Skip to main content

Engaging the Enemy in Battle

Rav Michael Hattin
21.09.2014

INTRODUCTION

 

With the reading of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the book of Devarim begins to draw to a close.  Replete with mitzvot, some mere elaborations of earlier legislation, others mentioned here for the first time, Parashat Ki Teitzei constitutes the completion of Moshe's explication of the Torah.  From this point onwards, his words will progressively become more exhortative, as his concern shifts from reviewing the Torah's commands to impressing upon the people of Israel their august responsibilities as God's chosen nation.  Soon they will cross over the Yarden to enter Canaan, and Moshe therefore must prepare them not only for the general challenges of settlement that confront any migrant group in a new land, but also for the particular challenges posed by Israel's encounter with the Canaanites' alluring but morally corrupt culture.

 

Not surprisingly, with the land of Canaan beckoning just over the horizon, the Book of Devarim mentions the trying exigency of warfare on a number of occasions.  Although the people retain God's assurance that eventual possession of the land will be theirs, they have also been made aware that the process of conquering, securing and settling it will require of them not only fortitude and steadfast trust, but patience and forbearance as well.  Repeatedly, Israel is called upon to "not be afraid" (7:18), and to remember God's salvation (20:1,4).  And over and over again, they are reminded that ultimate victory will be theirs only if they are prepared to extirpate the idolatrous shrines of the Canaanites and their associated cults of depravity (7:2-5; 7:25-26; 12:2-3; 20:180. 

 

 

WARFARE IN THE PARASHIYOT OF SEFER DEVARIM

 

While Parashat Devarim's discussion of warfare really only consists of a narrative describing the people's earlier battles against the Amorite kings of the Transjordan (2:31-3:22), and Parashat VaEtchanan is content to highlight the great moral and spiritual hazards associated with idolatry (4:25-40) without actually mentioning the military confrontation soon to ensue, Parashat Eikev begins to address the matter in more concrete terms.  As the battle for the land looms ever closer, Moshe strengthens Israel's resolve:

 

Should you say in your heart: "these nations are too numerous for me, how shall I ever dispossess them?"  Do not be afraid, for you must surely remember what God your Lord did to Pharaoh and to Egypt.  The great trials that you saw with your own eyes, the signs and wonders, the strong hand and the outstretched arm by which God your Lord brought you forth, so too will God your Lord do to all of the nations from whom you are afraid…(7:17-19).

 

In Parashat Reeh (12:29-13:1), while Moshe again underscores the dangers that lurk for Israel should they adopt the ways of Canaan's indigenous tribes, he curiously avoids any open discussion of martial regulations.  It is therefore not until Parashat Shoftim that the matter of warfare is actually stated openly and explicitly for the first time:

 

When you go out to battle against your foes and you see that their horses and chariots outnumber you, do not be afraid of them, for God your Lord is with you, He who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  When you draw close to battle, then the Kohen will go forth and address the people…(20:1-9).

 

The passage goes on to delineate the various individuals who are exempted from the army's ranks due to unusual personal circumstances including the fear of violent death, and the matter is concluded with intimations of combat: "When the officers conclude their remarks to the people, then the commanders of the armed forces shall be appointed to lead the people" (20:9).

 

The next two sections of Parashat Shoftim (20:10-20) are even more unequivocal, for they describe in turn the procedures to be followed when far-off enemy cities are besieged.  First, peaceful terms of surrender are to be extended to the surrounded population.  If these are accepted, then no one is to be harmed.  If they are rebuffed and victory for Israel follows, then non-combatants are to be spared.  Either way, the fruit trees that are in the proximity of the besieging forces are not to be cut down, for though the people of Israel may justifiably overpower and defeat their foes, they are not permitted to wantonly carry out a policy of "scorched earth"

 

 

OUR PARASHA AND THE TEXTUAL PROGRESSION

 

Our Parasha rounds out the discussion of warfare by introducing the topic of humane treatment of captives, for it describes the case of the heathen woman who has been captured by an Israelite in battle (21:10-14).  She is not to be molested or harmed and must be given the opportunity to mourn for her people.  Only then may she be converted and taken as a wife and necessarily accorded all of the rights attendant with her new status.  Should the Israelite not wish to marry her, then he must set her free.  He may not take advantage of her vulnerability by selling her or else using her as a servant.

