Shoftim and the Rules of Engagement

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Parshat Shoftim 

September 3, 2022

Following decades of CBI tradition, I devote time each week to veterans in our community.  I visit the Bay Pines VA, see any Jewish veterans, and visit the rooms of others in need. (As an aside, if you are a Jewish veteran, please register with the VA--and you can make an appointment to meet with me there-as well as at CBI).  At the VA, I see how we attempt to “serve those who served”, to care for those “who have borne the battle”.  I see the impacts of battle--physical, spiritual and emotional.  Those wounds are considered in this week’s parsha.

Amidst the many laws of Parshat Shoftim: pursuing justice, limits to the wealth of a king, the importance of two witnesses, instructions for dealing with accidental homicides and mysterious death; we find a number of rules of war.

Deuteronomy 20

When you [an Israelite warrior] take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for your God יהוה, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. 

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 join 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 your God יהוה who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.” 

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,*paid the bride-price for a wife Thereby making her his wife legally, even though she has not yet moved into his household. but who has not yet taken her [into his household]? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another take her [into his household as his wife].” 

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” 

When the officials have finished addressing the troops, army commanders shall assume command of the troops.

It’s quite a production.  Before they go off to battle, they need to make sure that the army is combat ready.  They need to ensure that there is no one who will lower morale or will have their attention distracted to the home front.  They need to ensure that the soldiers will be able to do the difficult task of war.

Mishnah Sotah 8:5 looks at this scenario, looks at the many excuses for avoiding battle and wonders if the whole situation is actually an out for the last verse:

Rabbi Akiva says: “That is fearful and fainthearted” is to be understood as it indicates, that the man is unable to stand in the battle ranks and to see a drawn sword because it will terrify him. Rabbi Yosei HaGelilisays: “That is fearful and fainthearted”; this is one who is afraid because of the sins that he has; he, too, returns. Therefore, the Torah provided him with all these additional reasons for exemption from the army so he can ascribe his leaving to one of them. In this way, the sinner may leave the ranks without having to publicly acknowledge that he is a sinner.

War is terrible.  Full stop.  No matter if it is with the Israeli army’s purity of arms pledge.  No matter if it is justified.  No matter if it is to morally right.  No matter if it is absolutely necessary.  War is violent.  There are always civilian casualties.  There are always innocents injured and killed.  There is always needless destruction of property and potential.

Not everyone can go into battle and return unharmed.  In fact, few come back completely unscathed.  Many return injured in body or soul.  Our Torah leaves an out to ensure the wellbeing of those fighting and the wellbeing of society.  By protecting those that cannot serve, the Torah protects the morale of those fighting, and the success of the endeavor.

Looking at our history, there were wars fought with a draft and wars fought without one.  There were conflicts where the nation was more and less united.  One of the most challenging conflicts in our history was Vietnam.  Without a clear, moral argument, the nation did not seem to support the fight.  The soldiers who went did not often go willingly.  Without personal or national support, they found themselves in terrible and violent situations.  With the war broadcast on the nightly news, the American people saw this destruction and were even more fragmented.  They protested not only against the politicians who supported the war, but the veterans who had no choice in the matter.

Talking to veterans of Vietnam, I see the burden that many of them carry.  To this day, decades later, they feel abandoned by their country and its leadership.  They feel the pain of the life and death choices they had to make, the differing rules of engagement from what they had prepared, and the unspeakable difficulty of making choices that no one should have to make.

Our parsha speaks not only of the soldier, but also of the battle.  Peace is repeatedly offered before battle begins.  Fruit trees are to be protected.  Innocents are to be spared.

Looking back to our parsha, I wonder how these laws could be followed in the current military environment?  Can we truly run a military only with those who truly desire to be there? How do we balance strategic advantage with pre-negotiating truces?  I cannot answer those questions, but I raise them nonetheless.  Our tradition has many limits and rules surrounding how to make war as ethically as possible, but the most perfect world would be one that did not need war at all.  May we live to see a day when war is no longer necessary, when peace fills the earth as the waters fill the sea.

This cultivated field made me think of this parsha.
Photo by 
Federico Respini from Unsplash