Yeshivah Student Soldiers – B’midbar 5784

D'var Torah | Numbers

The Torah (Numbers 1:3) implies that Israelite men enter military service at age twenty. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, some yeshiva students approach Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, for exemptions from military service. They, like many then and now, held the view that intensive Torah study was a greater service to the Jewish people. Rabbi Uziel rejected their request. He told them that were he not an old man – he died in 1953 at the age of 72 – he would take arms in hand and fight to defend the Old City of Jerusalem where he was born and raised before he took rabbinic positions in Salonika and Tel Aviv. Rabbi Uziel explained that the impending war was a battle of life and death for the Jewish people. He could not imagine anyone wanting to be exempted from this critical battle. In fact, it ought to be the opposite: each and every Jewish citizen needs to meet the moment and support fellow soldiers. Finally, he dismissed the students with the ruling that it was a mitzvah for them to join in the defence of the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland.

True to the implication of the Torah, Rabbi Uziel believed that every Jew must have a total commitment to the Jewish people. Even rabbinic scholars must participate in every aspect of the life of the nation. Moreover, the better way of influencing marginal Jews is not by pontificating from isolated yeshivot but by engaging with them by a thoroughgoing involvement in all manner of public service. Retreating into sequestered religious enclaves was a surrender of leadership. It only served to reduce Judaism and the Torah on which it is based to a self-serving cult. In contrast, Rabbi Uziel held the opinion that Judaism was all-encompassing. Judaism projected a grand way of life which allowed it to shape society and the people within it and even the entire world.

We should take pride in the fact that in the modern State of Israel’s relatively short history, religious soldiers have served with gallantry, bravery, and commitment – often putting themselves in jeopardy. Their service is not an abandonment of Torah but a manifestation of it. It was my custom whenever in Israel and traveling by bus that I would give my seat to soldiers. But it was of particular satisfaction to me to give my seat to those soldiers wearing kippot. It was a small gesture but one that signaled how deeply appreciative we all should be to those who share Rabbi Uziel’s view.

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