“The Sanctity of the Camp of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, contains 74 mitzvot– more mitzvot than any other portion of the Torah. 27 are positive mitzvot and 47 are negative mitzvot.

Among the many transformational ideas found in this week’s Torah portion is the idea of the sanctity of the camp of Israel. In only six brief verses, the Torah introduces an idea that literally revolutionizes societal mores and values.

Oddly enough, the theme of the sanctity of the camp of Israel is found in verses that deal with warfare. In Deuteronomy 23:10, the Torah states, “Kee teitzei mah’chah’neh ahl oiy’veh’chah, v’nish’mar’tah mee’kohl da’var rah,” When you camp against your enemies, you shall guard against anything evil.

At this point in the scriptural narrative, one might very well expect the Torah to pronounce a doctrine governing the proper wartime conduct of soldiers, sort of a Geneva Convention, in which taking unfair advantage of the enemy in battle is prohibited. Although the Torah speaks of military strategy and wartime behavior at other points, prohibiting the chopping down of fruit-bearing trees and besieging a city on all sides, not allowing the enemy soldiers to flee, that theme is nowhere to be found in this week’s parasha. Instead, parashat Kee Teitzei focuses on the holiness and sanctity required of the military camp setting.

As opposed to contemporary practices in many military settings, the Torah strictly prohibits lascivious behavior in military camps, stating that any soldier who experiences a nocturnal emission, must be sent outside the camp until he is clean. Only after immersing himself in a mikveh may the soldier return to camp after sunset.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 23:13-14 insists that every Israelite military camp have a designated place, outside the camp, for soldiers to take care of their bodily functions. In addition to his weapons, every Israelite soldier is required to carry a shovel or spade to use to cover his excrement.

Finally, in a most powerful statement, the Torah declares (Deuteronomy 23:15), “Kee Hashem Eh’loh’keh’chah mit’ha’laych b’kerev mah’chah’neh’chah, lah’ha’tzeel’chah v’lah’tayt oiy’veh’chah l’fah’neh’chah, v’hah’yah mah’chah’neh’chah kadosh, v’loh yir’eh v’chah ehr’vat dah’vahr, v’shahv may’ah’chah’reh’chah,” For the L-rd your G-d, walks in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you; so your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see a shameful thing among you and turn away from behind you.

More than 3,300 years ago, the Torah declared that Jewish soldiers must behave differently from combatants of other nations. The camp of Israel must be physically clean and spiritually pure. It is not the prowess of the soldiers that garners victory, but the spiritual purity of the people of Israel. The true battle takes place in the spiritual realm, where G-d determines the outcome.

One may ask, why the great emphasis on the holiness of the camp? The classical commentators offer varied reasons. The Ibn Ezra explains that excrement must be properly covered so that it has no evil effect on the soul and does not turn the soldier’s mind to impure thoughts. NachmanidesSefer Ha’Chinuch and Abarbanel explain that a military camp populated by spiritual soldiers is to be regarded as a holy location, which, of course, must be clean of any foul odors or revolting sights. This sanctified camp will harbor warriors who are righteous and G-d fearing, leading to both military and spiritual victory. The Chinuch adds that the Jewish military camp must be a source of pride, so that even non-Jewish visitors will find it clean and hygienic.

Maimonides underscores that when the military camp is a place of purity and sanctity the soldiers realize that G-d’s spirit pervades the camp, protecting them and keeping a watchful eye over them. In this spiritually clean setting, the morale of the army is boosted, leading to triumph over its foes.

How important is spiritual sanctity? I was once approached by a Jewish attorney who had become a rather successful author of children’s books. He urged me to read his books and recommended them for my children and grandchildren.

Fortunately, I was able to avoid any commitment, because I was reluctant to assist him in this endeavor. On several previous occasions, I had overheard this man speaking boastfully, in a most degrading and disparaging manner, about his girlfriends and his sexual exploits. I felt that sharing his writings with my family would somehow pollute the children’s minds, because surely his unseemly values had inevitably seeped into the narratives.

This is the essential message of the verse, “V’hah’yah mah’chah’neh’chah kadosh,” Your camp should be holy. The Torah calls on the Jewish people to ensure that sanctified values be established in our homes, permeate our schools, be reflected in our places of work, and be conspicuous in all our endeavors.

Achieving sanctity in all our endeavors is no easy task, especially in these high-tech and media-saturated times. Only by careful and committed focus on our values and our behaviors can we hope to achieve the sanctity in our camps and in our homes.

May you be blessed.