Shoftim: How Jews went to war

The Torah exempts three categories of men from going out to a voluntary war. And it explains why.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Ancient war
Ancient war
iStock

Today I want to talk to you about the individual. When nations go to war, they institute mandatory drafts. Wartime drafts are different from peacetime drafts. In peacetime drafts, soldiers are eligible for all kinds of exemptions. During war, everyone must serve. Exemptions are rare.

In Jewish law, however, it is different. When Jews went to war, anyone who had married in the past year, built a new house, or planted a vineyard, was exempt. Moreover, once the army gathered at the battleground, leaders would address them and exempt those who were betrothed, but not yet married, built a home, but had yet to move in, or planted a vineyard and had yet to harvest a crop.

In most nations, wartime exemptions are not this easy. Many a soldier went off to World War II the morning after their wedding. Why were Jews so keen on exempting their soldiers and weakening their army?

Committed Soldiers

The most obvious answer is that a nimble, lethal fighting force is better than a large unmotivated force.

Maimonides wrote, “Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he must rely on [G-d, who is] the Hope of Israel and their Savior in times of need. He must recognize that he is fighting for the sake of the oneness of G-d's Name. Therefore, he should place his soul in his hand and not show fright or fear. He should not worry about his wife or children. On the contrary, he should wipe their memory from his heart, removing all thoughts from his mind except the war.

Anyone who begins to feel anxious and worries during battle to the point of fright violates a commandment, as it is written, 'Do not be faint-hearted or afraid. Do not panic and do not break ranks before them.' Furthermore, he is responsible for the blood of the entire Jewish nation.”

Those whose minds were on their new wives, homes, and vineyards, were unlikely to wipe their memory from their hearts. They would be unable to focus on the war, distracted as they would be by what they left at home. They would weaken the army and were, thus, exempt.

Divine Involvement


The truth is that we don’t win wars by the strength of our warriors. Jewish armies win by the hand of G-d. The Torah reiterates this message several times. “For G-d, your G-d, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you.” These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we invoke the name of G-d our G-d.”

If our victory is ensured only by G-d, He can deliver it to distracted soldiers as well as to focused soldiers. It is true that we must do our part and fight the good fight, but if divine involvement neutralizes the strategic reasons to exempt these soldiers, why don’t they remain and fight?

The Individual


The answer is that in Judaism, the collective does not trump the individual. Collectives are comprised of individuals, which means that their value derives from those individuals. If we devalue the individual for the sake of the collective, the collective is also devalued.

This is why Jewish law never permits the deliberate surrender the individual for the sake of the collective. For example, if the enemy surrounds a city and demands that we surrender a single person or risk annihilation, we fight and risk annihilation rather than surrender the individual. We can’t and don’t put a value on life. Every life is of infinite value and many infinities are not greater than a single infinity. Many lives are no more important than one.

Thus, when it comes to war, the individual is paramount. If his newlywed wife is waiting for him at home, we can’t be cruel to both and conscript him into the army even if it helps the collective. After all, the only reason the nation fights this war is to protect families such as these. We won’t break up a family in their tender infancy to win a war that is designed to protect this very family.

The Spiritual Component


The Torah passage that describes this exemption, yields an even deeper understanding. The Torah says, “And who is the man that betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the war, and another man take her.”

Read the last ten words carefully: “lest he dies in war and another man take her.” This is a curious ending. Of the two clauses in this passage, the greater tragedy is that the man will die. Inherent in this tragedy is that his wife will lose her beloved. The fact that another man will marry her down the line is not a tragedy. On the contrary, it is a blessing.

These curious words impart a deep life message. Our concern is not so much that another man might marry her. Our concern is that this man will breathe his last while preoccupied with negative selfish thoughts. Resentment that another man will take what should have been his.

Our last thoughts ought to be holy thoughts. Our last moments should be devoted to begging forgiveness for our shortcomings and forgiving those who hurt us. It should be about communicating love and exuding holiness, not selfishness and resentments.

This man, thrust into war so soon after marriage, is incapable of such selfless thoughts at this desperate time. If he dies, he will die a terribly sad death, and we the Jewish collective, can’t allow for that possibility. Better to weaken our army, than to allow someone to die in self-absorption.

Judaism is not just about winning wars and securing independence. Judaism is about living a G-dly life devoted to a higher cause. If our war might cause our fellow to die with negative thoughts, it is not worth winning.

And if this is true of dying with negative thoughts, how much truer it is of living with negative thoughts.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.



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