Parashat Shoftim

Wary Of War

The understanding that Israelite troops were addressed on two different occasions before they entered war reflects the idea that our reactions to war often depend on its imminence.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Judges and the judiciary system, the king, the kohanim (priests), and the prophet--each contributes to the nation, each interacts with the other, so that the Children of Israel can function as the nation of the Torah.

When the Children of Israel goes to war, all segments of the realm are involved, both on the military and the spiritual level. Before the battle, the kohen (priest) who has been anointed for war (mashuach milchamah) addresses the troops:

(1) When you go out to battle against your enemy and see horses and chariots, a people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them, for Hashem, your G-d is with you, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. (2) And it shall be, when you come near unto (k'karov'chem el) the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people. (3) And he shall say to them: "Hear, O Israel, you are coming near to (kreivim . . . l') the battle today against your enemies, let not your hearts falter, fear not, do not panic nor become terrified before them. (4) For Hashem, your G-d, is He Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Deuteronomy 20:1-4).

In the verses that follow (5-8), the mashuach milchamah instructs those who had "unfinished business" back home which might distract them from fighting whole-heartedly to return and provide service from behind the fighting lines.

Thus, one who had either: acquired a new house but had not yet occupied it; acquired a vineyard but had not yet eaten of its produce; betrothed a wife but had not yet married her; or one who was, despite the mashuach milchamah's words of motivation, fearful and fainthearted, would bring supplies, water and food, and repair the roads.

The Sifrei (legal midrash on Numbers and Deuteronomy from the tannaitic period) and the Talmud (Sotah 42a-b) insist that the mashuach milchamah addressed the troops twice. The source for this law is the repetition of the word k-r-v, "coming near," in verses 2 and 3: since the text refers to "coming near" twice, it connotes that the mashuach milchamah spoke to them twice, once at the border before leaving the land of Israel, and once before preparing for battle.

According to Rashi's reading of the Talmud and the Sifrei, the command delineated in verses 5-8 (house-builders, etc.) was uttered at the border, while verses 3-4 were said immediately before the battle.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, (1808-1888), explains this change in the order of the verses as follows: In verse 1, Moshe reminds the people, in a general sense, that Hashem will always protect them, just as He did in Egypt, so they must not fear in time of war; and therefore, before each battle, the mashuach milchamah will reassure them (verses 3-4). However, this reassurance will be preceded by the command to the house-builders and the others to return home (verses 5-8). Hirsch adds:

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.