Shoftim: Fearfully Yours

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18 Aug 2009

One afternoon, Bill Clinton was sitting in his office when his telephone rang. “Hello Mr. Clinton,” a heavily accented voice says. “This is Yankel down in Tel-Aviv Israel. I am ringing to inform you that I am officially declaring war on you!” .. “Well, Yankel,” Bill replies, “This indeed is important news! Tell me, how big is your army?” .. “At this moment in time,” says Yankel, after a moment’s calculation, “There is myself, my cousin Berl, my next door neighbor Gerry and the entire Lubavitch team from the shul. That makes 8!” .. Bill sighs and says, “I must tell you Yankel, that I have 1 million men in my army waiting to move on my word.” “OK,” says Yankel. “I’ll have to ring you back!” .. Sure enough, the next day Yankel calls back. “Right Mr. Clinton, the war is still on! We have managed to acquire some equipment!” .. “What equipment would that be, Yankel?” Bill asks. .. “Well, we have 2 combine harvesters, a bulldozer and Berl’s tractor from the kibbutz”. .. Once more Bill sighs and says, “I must tell you Yankel, that I have 50,000 tanks, 2000 mine layers, 10,000 armored cars and my army has increased to one and a half million since we last spoke”. .. “A Choleria!!” says Yankel. “I’ll have to ring you back!” Sure enough, Yankel calls again the next day. “Right Mr. Clinton, the war is still on! We have managed to get ourselves airborne! We’ve gotten out old Chaim’s crop duster with a couple of rifles in the cockpit and the Torah Group has joined us as well!” Once more Bill sighs and says “I must tell you Yankel, that I have 4000 bombers and 8000 high maneuverability attack planes and my military installations are surrounded by laser guided surface to air missiles and since we last spoke, my army has increased to 2 million.” “Oy Vay!,” says Yankel. “I’ll have to ring you back” Sure enough, Yankel calls again the next day. “Right Mr. Clinton, I am sorry to tell you that we have had to call off the war” “I’m very sorry to hear that,” says Bill. “Why the sudden change of heart?” “Well,” says Yankel, “We’ve all had a talk, and to be sure, there’s no way we can cope with 2 million prisoners.”

Until fairly recently, for the better part of about two thousand years, we have not been in the war business. A peek in the Torah gives us a glimpse of wartime ethics and protocol. Three exemptions are presented by the special war Kohein [mashuach milchama]:

When you go to war against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot, people who outnumber you; do not be afraid of them, .. Now, as you near the battle the kohein shall approach and speak to the people. He will say to them, “Hear, Yisroel! You are setting out today to battle against your enemies. Do not be faint hearted; or intimidated .. your G-d, marches with you to do battle for you .. The officers will address the people: “Whichever man has built a new house and did not inaugurate it as a dwelling, let him go and return home lest he die in battle and another man will inaugurate it. And whichever man has planted a vineyard and did not redeem it[s fruit,] let him go and return home, lest he die in battle and another man redeem it. And whichever man has betrothed a woman and not married her, let him go and return home, lest he die in battle and another man marry her.”

and then a fourth presented by the appointed officers:

The officers will further address the people and say. “Whoever is afraid or fainthearted, let him go and return home, and let him not destroy the resolve of his brothers like his own resolve.”

Note the irony. Our section commences by outlawing fear. The Kohein addresses the pink elephant, describing four nuanced aspects of fear, commands Fear no more, for Hashem is with you. And yet after the inspirations, our section concludes with very real: oh by the way, if after all the drashot, you are still afraid, then you need not and should not fight. The incredible realism of the Torah mandates acknowledgement that not everyone can overcome their natural fears (1).

Yet, who is this scared man still remains the subject of a fascinating Talmudic dispute [Mishna, Sotah 44a]:

R. Akiba says: ‘fearful and softhearted is literal – he is unable to stand in the battle-ranks and see a drawn sword.

Far from the conscientious objector, the fearful man is one who has no guts for “the glory”. His exemption is readily understood, the text so beautifully teaching that he will melt the hearts of his brethren – for fear is contagious and its outbreak may infect the surrounding soldiers. My cousin’s personal recollections of his frightful first days as a tankist on the Syrian front during the Yom Kippur war, when top defense establishment officials visibly panicked in his presence, reminds me how true this is.

A penetrating Sefer HaChinuch comment connects our first three exemptions with this fourth one [mitzvah 526]:

All of these men are too weak to wage war for their mind is very distracted on these matters and they will turn away the hearts of their friends

All four are distracted; the first three by personal concerns, the fourth by raw fright. Either way, a distracted soldier demoralizes, evokes fear and creates a noxious environment for his group..

