War, the Jewish Community and Jewish Family Life
(Revised and updated from Shoftim 5760-2000)

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 shares the utopian vision where total peace prevails throughout the world, the reality for the Jewish people 3300 years ago was that there was virtual 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, even today, success in battle is never primarily a factor of military preparedness or talent, but more a factor of proper spiritual preparedness. The Torah in Deuteronomy 20:1, reads: כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ, לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם , 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. כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם , because the L-rd your G-d is with you Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. While soldiers do the actual fighting, 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 especially anointed for the task to encourage the soldiers not to fear their enemies. As Deuteronomy 20:4 clearly declares: כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם אֹיְבֵיכֶם לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם , for the L-rd 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 in preparation for battle, the officers of the people gather the prospective soldiers together and declare: “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 rationales for this procedure: According to Rabbi Akiva, these soldiers were sent home in order to eliminate cowardly people from the battlefield, because if the army included those who lacked faith, the people would be unworthy to merit victory. According to Rabbi Yose Ha’Gelili, 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, the sinners would not be identified since they were sent home with the others.

The commentators note that while these people were excused from battle, they were required to perform non-combatant military duties, such as providing water and food and working to repair the roads for the army. According to Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings 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.

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, in Deuteronomy 24:5, a verse that seems to contradict the verses in parashat Shoftim. כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה חֲדָשָׁה, לֹא יֵצֵא בַּצָּבָא, וְלֹא יַעֲבֹר עָלָיו לְכָל דָּבָר, נָקִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵיתוֹ שָׁנָה אֶחָת, וְשִׂמַּח אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר לָקָח , 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 newly wed wife. However, the betrothed man (he who is not yet married), must perform non-combatant military duty.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 24:5, 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, yet 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 for the newly married in the first year also applies to one 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 wonderful insight! Only when individual citizens feel that the state is concerned with their personal well-being, are individual citizens happy. This then leads to a community as a whole that is healthy and happy. With all due respect to the social philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the Torah was right on the money 3300 years ago!

May you be blessed.