Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Shoftim
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

Parashat Shoftim

The Mindset of War


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

2 Elul 5766
These words are being written in the midst of the not yet named war in Lebanon. We pray that by the time they meet the public’s eyes, things will have quieted down for the better.

The inspiring end of the tefilla for the welfare of IDF soldiers is taken from our parasha. In explaining why Israel’s troops should not fear the perils of war, the kohen declares: "For Hashem, your G-d, goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to save you" (Devarim 20:4). There is much to learn from the participants in the "pre-battle rally."

The Torah refers to the audience of the declarations as ha’am (the nation), instead of terms like the "army" and "men of war" used for combatants in Parashat Matot. To borrow a phrase, this stresses the Israelite army’s role as the army of the people, by the people, for the people. Everyone is a potential participant in the battle, some at the front, some in the home guard, some in providing supplementary resources. All are to face the dangers and challenges with a belief that Hashem is the ultimate warrior and savior.

The declarations are divided into three (ibid. 20:3-10). First, the kohen urges not to fear because of Hashem’s participation. Next, the shotrim (officers) announce that new homeowners, those with vineyards from which they had not yet eaten, and the betrothed who had not yet wed should go home lest they die before reaching fulfillment in the respective areas. Finally, the shotrim continue urging the fearful and weak of heart to leave rather than cause damage.

The Ramban points out that it is the religious leader who gives the most upbeat forecast, that there is no reason to fear because Hashem can save every soldier. This is tempered by the shotrim’s "realistic" approach that people should know that in the natural world, which Hashem ordained, soldiers fall even from the victors. We might add that this second section is passed on by the shotrim only after the kohen recites it to them (Sota 43a). Indeed, there is no philosophical debate; rather the Torah wants the appropriate articulators to leave the fitting tone on each element of the complex situation.

The first declaration opens with the words "Shema Yisrael." R. Shimon Bar Yochai, who spurned involvement in the mundane elements of life and urged a life of Torah study and spirituality alone (see Berachot 35b & Shabbat 31a), said the following fascinating thing. Even if the only merit they have is reciting Shema Yisrael, they are fit to be victorious. That does not seem to be raising the bar too high. One might have guessed that the people would be warned to either repent fully or be smitten, using fear as an impetus for change, as the prophets did and as we do on Yom Kippur. Apparently, the Torah felt that the wartime is a time to concentrate on the soldiers’ positive spirit. After a militarily successful campaign, focus can shift to spiritual gains.

May we be successful in all these realms now and in the future.

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