R. Yossi HaGlili has a totally different conception of our fourth category:

R. Yossi HaGlili says: ‘fearful and fainthearted’ alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he has committed;

The relationship between the first three categories and the fourth is now of a totally different more subtle nature (2).

Therefore the Torah connected all these with him – so that he may return home on their account. The Torah provides the pretext of returning because of one’s house or vineyard or wife to protect those who return because of their transgressions so that no one realizes that they are transgressors. Those who notice their return will say, ‘Perhaps he built a house, or planted a vineyard, or took a wife.’

R. Yossi HaGlili’s position is quite troubling. Who doesn’t sin? In the words of Kohelet [7:20], for there is no man, even the righteous in the land who does not sin.

Further, the very people least prone to sin are usually the ones that are most worried about it. Witness Moshe Rabbeinu as he fights Og, Yaakov as he encounters Eisav and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai as he lay on his deathbed. All experience tangible fear and are worried perhaps they did something to render themselves unworthy – shema garam hacheit. Indeed, doesn’t pirkei avot warn us not to believe in ourselves until the day of death.

A simple approach might be that R. Yossi HaGlili doesn’t just require any ole’ sin, rather it must rise to a particular sin threshold. In this light, we may understand the Yerushalmi [Sotah] that records that all draft exemptees, including the sinner had to prove their case.

This however can not work for the Talmud Bavli, which makes a remarkable statement [Sotah 44b] (which is then recorded in the Shulchan Aruch)

With whom does the following teaching accord: He who speaks between one tefillah and the other tefillah has committed a transgression and returns home under the war-regulations? With whom [does it accord]? With R. Yossi HaGlili

It appears then that even a “small” sin is grounds for exemption. If so, who is left to fight the battle (3)?

Something very deep is going on here.

Perhaps Rabbi Yossi HaGlili is not advocating exemption, he is merely allowing it and even then very reluctantly. In other words, the walk-offs are not per se unique in terms of their lackluster spiritual performance. They too are encouraged to stay and fight. And what of their warranted fear, of their very real sins (4)? And should we not all be fearful of our sins?

A famous Talmudic piece is key [Berachos 60a]

A certain disciple was once following R. Ishmael son of R. Jose in the market place of Zion. The latter noticed that he looked afraid, and said to him: You are a sinner, because it is written: The sinners in Zion are afraid. He replied: But it is written: Happy is the man that feareth always? — He replied: That verse refers to words of Torah. [Rashi – he is afraid he might forget and therefore constantly reviews his learning]

In other words there is fear and there is fear. Damaging fear paralyzes and cripples. Healthy fear propels and catalyzes. It allows us to move forward. Fear as an energizer is a worthy tool. As a defeatist agent of harm, one that saps our spiritual potency, it must be avoided and quarantined. The Kohen is thus teaching that we who are enjoined to have an accurate self understanding and a healthy reverence for our weaknesses are still worthy to wage the war.

As we enter Elul, preparing to do battle with our lifelong adversary, [fulfilling the verse of ki tetzte lamilchama al oyvecha] fear might be one of the prime methods of teshuva, but rather than the damaging type which creates yeiush – a hopelessness and an unbridgeable chasm between Man and His Creator, but let us choose the healthy variety that girds us from complacency and brings so close to Our father in Heaven.

Good Shabbos,

Asher Brander

1. Does the one who leaves for fear violate a Torah command? From Rambam mitzvah 58, it appears yes whereas for Ramban ad. loc it seems not.

2. Sotah 44a with Rashi Devarim, 20:8 explanation

3. After all is said and done – who is left to fight the war? A famous story the Haskalic Purim Shpiel in Volozhin relating to this episode showing how it was possible to dodge army service. One hundred thousand soldiers stood about to fight. On hearing the first announcement, ten thousand soldiers left. On hearing the second, another ten thousand left, and on hearing the third, a further ten thousand went off. When it was announced that all the faint-hearted and frightened should also leave, the only people left were the Sha’agas Aryeh, the Nodeh BiYehudah and the Pnei Yehoshua, outstanding sages of the time. When this story was related to R.Chaim Soloveitchik, he remarked that the scene was unfinished, that they forgot to include the most important part, these spiritual giants were victorious single-handed.

4. Cf Rashi on Shema Yisrael – who states that as long as the Jew has the merit of Shema that is enough to win the battle – which only makes the question stronger – for many walk-offs surely had that merit.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles