Thursday, 24 Aug 2017

Written by Rabbi Danny Newman

The Israelites are standing on the east bank of the river Jordan and getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Moshe, close to death, is preparing them for what will lie ahead.

In this week’s parashah he will instruct them on the institutions they will need to build in order to create a civil society with the necessary checks and balance to ensure that justice is both done and seen to be done. It is in this week’s parashah that we read the inimitable words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (tzedek tzedek tirdof).[1]

The necessary institutions include: (i) a local court system with impartial judges who do not accept bribes, and officials to enforce the courts’ judgements; (ii) a priesthood in Jerusalem that will deal with particularly complex civil and criminal cases, and that will instruct the people in the ways of the Torah; (iii) a King, who must not come from a foreign nation, whose wealth is to be restricted and who must at all times be guided by the divine teachings and laws as recorded in the Torah; and (iv) a prophet who, following the death of Moshe, will act as the ongoing interface between divinity and the Israelite people.

Later in the parashah, Moshe instructs the people in the laws of warfare. In an interesting move, the Torah tells us that there are four situations in which men are exempt from having to join the army that is about to set out for battle. In fact, men in these situations are instructed to return home. They are as follows: (i) a man who has built a new home and not yet dedicated it, lest he die in battle and another man dedicates it; (ii) a man who has planted a vineyard and not yet harvested it, lest he die in battle and another man harvests it; (iii) a man who has betrothed a woman but who has not yet married her, lest he die in battle and another man marries here; and (iv) men who are feeling fearful and faint-hearted, lest they cause the other soldiers to become discouraged.

It seems to me that these are eminently reasonable exemptions. An army needs fighters whose minds are entirely focussed on the task at hand. Any distractions could prove fatal for both a man in battle as well as his comrades. Two of our medieval commentators agree that the house builder, the vine planter and the engaged man ought to be exempted from battle due to their inability to bring their full attention to the battlefield.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) comments that, “The three categories mentioned here involve soldiers who are thinking about their house, their vineyard, or their wife and might end up running away.”

Ibn Ezra writes that, “…someone who has built a new house has no thought for anything but what he must do to get it ready to live in. He will not only flee the battle, he will cause others to flee with him.”

Both the Ramban and Ibn Ezra are concerned about the state of mind of the soldier and what impact his state of mind might have on his fellow soldiers.

Rashi, however, seems to locate his concern in a different place. In his commentary on the verse that instructs a man to return home from the army if he has built a new home and not yet dedicated it… “lest he die in battle and another man dedicate his home instead”,[2] Rashi explains that such a situation would “…torment the soul.” Rabbi Michael Hattin[3] understands Rashi to be arguing, not that the soldier himself would be tormented, but that the population that remains behind, the civilians, would be tormented by the death of a young man in battle, who has just begun the process of building his life i.e. building a home, planting a vineyard or getting engaged.

Although there is an element of sadness with every death, there is, perhaps, something more painful, more tragic, in seeing a young person die just as they are about to embark on their adult life, just as they have begun to put in place the necessary building blocks of a successful future life.

Rabbi Hattin finds support for Rashi’s unusual interpretation in a seemingly unrelated passage in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 29:1-9, Jeremiah, based in Jerusalem, writes a letter to the people who have been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon towards the beginning of the 6th century BCE. Although the first temple was not destroyed until 586 BCE, there were several waves of exiles to Babylon from approximately 597 BCE onwards. In this letter Jeremiah counsels the people to:

“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage to men and let them have sons and daughters, and multiply there and do not decrease.” (Jeremiah 29:5-6)

Jeremiah is letting the exiles know that they are going to be in Babylon, in exile, for some time. In this letter he sets out the three things that the exiled community needs to do to create a sense of stability and hope for the future: build homes and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits; and marry and have children.

It is in order to do these three things that our parashah requires a man to return home rather than risk death in battle. Rashi’s insight would seem to be that in order for a society to flourish and feel secure, homes need to be lived in, vineyards need to be harvested and relationships need to be built. It is not just winning a war that is important. When the army returns home, it is vital that there is a happy, stable and hopeful society for its soldiers to return to.

Rabbi Danny Newman (LBC 2017)


[1] Devarim 16:20.

[2] Devarim 20:5.

[3] See his commentary on parashat Shoftim in: Passages: Text and Transformation in the Parasha. Urim Publications: New York, 2012, pp.337-341.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.