 

Considering the matter of warfare in its entirety as it is presented in Sefer Devarim, we may therefore trace an obvious progression.  First, Moshe recounts Israel's surprising defeat of the Transjordanian kings and then recalls Pharaohs' own ignominious downfall in order indicate to the people that triumph over the Canaanites, though seemingly implausible, is not beyond their grasp.  Their steadfast trust in God will not only sustain them in battle but will bring them quick victory.  Then, Moshe goes on to describe the preparations for battle – the need to overcome panic and the necessity to exclude from the armed forces those whose resolve is not assured.  Later, Moshe outlines the procedure to be followed when cities are besieged and he concludes with the section detailing treatment of individual captives.  The sequence is therefore chronological, for the discussion moves from the abstract spiritual preparations of the people to their concrete and physical engagement of the foe and then to the aftermath of that foe's subjugation.  And underlining all of these laws is the repeated affirmation that God's intervention is inextricably bound up with Israel's appropriate conduct.

 

 

AN UNLIKELY CONCLUSION?

 

There is, however, one additional section in our Parasha that addresses the matter of warfare, and though it may seem to be structurally out of place in light of the above analysis, its message is so decisive that it can only serve as the fitting conclusion to the topic:

 

When you go out as a camp against your enemies, then you must guard yourselves from anything evil.  Thus, if a man is not fit because of a nocturnal emission, he must leave the camp and remain outside.  Towards the evening he will immerse in water, and when the sun sets he may return to the camp.  You must designate a place outside of the camp to use as a latrine.  You must also keep a spade with your weapons so that when you have to relieve yourself, you shall first dig a hole, then sit down and afterwards cover your excrement.  This is because God your Lord walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to grant you victory over your foes, and therefore your camp must be holy.  Let Him not see anything offensive in your midst, for He will then turn away from you (23:10-15).

 

The passage includes a number of related items.  According to the legislation outlined in VaYikra 15:16-18, any male who experiences a seminal issue is deemed ritually unfit for that day.  He may not enter the camp of the Levites and is certainly excluded from the precinct of the Mishkan, until such a time as he immerses.  Since in times of battle, the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the camp of the Israelite soldiers (compare BeMidbar 31:6), they must maintain its sanctity by excluding from its environs all those who are considered unfit.  As Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (11th century, Spain) explains:

 

The "camp" that is mentioned in our passage refers to the camp of the armed forces that go out to battle the enemy.  The Ark would accompany them and we may therefore call it the "miniature encampment".  This is in contrast to the large encampment of the tribes, for there partitions were provided.  When they would go out to battle, they would thus be in close proximity to the Ark…(commentary to 23:10).

 

In other words, although the man who experiences a seminal issue is also excluded from the inner areas of the larger tribal encampment, namely the quarters of the Levitical families as well as the most internal area containing the Tabernacle, he is not excluded from the surrounding outer encampment of the tribes (see BeMidbar 5:1-4). Here, however, since the armed forces are arrayed directly around the Ark and there are none of the hierarchical divisions associated with the larger encampment of the Israelites, the man must leave the camp entirely!

 

 

CARE OF THE CAMP AND THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RAMBAN

 

But that is not all.  The camp of the armed forces is to be kept free of other more noxious forms of pollution as well.  Defecating in its midst is not permitted and a suitable location must therefore be provided for that purpose outside of it.  Furthermore, even when a soldier is in the field, far from his base camp and the presence of the Ark, he must take care to protect the sanctity of his personal environment by carefully and completely covering his excrement.  All of this, of course, is in spite of the fact that excrement, though deleterious in other respects, does not communicate ritual unfitness as do other forms of "Tuma".  The concluding rationale for all of this seemingly lackluster legislation is itself remarkable: "This is because God your Lord walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to grant you victory over your foes, and therefore your camp must be holy.  Let Him not see anything offensive in your midst, for He will then turn away from you" (23:15).

