True Leadership – Shelah 5782

D'var Torah | Genesis | Numbers

Profs. Derek Penslar and Judith Bleich have documented how Jews serving in non-Jewish armies greatly divided rabbinic scholars. Some figures, including German scholars Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) and Moshe Glasner (1856-1924), were enthusiastic supporters of such patriotic service. Other nineteenth century authorities, including Rabbis Samuel Landau and Meir Eisenstadter, worried that serving in foreign armies would necessarily result in obstacles to religious observance.


At the time of the founding of the State of Israel, Rabbi Yehiel Michel Tukichinsky (d. 1955) argued that dedicated rabbinic students should be exempted from military service since their studies served as the spiritual support for the nascent state. The celebrated and much respected Rabbi Abraham Karelitz made the same argument to Ben Gurion. Despite the protestations of other Zionist rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin who argued that it would be unseemly that other Israeli citizens would go to war while yeshivah students stayed at home (cf. Numbers 32:6), the Karelitz lobbying won the day.


However, in 2012 the High Court of Justice struck down the exemption on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The court gave the Kenesset a charge to change the law but the 2017 revision was also struck down. The ruling coalition has not yet been able to bring forward and pass a better version, the latest one rejected in the Kenesset in January 2022.  Whatever the outcome, it is instructive to appreciate the model of Moses.


As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes, after the debacle of the spies, “God offers to wipe the ever-backsliding Israelites out and replace them with Moses and his family (14:12). But Moses once more puts his life on the line to stop the Divine anger. He turns to persuade the Lord to be forgiving in the face of bad behavior under such aggravated circumstances. He presses God to forgive this outrageous, sinful behavior. He evokes God’s covenantal commitment to forgive, to be compassionate and gracious, to hold back the anger and overflow with covenantal love (14:13-19)…Moses holds up the banner of a religious role model and leader. The prophet is ready to give his life for the people. To be religious is to be ready to give one’s life for others—not to seek exemptions from danger on the grounds of being devoted to Torah.”




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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