1. The Kohen addresses the assembled army before battle
Parshat Shoftim includes a discussion of laws related to the waging of war. This section of the parasha begins with a description of the address that was delivered to the people before entering into battle. The Torah explains that a special Kohen was appointed for this purpose. He addresses the assembled army. His basic message is that those now assembled to enter into the battle should not fear their enemies. They must be courageous. War is terrifying but they must not lose heart or panic when pressed by their adversaries. They must remember that Hashem is fighting for them and He will save them.
And the officers will speak to the nation saying: Who is the man who has built a new house and has not initiated it? He should go and return to his home, lest he die in war and another man initiates it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not enjoyed it? He should go and return to his home, lest he die in war and another man enjoys it. (Sefer Devarim 20:5-6)
2. The classes of individuals exempted from battle
Once the Kohen completes these initial remarks the officers of the army continue. The identify four classes of people who should leave the army and return home The first includes anyone who has built a home and not yet lived in it. The second includes anyone who has planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its produce. The third includes anyone who has betrothed a wife and not yet lived with his bride. Finally, the officers declare that anyone who is too fearful to face the approaching battle should return home rather than flee once the battle is enjoined and spread panic among his brothers.
The exemption urged upon the final class – those too frightened to confront their enemy – is novel. Most armies expect their members to overcome their fears and perform their duties. Nonetheless, it is an understandable exemption. Panic can spread through the ranks of even a legion of professional soldiers. This assembly of citizen-soldiers can certainly be expected to be less than completely confident. The flight of a few terrified individuals can initiate a general alarm and retreat. Defeat begins with retreat. Therefore, the officers excuse those who assess themselves as unable to confront their fears. The resignation of these few individuals from the ranks preserves the effectiveness of the remainder of the force.
The Torah’s reason for excusing from battle the first three classes of individuals is less clear. These are those who have built a home and not yet lived in it, planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its harvest, and the man who has betrothed a wife with whom he has not yet lived. Why are these classes of people absolved of their duty to participate in the campaign?
3. Those likely to hesitate are unfit to do battle
Nachmanides and many others address this issue and come to a similar conclusion. They suggest that the reason for the release of these individuals is similar to the reasoning that underlies the release of the fearful individual. These three classes of people can be expected to be distracted. Each is poised to enter a new and exciting chapter of life. He looks forward to enjoying his new home, vineyard, or life with his betrothed. He can be expected to want to preserve this vision of a new and wondrous future. He is not an ideal soldier. His courage will be undermined by his anxieties – by the thought that he is risking his promising future. He may succumb to these anxieties and his courage may collapse. Like the person who enters battle overcome by terror, he too may flee and spread panic through the ranks.
4. Excusing from battle those whose death would be tragic
Rashi disagrees with this interpretation and offers an alternative explanation for the exemption of these first three classes. He explains that death of these three classes of people in battle is a source of great sorrow. Rashi’s comments are quite enigmatic. Of course, he is correct the death of a husband who leaves behind a young widowed bride is a terrible tragedy and should cause immense sorrow. To a lesser extent the death in battle of the individual who has built a new home or planted a new vineyard is also tragic. However, why should this consideration exempt these individuals from war?
5. The cooperative roles of the Kohen and the officers
Rashi makes another comment that is helpful in understanding his position. He explains that in practice the Kohen initiates the address to the army. He admonishes the people to not be fearful and to recognize that Hashem will fight on their behalf. Rashi explains that the next portion of the address is delivered jointly by the Kohen and the officers. Together, they excuse the first three classes of people – those with new homes, vineyards, and wives. The Kohen enunciates each exemption and the officers loudly proclaim it to all those assembled. The final exemption for the individual who lacks courage is announced solely by the officers.
Rashi’s comments seem to indicate that these first three exemptions are closely related to the initial message communicated by the Kohen. For this reason the Kohen pronounces these exemptions and the officers only transmit the words of the Kohen to the assembled army. In contrast, the final exemption is not pronounced by the Kohen. It is announced to the people without the Kohen’s participation. This suggests that this last exemption – for those lacking courage – is not as closely related to the Kohen’s initial remarks. What is the connection between these first three exemptions and the Kohen’s initial message?
6. The meaning of the Kohen’s initial remarks
There are two possible interpretations of this opening message:
• The Kohen is inspiring the assembly. He admonishes the people to not be afraid. He is assuring them that they will triumph. Hashem is fighting for them and they have nothing to fear. The essential message is to have courage. The basis for this courage is the knowledge that Hashem is with them.
• The Kohen is reminding the people that Hashem is with them and admonishing them to act accordingly. His message is essentially an admonishment. Fear and timidity demonstrates lack of trust in Hashem. They must face their enemies without trepidation or timidity in order to communicate their complete trust in Hashem.
Nachmaides seems to adopt the first interpretation. The Kohen begins with words of encouragement and the officers continue. They urge those whose behavior may undermine the Kohen’s message to return home. The officers’ message expresses a strategic consideration that complements the message of the Kohen. For the Kohen’s message to be effective, those whose actions may undermine it must be removed.
However, Rashi seems to adopt the second interpretation of the Kohen’s message. He warns the people that cowardice in the face of their enemy suggests lack of trust in Hashem. However, victory does not come without cost. In battle, some will perish. The officers step forward and join with the Kohen to ask those whose deaths would be the most devastating to leave. The tragedy of their deaths would detract from the recognition of Hashem’s salvation of His nation. Victory and triumph will be perceived as worthless bloodshed and unjustifiable catastrophe. Trust in Hashem will be undermined by grief over their loss. The officers join with the Kohen and direct those whose deaths would undermine the significance of victory and undercut the nation’s trust in Hashem to leave before the battle is enjoined.
1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 20:5.
2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on SeferDevarim 20:5.
3. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 20:8.