the army to lead the people…(20:1-9).

NOT SUCCUMBING TO FEAR

The overall theme of the section is of course the necessity to maintain composure, to enter the fray with confidence and with fortitude. Even when the odds seem less than sanguine, many a powerful foe has been defeated by a combination of strategy, motivation, and the belief that one's cause is just. The message that the priest is to forcefully convey to the people is that God will not abandon His people to defeat, as long as they trust in Him.

Perhaps the exemptions from active service that follow are to be understood as directly related to this underlying theme. Let these four types of "warriors" leave the battlefield, for how can they be expected to fight with fortitude when their minds are so clearly preoccupied with other thoughts? The house builder, the planter of the vineyard and certainly the one engaged to marry cannot be devoted with single-mindedness to the task at hand because their other concerns distract them. In effect, all of these three can be understood as constituting a thematic expansion of the last exemption: the one who is afraid to fight. This man whose craven heart is consumed by dread is sent home because he may come to weaken the resolve of his compatriots. Panic can spread quickly through the ranks, and the fearful man is therefore wisely exempted before his feelings of timidity become contagious. But in essence, the coward is excused because he too cannot concentrate on the matter of the battle, so consumed is he with his own fears and uncertainties. All four of the exemptions may therefore be understood to have drawn their justification from the same source, and this realization suddenly casts much light on the structure of the passage as a whole. Is not the section entirely about OVERCOMING FEAR? Let us read it again with the key words highlighted:

When you go out to war against your foes, if you should see horses, chariots and armies that outnumber you then do not be AFRAID of them, for God your Lord is with you who took you out of the land of Egypt. When you draw close to the battlefield, then the priest shall step forward and address the people. He shall say to them: "Hearken Israel, today you draw close to wage war against you enemies. Let not your heart be IRRESOLUTE, neither FEAR nor be AFRAID nor be frightened from before them! For God your Lord goes before you, to fight your enemies on your behalf and to save you!"

The officers will then address the people saying: "Is there a man who has built a new house but has not yet dedicated it? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man dedicate it instead. And is there a man who has planted a vineyard but has not yet eaten of its fruit? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man eat of it instead. And is there a man who has betrothed a woman but has not yet taken her in marriage? If so, then let him return to his house, lest he die in battle and another man take her instead." Then the officers shall continue to say: "Who is the man who is AFRAID and TIMOROUS? Let him go and return to his house, so that he will not MELT THE HEARTS of his fellows as his own!" When the officers shall finish addressing the people, then they shall appoint the captains of the army to lead the people…(20:1-9).

This eminently rational approach to the passage is independently advanced by three of the medieval commentaries, a sure sign that it is on the mark: the Rashbam (12th century, France), the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), and the Ramban (13th century, Spain) all agree that the house builder, vine planter and engaged suitor are released from battle because of their inability to focus upon the fray. As the Ramban concisely puts it, borrowing from the vocabulary that the Torah utilized to describe the one whose HEART is stricken with fear:

The Torah commanded concerning all three of these that they should return (from the front) because his HEART is upon his home, his vineyard and his wife, and he will therefore flee…(commentary to 20:5).

RASHI'S READING

Remarkably, though, Rashi offers a different reading, arguing that the builder of a new home returns from battle "lest he die in battle and another man dedicate it, and this is something that torments the soul…" (commentary to 20:5). Although Rashi does not repeat the comment concerning the other exemptions, they presumably all relate to this overarching idea. How troubling and disconcerting it is when young men die in battle, just a short moment before their fall full of life and plans for the future, everything tragically and suddenly cut short by a cruel and capricious fate! And when a young man has already began the process of building his life in earnest, by erecting a home, planting a vineyard or engaging a woman, then the tragedy becomes more unbearable, for the loss now seems suddenly magnified by the constructive potential destroyed. That someone else should complete the task began by that young man is paradoxically a source of greater vexation, for it highlights the gaping hole that has been rent by his untimely demise in the fabric of the family and of the larger community of which he had been part.

For Rashi then, what is at stake is not the morale of the fighters in battle but rather that of the civilians that constitute the home front. In order that the people not lose their resolve, in order that particularly tragic losses are minimized (though every loss is indescribably tragic), these three are released from service lest they perish in battle. Significantly for Rashi, the exemption granted to the man afraid of fighting, the fainthearted individual sent home so as not unsettle and unnerve his company, is completely independent of these three and unrelated to their discharge.

SUPPORT FOR RASHI FROM YIRMIYAHU

Perhaps we may find support for Rashi's unconventional reading from a seemingly unrelated passage from the book of Yirmiyahu. There, the prophet addresses the people of Jerusalem who had been exiled to the rivers of Babylon towards the very end of the First Temple period. The destruction of the Jewish Commonwealth happened incrementally over the course of many years, and there were a number of waves of exile to Babylon even before Jerusalem was besieged and conquered. In this poignant passage, Yirmiyahu conveys God's comforting words to the people. They are to build new lives for themselves in Babylon, for they will not be returning to Jerusalem any time soon:

These are the words of the scroll that Yirmiyahu the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the Diaspora and to the priests, prophets and all of the people that Nevuchadnezzar had exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon…(It said): "Thus says God of hosts Lord of Israel to all of the deportees that I have exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and dwell in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage to men and let them beget sons and daughters, and increase there and do not become less. Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray on its behalf to God, for in its peace you too shall have peace…for thus says God: in accordance with seventy full years for Babylon shall I remember you and establish with you all of My good words, to return you to this place…(Yirmiyahu 29:1-9).

It will be noted that Yirmiyahu, in his efforts to convince the יmigrיs that they would be remaining in exile for a lengthy period of time, describes three pursuits that are indicative of striking down roots in a new place and restoring lives that had been destroyed: building houses, planting gardens, and taking wives in marriage, the very three things (and in the same order!) that had been presented in our parasha as the basis of the permission granted to return from the front. Rashi's explanation is thus vindicated, for it is precisely because these three pursuits are in the national interest, even in times of war, that they must be continued even as the battle rages. For the house to remain incomplete, the vineyard untended and the woman bereft of her future husband is to surrender to despondency, to be overwhelmed by the war and to give up hope of a brighter future. Now it is true that in the end the house can be completed by someone else, the vineyard tended by another and the woman married to a new suitor. But Rashi wants to indicate that the Torah's interest in this passage is not simply that Israel should prevail eventually but rather that they should continue to live, to build cities, to cultivate the earth and to raise children even during the course of the conflict. Therefore let these men return and eschew warfare so that they might show their compatriots that real victory over the enemy means never succumbing to despair.

For over one hundred years, from the time that Jews began to return to the land of their ancestors en masse in order to reconstitute their state and up until the present day, the people of Israel have been subjected to unrelenting attack by their foes. Sometimes this warfare has been overt and obvious; often, it has been "low intensity" and largely unreported in the world media, but it has never ceased for even one single moment. Jews in the land of Israel have had to defend themselves constantly from enemy armies and from terrorist attacks, from unremitting incitement and from constant calls for the dismantling of their state. Miraculously, however, the Jews of Israel have managed not only to survive but to prosper as well. Their state has become a local superpower and a cultural, political, economic and scientific marvel in a lackluster and barren region otherwise almost exclusively characterized by stagnation, oppression and decay. Largely, this success has been fueled by the very optimism that the Torah demands of us in our section. We are called upon to not only endure but to flourish, and this is accomplished by insisting on continued building and growth, physical as well as spiritual, even as destruction sometimes stares us in the face. May God grant us the fortitude to prevail.

Shabbat Shalom