Portion of the Week / Fighting for God and country
'What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.'
In this week's Torah portion, we are taking one further step toward entering the Promised Land and we are given details as to what kind of regime should be set up there - about the system for appointing judges, the monarchy and its limitations, the authority of the rabbinical leaders who must teach the nation, and the nature of the defense establishment.
Toward the end of Parashat Shoftim, there is a passage describing the process of screening warriors before they set off for battle: "And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? Let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it. And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? Let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her. And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart" (Deuteronomy 20:5-8).
Those individuals who are in the middle of building their private lives - whether a house, a livelihood or a family - are exempt from the war. This passage emphasizes how much of a sacrifice we here in Israel must make when we do our compulsory military service. We and our children must postpone our private plans until we have completed our compulsory service with the Israel Defense Forces. This stage is followed by reserve duty for a good part of our adult lives.
Most commentators see the exemptions mentioned in the portion as an attempt to strengthen the warriors' ranks: People busy building their private lives could have a negative effect on the motivation of other soldiers. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra writes: "The reason is that this individual's heart and ambitions are directed toward building a family, with thoughts of home taking precedence over those of war. Such an individual will run away from the battle and encourage others to do so as well." Josephus Flavius offers a similar explanation: "These persons were exempt from the fighting. If they were participating in the battle, they would be more concerned with protecting themselves than with fighting the enemy, because they would long for their homes ... and would behave in a cowardly fashion."
Exemptions from fighting are also granted to those who are "fearful and fainthearted" and who may also have a bad influence on troop morale. In his discussion of laws for monarchs, Maimonides comments: "When you become involved in the war, you must rely on God, Israel's redeemer in times of crisis, and you will know that you are fighting for God. You will trust in God and your fears will vanish. You will not think about your wife or home; you will erase such thoughts from your mind and focus all your energies on the battle. All those who begin thinking about war and become anxious are violating a prohibition, as it is written: 'Let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them' [Deut. 20:3]. Israel's fate is resting on your shoulders. If you are not victorious in the battle and if you do not fight with all your heart and soul, it is as if you have shed the blood of all Israel, as the Torah says, 'Lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart.'"
Some commentators see this passage on exemptions as proof that the Torah seeks to promote social solidarity. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman: "Our sacred Torah, which attaches as much importance to the individual's private life as it does to the expansion of the state's borders, commands all those mentioned in this passage to return to their homes."
A healthy society knows that an exemption from obligations incumbent on the nation as a whole must be granted to those who are in the critical stages of realizing their personal dreams, without whose fulfillment it is impossible to build a healthy society of mutual responsibility and concern for the common good.
According to halakha (Jewish law), the individuals in the above category are exempted from "elective wars" (such as those fought to expand boundaries), but not from wars that must be fought, when there is no other option and in which everyone goes to war.
In the Mishnah (Sota, Ch. 8), we read: "In a war that is God's command (milhemet mitzvah) everyone goes off to war, even a bridegroom who must leave his room and a bride who must leave the bridal canopy." Wars intended to protect the Jewish people from the threat of an enemy require total mobilization with no exceptions. All of the State of Israel's wars, from the War of Independence to the last one, fall under that category.
Unfortunately, draft-dodging has become the province of two sectors in Israeli Jewish society. One camp - which defines itself as religious - hides behind coalition agreements and refuses to recognize its religious obligation to don a uniform. Israeli Jews who shirk their responsibility and do not join the army are accountable not only to their compatriots, but also to God. They are avoiding the strictures of a commandment for which there are no exemptions.
The second sector follows the Western orientation, according to which the individual's self-fulfillment is more important than the common good. A lack of motivation for giving your body and soul for the sake of the nation is filtering down into our society. On the one hand, we hear of the self-sacrifice of Israeli soldiers and officers, who waive all their rights to a private life for the sake of the nation, while, on the other hand, we hear of those who are concerned solely with their private interests. Fortunately, the authentic Israeli spirit prevails in all parts of our society and those who have it are willing to give up everything so that we can continue to live in this land.