 

It is the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who provides us with the most eloquent explication of this section:

 

Concerning these mitzvot, it appears to me that the text warns us about the most hazardous of situations when transgressions and iniquity are most prevalent.  It is well known that it is customary in the camps of armed forces for soldiers to consume every abominable thing, to rob and to act violently without compunction or shame.  Even sexual immorality, as well as every other form of coarse behavior, is countenanced.  Human beings possessing the most exalted of natures become girded with cruelty and malice when they go out to battle the foe.  Therefore, our passage warns: "When you go out as a camp against your enemies, then you must guard yourselves from anything evil" (23:10)…According to the straightforward meaning, the passage warns that the man who has experienced a seminal issue must leave the camp entirely, because of the stated reason that God walks among us to deliver us from our foes and the encampment is therefore holy.  Our hearts are to be directed to the Holy One blessed be He and we are to anticipate His deliverance, for we must not rely upon the strength of our forces.  The rationale is similar with respect to the provision to cover the excrement for THE ENCAMPMENT IS LIKE THE TEMPLE OF GOD…(commentary to 23:10).

 

Significantly, this is not the Torah's first mention of these values according to the Ramban.  Many years earlier, when the people had left Egypt, proud but disorganized, a chaotic mass of freed but undisciplined slaves, they had scarcely traversed the Sea of Reeds when God brought them into the wilderness (Shemot 15:22-26).  There, their resolve was first tested by thirst and deprivation, and the people of Israel cried out for relief.  God responded, sweetening the bitter waters of Marah and impressing upon the people the fundamental principle, the "statute and law" (IBID, verse 25), that was to underscore their entire experience in the wilderness:

 

God said: If you surely hearken to the voice of God your Lord, and do that which is upright in His eyes, if your listen to His commands and observe all of His statutes, then I will spare you from all of the plagues that I placed upon Egypt, for I am God who heals you".

 

For the Ramban, the so-called "statute and law" that was there forcefully (and forcibly!) impressed upon the Israelites was a "harsh admonition that they were not to behave after the manner of the marauding tribes, who in their encampments perform all manner of abominable things without any shame.  This is therefore similar to the Torah's later command: "When you go out as a camp against your enemies, then you must guard yourselves from anything evil" (commentary to Shemot 15:25).     

 

 

THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE RAMBAN'S WORDS

 

For the Ramban, the various laws stated in our passage have wider application not only to the general encampment of the Israelites but to their future settled state in Canaan as well, for tradition maintains that in every situation care must be taken to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of our living environment.  But the Torah sees fit to highlight the matter by drawing our attention to the most extreme situation of all, namely the camp of the armed forces, for it is precisely under such circumstances that even decent people are apt to become lax, insensitive and degraded.  In antiquity just as today, warfare brings out the worst in us, transforming even dignified people into brutal beasts.  Understandably, the need to secure victory often entails the need to take prisoners or to kill.  But the heightened disorder as well as the attendant relaxation of conscience and compunctions that characterize war zones usually provide the cover and even the perceived license for overzealous soldiers and civilians to entertain their most vile of fancies. 

 

But the camp of Israel, like their exalted mission in general, MUST be different.  Though some wars cannot be avoided, and some foes must be vanquished, the soldiers of Israel are called upon to always remain cognizant of the God in their midst.  The God of Israel, as He revealed His will in the passages of Sefer Devarim, was the first and only One to ever demand of his armed adherents not only trust and faith in victory, but humane treatment of the vanquished, concern for their property, and a fundamental recognition that the Divine image that animates man must never be corrupted, even under the most trying of circumstances – "for the encampment is like the Temple of God".

 

Shabbat Shalom    

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!