“War, the Jewish Community and Jewish Family Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn in great detail about the extensive preparations required of the Jewish army before going out to war. While the Torah ideal is a utopian vision where total peace prevails, the reality for the Jewish people, 3,300 years ago, was that there was great certainty that upon entering the land of Canaan the people of Israel would encounter war as they confronted the local residents.

For the Jewish people, success in waging war was never a factor of military preparedness, but more a factor of proper spiritual preparedness. The Torah in Deuteronomy 20:1 reads: “Kee tay’tzay la’mil’cha’ma al oi’veh’cha, v’ra’ee’ta sus vah’reh’chev, ahm rav mim’cha, lo tee’rah may’hem,” When you go out to battle against your enemy and see horse and chariot – a people more numerous than you – you shall not fear them. “Kee H’ashem’ Eh’lo’kecha ee’mach, ha’ma’al’cha may’eh’retz mitz’ra’yim, because the Lord your G-d is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. While soldiers do the actual battle, it is G-d who wages the war. That is why in Jewish tradition it is not the Chief of Staff or the Four Star General who speaks to the troops before battle, but rather a Cohen, a priest, who is anointed especially for this task to encourage the soldiers not to fear their enemies. Verse 4 reads: “Kee H’ashem’ Eh’lo’kay’chem, ha’ho’lech ee’mah’chem l’hee’la’chem la’chem im oy’vey’chem, l’ho’she’ah et’chem,” for the Lord your G-d is the one who goes with you to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.

In our parasha, we read that the officers of the people then gather the candidates for the army and say: “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will inaugurate it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die and another man will redeem it. Who is the man who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.” Finally, the officers say, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, so that he not melt the heart of his fellows.”

The Talmud, in Sotah 44a, records two rationale for this procedure. According to Rabbi Akiva, these soldiers were sent home in order to eliminate the cowardly people from the battlefield, because if the army included those who lacked faith, the people would not be worthy of the miracle of victory. According to Rabbi Yose Ha’Glili, those who are fearful and fainthearted were sinners who knew they were unworthy of G-d’s help, and therefore needed to leave the battlefield. In order to protect the dignity of the sinners, the Torah also dismissed those with new homes and new brides so that when the sinners left they could not be identified among the others. The commentators note that while these people were excused from battle, they were required to perform non-combatant military duties, providing water and food, and working to repair the roads for the army. According to Maimonides, (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) in the Laws of Kings, chapter 7, these exemptions applied only in optional wars, but in a war that is required by the Torah, such as wars to conquer the land, everyone must remain and serve in the army.

After what appear to be these clear instructions in parashat Shoftim, it is quite surprising to find in next week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:5, a verse that seems to contradict the verses in parashat Shoftim. “Kee yee’kach eesh eesha cha’dasha, lo yetzay ba’tza’vah, v’lo ya’avor ah’lav l’chol dah’var. Nah’kee yee’yeh l’vay’to shana eh’chat, v’see’mach et eeshto asher la’kach, When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him in any manner. He shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married. The rabbis resolve this contradiction by pointing out the difference between the betrothed man and the newlywed. In an optional war, the newlywed is completely free of any responsibilities, and must remain with his newlywed wife. However, the betrothed man (he who is not yet married), must perform non-combatant military duty.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry), in his commentary to the Pentateuch, writes: “The Torah looks upon this duty of husband for the happiness of marriage as being such a high one, and lays such importance to it, not only for its individual happiness but also for the national well-being that, for a whole year after marrying a wife, it frees him from all public services and duties, yea actually forbids him to undertake any of them so that he can give himself up entirely to his home life and to laying the foundation of his wife’s happiness.”

The rabbis in the Talmud, Sotah 44a, point out that the exemption from service in the first year of marriage also applies to someone who has already dedicated a new house or a new vineyard.

Rabbi Hirsch brilliantly concludes: “Clearly at the root of these laws lies the point of view that a state, the concept of the state as a whole, has only reality in the actual numbers of all its individual members, but apart from them, or next to them, one cannot consider the existence of a state as a concept in itself. So that the national welfare can only be sought in the well-being and happiness of all the single individuals, hence every flourishing and happy home is a contribution to the realization of the goal set for the nation, hence has to be met by the nation with careful and encouraging and promoting consideration.”

What a brilliant insight! Citizens must feel that the state is concerned with their personal well-being. Only when the individual citizens are happy, can the community as a whole be healthy and happy. With all due respect to the social philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the Torah was right on the money 3,300 years ago!

May you be blessed.