General George S. Patton (1885-1945) is widely considered one of the finest military strategists and historians the world has known. His victories in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany during World War II certainly attest to his military prowess. Though his treatment of the troops serving under him might be considered imperious, he held all soldiers in high regard. He was reputed to have said: “…It is a proud privilege to be a soldier – a good soldier … [with] discipline, self-respect, pride in his unit and his country, a high sense of duty and obligation to comrades and to his superiors, and a self confidence born of demonstrated ability.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch anticipated Patton’s appreciation of soldiers, albeit in a somewhat different context.
Hirsch noticed that the Hebrew word “tzava’” is used with regard to two distinct corps. As would be expected, “tzava’” refers to the army, the division in which Israelite men would march to war (Numbers 1:3). Contemporary Hebrew employs the word “tzava’” in this way. But the Torah also uses the word “tzava’” to describe the Levitical work force; those designated to serve in the Tabernacle (Numbers 4:3). The Levites are not “soldiers” in the typical sense. But they are “soldiers” in an expansive sense. They are, as Hirsch describes them, members of a communal group under a central authority. Like their military counterparts, the Levites are a disciplined division of Israel, with pride of purpose, under orders, with a duty to serve God and the nation.
As insightful is Hirsch’s observation, he did not take it as far as he might. In a way, all Jews are soldiers. We all operate under orders from God. We call them mitzvot. We are all part of a communal force with a duty to each other and on a mission to transform the world for the better. All comrades require discipline, self-respect, and pride. Once attained, we become an army unlike any other. Like the Levitical tzava we become holy workers.
That we read this portion in the Torah immediately preceding the festival of Shavu’ot in which we commemorate the giving of the Torah is no mere coincidence. It is a reminder of the sacred duty we bear and the mission we are collectively responsible for completing. Let us be heroic in our task as soldiers.