Character Counts – Shoftim 5781

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong. We do have more to fear than fear itself, at least as the classical commentators derive from the Torah. Consider the role of the chaplain of the Israelite armed forces. Before going into battle it was his task to grant exemptions from military services. The builder of a new home yet be occupied is exempt (Deuteronomy 20:5). The planter of a new vineyard is exempt (Deuteronomy 20:6). A new husband is exempt (Deuteronomy 20:7). And the conscript unsuited for duty is exempt. What makes him unfit for military service is his psychological state. He is “fearful and fainthearted” (Deuteronomy 20:8).


Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra is disturbed by the seeming redundancy. Either term: fearful or faint hearted – would have sufficed. The text is unnecessarily repetitive by including both. Yet ibn Ezra has a ready response. The text is not repetitive at all. Each expression refers to a distinct type of anxiety. Faint hearted refers to those who are anxious about being wounded or killed in battle. The fainthearted would be poor soldiers and they might also undermine the confidence of the other troops. Better to exempt them than suffer poor morale. Fear refers to the anxiety attached to wounding others in battle. Soldiers who are hesitant to act or are sympathetic to the enemy would endanger the success of the operation so they are exempted as well. Importantly, what ibn Ezra implies is that by religious training and social inclination Jews are likely to be sympathetic. If there is a psychological problem that a Jewish army faces it is not excessive brutality but excessive civility.


RaShi, however, takes a different approach. He cites the dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yosi the Galillean (Sotah 44a). Rabbi Akiva explains that the exempted soldier’s fear is based on the reality of warfare. He is afraid of being hurt in combat. Rabbi Yosi, however, explains that the soldier is not afraid of the actions of the enemy. He is afraid of his own moral shortcomings. He fears that his personal ethical failings will result in God’s displeasure towards him and, by extension, towards the entire military mission. The exempted soldier does not lack courage. Rather, he realizes that success is as much determined by the character of the armed forces as by their skill.


Both commentators have insight to offer. But it is particularly at this time of year that RaShI’s commentary resonates. As we approach the Days of Awe we all ought to begin thinking about how our character and conduct affects others and affects our future.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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