The Torah in Parashat Shoftim outlines the procedure that would be followed when Benei Yisrael went out to battle, including the address delivered before battle by the kohen especially assigned to the role of accompanying the soldiers (the kohen mashuach milchama). The kohen would announce exemptions from battle for certain groups of people, after first reassuring the soldiers that they had nothing to fear, as God would be assisting them in battle. He would begin his address with the words “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear, O Israel” – 20:3), which the Gemara in Masekhet Sota (42a), cited by Rashi, sees as an allusion to the daily Shema recitation. The Gemara explains that the kohen would tell the soldiers, in Rashi’s words, “Even if you have with you only the merit of the Shema recitation, you are worthy of His saving you.” The soldiers were assured that the merit of the mitzva of Shema itself made them deserving of victory.
A number of writers raised the question of whether this comment – which the Gemara cites in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – can be reconciled with the view of Rabbi Yossi Ha-gelili cited by the Mishna later in Masekhet Sota (44a). The Mishna there discusses the exemption announced by the kohen for soldiers who feel frightened (20:8). Whereas Rabbi Akiva followed the simple meaning of the text, that this refers to people who are scared of battle, Rabbi Yossi Ha-gelili maintained that this refers to those who are afraid because of sins which they have committed. The implication, seemingly, is that people who are guilty of misdeeds are undeserving of God’s protection on the battlefield, and must therefore not participate in battle. At first glance, then, Rabbi Yossi Ha-gelili disputes Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s claim that even the daily recitation of Shema provides soldiers with sufficient merit to earn divine protection in battle.
In truth, however, these two passages are not at all in conflict with one another. Rabbi Yossi Ha-gelili did not say that a soldier guilty of sins does not earn God’s protection, but rather than one who is afraid that he might not earn God’s protection due to his misdeeds is sent home. Rabbi Yossi might very likely agree with Rabbi Shimon’s claim that the merit of the Shema recitation suffices to guarantee the soldier protection, but he requires that the soldiers be aware of this fact. They are to realize that twice each day, regardless of what mistakes they may have made, they have the opportunity to formally declare their subservience to the Almighty – “kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim” – through the recitation of Shema, recommitting themselves to His authority and rule. The Shema recitation is, in a sense, a declaration of teshuva, in that we proclaim that although we may have violated God’s will in the past, we are now affirming our unwavering allegiance to His will. And thus the merit of the heartfelt recitation of Shema suffices to protect the soldiers in battle, as it constitutes a declaration of loyalty and expresses the fervent commitment to move past the mistakes of the past and live in sincere, wholehearted devotion to the Almighty’s will.
(See Rav Michael Peretz’s Ohalei Sheim)