Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 22 August 2015 / 7 Elul 5775

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The Torah describes the preparations necessary when the Jewish People go to war as follows:

When you go out to battle against your enemy and you see horse and chariot — a people more numerous than you — you shall not fear them, for Hashem your G-d is with you, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. It shall be than when you draw near to the war, the kohen shall approach and speak to the people.

He shall say to them, ‘Hear O Israel, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them. For Hashem, your G-d, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.’

Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.’

The officers shall continue speaking to the people and say, ‘Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows.’

Abarbanel finds numerous difficulties with this section. Why are these exhortations divided between the kohen and the officers? Why does the kohen use four different expressions for essentially the same concern: ‘faint’, ‘afraid’, ‘panic’ and ‘broken’? Why specifically are these three categories of individuals excused from battle? Almost everyone else was also a homeowner, vineyard owner and married man, often with children as well.

Abarbanel answers that the first speech was given to those who possessed the most solid trust in G-d. They deserved to be addressed by a kohen whose words are then transmitted to them by a second kohen, who represent the highest spiritual level of the nation. They use the expression ‘Hear O Israel’ to remind them that they belong to the Holy nation of Israel and that their cause is an eminently just one. The four similar expressions refer to the two extremes of behavior in warfare which can undermine success in battle. On the one hand ‘fainthearted’ and ‘afraid’ refer to man’s innate squeamishness at the sight of bloodletting, and his innate fear of death in battle. On the other hand, ‘panic’ and ‘broken’ refer to the other extreme of unnecessary risk-taking in battle, where men might be provoked into displays of courage and aggressiveness, which could be counterproductive. Such behavior also could be an indication of a lack of trust in G-d and a dependence on pure military might instead. Even those with the highest level of faith that G-d ultimately will grant them victory must strike a proper balance between normal military tactics and that very trust.

The next group is not on a level to be addressed only by the kohen. Instead, the kohen delivers the speech, which is then transmitted by the officers. These three types of individuals are not excused because their concern for the possible loss of wives and property is any greater than anyone else’s concern. Rather, they are concerned that they will not be able to complete the mitzvot that they have initiated. A home is not just a dwelling place; it requires an official sanctification. Likewise, a man cannot benefit from his vineyard until the fourth year when he is able to redeem his crop. Finally, until a man actually marries his betrothed wife he cannot engage in the mitzvah of reproduction. Because their concern is for the proper fulfillment of a mitzvah, not their own personal loss, they merit the partial participation of the kohen.

The final group is comprised of those who are not trying to avoid battle due to their desire to perform a mitzvah, like those of the second group. According to Rabbi Akiva in the gemara (Sotah 44a), they simply lack a strong faith and trust in Gd to insure their safety. In the same gemara Rabbi Yossi Hagalili says that this group is comprised of individuals who are afraid that their past transgressions will strip away any Divine protection. According to either opinion they do not merit the participation of the kohen at all. They are dealt with only by the officers.

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