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June 8, 2024 – 11:29 pm | Comments Off on The Ultra Orthodox Draft40 views

Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, there is talk of drafting yeshivah students into the army to bolster its ranks. On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah, so I want to write about the role of Torah in war. The Torah is not just a dusty old book …

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Home » Advisors Only, Israel, Shoftim

Shoftim: Dying for Life

Submitted by on August 20, 2006 – 2:03 amNo Comment | 3,453 views

A Horrible Dilemma

A little boy steps into the path of an oncoming train. The child can be rescued, but the rescuer would likely forfeit his life. How do the parents decide who should die to save the child and should should live to raise him?

A mother and son in a concentration camp. The boy is directed to the gas chamber, she is sentenced to life. She watches her child, forlorn and alone, as he walks to his death. Should she reject life to embrace her child or abandon her child to embrace life?

The parent who died to save the child would have died in vain had the other parent not remained alive to raise him. In the second case, the mother who embraces life validates her child’s heroism by contributing to life. Had the child’s death triggered his mother’s death it would have been a double tragedy.

Parents who are forced to make such agonizing decisions are liable to feel guilty for having abandoned their spouse or child. Yet the surviving parent must remember that  his or her survival is precisely what the deceased child or spouse would have wanted. One’s survival validates the other’ sacrifice. If both had died it would have constituted an abandonment of the cause for which they died.

 Three Announcements

When our ancestors would mobilize their forces for war they were addressed by a high ranking priest. First he would offer brave words of encouragement and confident predictions of victory. dying for life - innerstream“Let your heart not be faint; do not fear the enemy nor enter into panic and do not be terrified for G-d will vanquish your enemy for you.”

The military officers would then announce: “Any man who has built a home, but has yet live in it, planted a vineyard, but has yet to render it fit for use, betrothed a woman, but has not yet married her, should return home, lest he die in war.” (1)

This is an astounding time for such announcements. The priest has just bolstered the morale of the troops and the officers now set out to demoralize them by thinning their ranks! These announcements must have carried a deeper meaning. (2)

 Protecting a Way of Life

The Talmud remarks  that the order of these announcements reflect the proper conduct of life. First we ought to build a home, then plant a vineyard, or establish alternative sources of income, and only then should we marry. (3) (4) This remark indicates that our sages viewed these three announcements as a reflection on the ordinary routine of life. (5)

Why does an army go to war? To protect its national interest. What is a nation’s primary interest?  It’s citizens’ unhindered pursuit of life’s ordinary routine. When an enemy threatens the ordinary pursuit of day to day life, the nation’s very fabric is undermined.

Rather than attempting to thin their ranks, the troops were reminded of their exalted purpose. Why are we going to war? To enable our comrades to pursue the normal routine of life. So they can build homes, plant vineyards, and establish families.

The troops that were sent home knew that they were entitled to recuse themselves from  military draft, but they came anyway. Why did they come? How could they not come? They could not sit home while their brothers fought for their country. It was not easy for them to abandon their brothers and go home.

Yet they were told to do just that. Like the mother who embraced life while her son walked off to the gas chambers, these soldiers, with their departure, validated their comrades’ efforts on the battlefields. If they went to war, their comrades would die in vain.

 Modern Application

When the enemies of Israel threaten our cities with rockets, when they threaten our lives with suicide bombers, when they send our citizens to bomb shelters and destroy our way of life, the nation is justified in going to war.

No argument can justify a cease fire that does not achieve the goals for which the nation set out to war. If our soldiers are not safe, if our borders are still violated and if our cities are still under attack then our war is not over.

We mourn the loss of innocent lives on all sides, our Torah ethic demand it. We pursue the war with a vengeance till peace can be restored, our Torah ethic demands that too. We do not seek a peace that will lead to another war. We seek a war that will lead to a lasting peace. This is the unfortunate reality foisted upon us by our enemy.

Like the mother who embraces life to validate her son or husband’s death, we too must embrace life. But if victory is not achieved then those who have sacrificed their life will have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

 Fear Nothing, but Sin

Just before the army embarked for war, one last announcement was made. “He who is fearful and fainthearted should return home, lest he melt his brothers’ heart as well.” (1) There are those who fear the consequences of war, but such fear is intolerable in war.

The Torah instructs us to keep such fears silent, lest they melt the hearts of the brave.

According to one of our sages this announcement was directed to sinners. An enemy that G-d promised to vanquish need only be feared if we were made unworthy by sin. (6)

Israel’s destiny is in G-d’s hands. We have no reason to fear our enemy, but we do have reason to fear our own sins. If we fear the odds in this war it is because we are not worthy of G-d’s miracle. The obvious antidote is repentance.

This time of year is conducive to repentance. So let us repent this year not only for ourselves, but for our entire nation.


  1. Deuteronomy 1: 9
  2. There are many explanations offered by the commentaries. Two compelling arguments are presented here. Ibn Izra  (R. Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, Spain, 1092 –1167) argued that this was strategically wise. Men with such concerns on their mind will worry about their affairs at home and will be unable to keep their mind on the battle. Filling their ranks with such unmotivated troops would weaken the military and undermine their prospects for victory. Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel- Spain-1437-1508) argued that since these men did not have opportunity to fulfill the respective Mitzvot associated with their endeavor (the house builder has yet to build his parapet, the vineyard planter has yet to offer the priestly gifts and the betrothed has yet to sire children) they would not merit the miracles required for victory.
  3. 3.    Bab. Talmud, Sotah, 44a. See Maharsha ibid. that this standard only applied to a person of means. One, who cannot afford to build his own house and business may marry on the basis that the community will support him till he finds an independent source of income (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels, Posen, 1555 – 1631).
  4. Rambam, Hilchos Deios, ch. 5: 1 (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1135-1204) places house building ahead of vineyard planting. Many commentators have attempted to explain the seeming contradiction with the Talmudic statement. See Toras Moshe (R. Moshe Sofer, Pressburg 1762-1838) on  Deuteronomy 20: 9 argued that since the Torah was actually talking about a vineyard that was already three years old (since the planter could otherwise not partake of his grapes till after the three years (Leviticus  19: 23-25) the house must have been built three years after the vineyard was planted.) See also the verse quoted in the following footnote, where the order of house building a d vineyard planting are reversed.
  5. It is interesting to note that when G-d reprimands the Jews and warns of impending punishment should they abandon the Torah the loss of these three freedoms are specified. “You will betroth a woman, but another man will lie with her, you will build a house, but another mail will live in it, you will plant a vineyard, but will not render it fit for use (Duetornotmy 28: 30).
  6. Bab. Talmud, Sotah, 44a. See also Rashi’s (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) and Ramban’s (Nachmanides, R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) commentary on Deuteronomy 20: 9.


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