Sotah 42

Motivational speaker.

Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to do battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:2–3)

Before the Israelites head into battle, the Torah prescribes that “the priest” should stand up to assure those gathered of divine protection and support. But he’s not the only one to give a speech:

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her … Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” (Deuteronomy 20:4–8)

After the priest promises divine backing to the soldiers, the officials give them an opportunity to go home — either because they have uncompleted business or because they are simply too afraid of battle. Once these speeches conclude, the military commanders take charge of the army. 

Today’s daf wonders: Who is “the priest” that promises God will lead the troops in battle?

One might have thought that any priest who would want to address the people may assume this role. To counter this idea, the verse states: “And the officers shall speak” (Deuteronomy 20:5). Just as the officers described are those who have been appointed to discharge their responsibilities, so too, the priest described is one who has been appointed for this role. 

But if so, why not say that the high priest should deliver this address, as he is also appointed? Rather, the appointed priest must be similar to an appointed officer. Just as an officer is one who has someone else with greater authority appointed above him, so too, the priest described must be one who has someone else (i.e., the high priest) appointed above him.

The Gemara, at least initially, rejects the possibility that it is the high priest who speaks to the troops. Because they infer from analogy to the officials that it must be someone appointed to the job, and so the top priest, who has no one above him to appoint him, can’t fill this role.

But no, says the Gemara, that’s not exactly correct:

The high priest also meets this qualification, as there is the king above him, and therefore, the high priest should deliver the address. 

The high priest serves under the king, which means there is someone above him after all. But then again:

That there is a king is irrelevant to the station of the high priest, who ranks highest in the priesthood. 

Because the king doesn’t have a role in the structure of the priesthood, he isn’t really “above” the high priest in the org chart. Therefore, the Gemara concludes, the high priest is officially disqualified from making the speech. 

Now the rabbis wonder if the high priest’s deputy could be the orator:

The deputy is not an appointed office, as this position has no particular function other than being a ready substitute for the high priest. As it is taught: Rabbi Hanina, the deputy high priest, says: To what end is the deputy appointed? It is merely for the possibility that if some disqualification befalls the high priest, the deputy steps in and serves in his stead. However, the deputy has no specific role of his own.

In the United States, the vice president was once seen as largely an official-in-waiting — significant only if something happens to the president. As the first vice president, John Adams, put it: “In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” And, more archly, Daniel Webster famously turned down the role of vice president, saying: “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.” 

Apparently, according to today’s daf, this was also true for the deputy high priest, whose primary role was to stand by in case the high priest was unable to perform his role. So, the Gemara concludes, the deputy also isn’t “the priest” who addresses the troops.

This discussion, unsatisfyingly, concludes with no decision about who this priestly orator is. Centuries later, the Mishneh Torah provides some additional details, like the fact that it isn’t an inherited position, while Sefer HaChinukh talks about the qualifications of this priest’s wife. Still, there isn’t a comprehensive picture of who serves in this role.

Perhaps that’s actually part of the point. It’s hard to know who will be the Pericles in each generation. We’d definitely want someone charismatic and convincing in this position, and giving the nation’s leaders the most candidates possible means they have the leeway to select the man who’d do the job best. Maybe, then, the ambiguity is part of the magic, clearing the way to choose Denzel Washington instead of getting stuck with Mr. D.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 10, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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