We are at war, we live with the reality of ongoing armed conflict. In 2001, we entered Afghanistan; in 2003, Iraq. ‘We’ also means an identification with the Arab-Israeli conflicts, skirmishes, but still deadly. And, if we extend our ‘we’ wider, we find our world ridden with battles, and the rape, pillage, murder, and homelessness which are war’s consequences.
From 2003 – 2005, I lived in New Hampshire. On my way to work every day, I passed a defiantly homemade poster, announcing that day’s total number of American soldiers killed in Iraq. The US government did not want people to know the exact cost in American lives, but this individual wanted us all to know the cost. And here – 179 UK soldiers. And how many others, American, Iraqi. . . ?
Which brings us to our parashah , Shoftim. Let’s carefully read chapter 20, verses 1–8. “When you go out to the battle to meet your enemy . . . the officers shall speak to the people, saying: ‘Who is the man who has built a new house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go . . . lest he die in the war and another man redeem it. Who is the man who had betrothed a woman and not taken her to be his wife? Let him go . . . lest he die in the war another man take her….’”
These are the grounds for exemption from battle: a release for those who are first-time homeowners, novice farmers, and newly-weds. And which group of people is this most likely to be? Young people. Those just beginning to build their homes, their livelihoods and their partnerships and families are the ones whom the Torah releases from the obligation to fight, and possibly be killed. Every death in war is a tragedy, but to lose our youth, before they have had the opportunity to root themselves even tentatively in adult life, taste the pleasures of establishing their own nests, discover the joys of love and sex, and find their unique contribution to the community through their work, these are tragic losses, these feel to us to be wasting young lives.
Both the fighting forces and the most tragic victims of war are the youngest generations; the older too often ask the younger ones to bear a disproportionate cost of the conflicts not of their making.
Chapter 20 verse 10 continues with a directive: before we move any further down the road to bloodshed, try peace. As we begin the countdown to 5771, let’s pray that, in the many places where war and bloodshed thrive, the older generation do just that. Try peace. And let everyone live happily in their homes, pursue their livelihoods, and build loving relationships.
Rabbi Barbara Borts
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.