Parshas Shoftim: Preparing for War

Towards the end of this week’s parsha, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah teaches us about the parameters and mitzvos in regard to going out to battle (Devarim chapter 20).  The opening pasukim tell us:

כִּיתֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַלאֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָלֹא תִירָא, מֵהֶםכִּיהאֱלֹקָיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִםWhen you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for Hashem, your G-d is with you; Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt; וְהָיָה, כְּקָרָבְכֶם אֶלהַמִּלְחָמָה; וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן, וְדִבֶּר אֶלהָעָםAnd it will be, when you approach the battle, that the kohen shall come near, and speak to the people (Devarim 20:1-2).

Rashi explains, who is this kohen that will come near and speak to the soldiers as they prepare to go to battle?  ונגש הכהן. הַמָּשׁוּחַ לְכָךְ, וְהוּא הַנִּקְרָא מְשׁוּחַ מִלְחָמָהand the kohen shall near: he who has been anointed for that purpose; it is the one who is termed (in the Gemara) משוח מלחמה, “the priest anointed for war” (Sotah 42a).

It was the job of the appointed kohen to encourage and bolster the morale of the soldiers as they prepared to go out to battle. וְאָמַ֤ר אֲלֵהֶם֙ שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽםAnd he shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are approaching the battle against your enemies. Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them; כִּ֚י האֱלֹֽקְיכֶ֔ם הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽםFor Hashem, your G-d, is the One Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you (20:3-4).

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt’l, teaches, “‘And it will be, when you approach the battle, that the kohen shall come near, and speak to the people’ (v.2).  The essence of this mitzvah expresses the idea that the warrior who performs the greatest of all tasks – the defense of his country – should be given spiritual aid, encouragement and companionship at a time when he needs them the most.  The formal halachic interpretation of the commandment requires that the chaplain be a priest anointed with the holy oil, and limits his role to specific situations and functions.

“Yet during the Judaic wars in the Second Commonwealth, at times when the formal provisions of the commandment concerning the anointment of a kohen could not be satisfied, the Sanhedrin would still appoint a kohen as a mashuach milchamah (the kohen appointed over the battle), whose task it was to inspire the warriors with faith in G-d and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.  As a matter of fact, Judas Maccabeus and Josephus added this duty to the purely military ones.  Josephus recorded the orations he delivered before crucial battles.  If this was the historical Jewish practice in times when religious observance was at its height, it is certainly incumbent upon us to provide the young perplexed Jewish soldier with as much religious counsel as possible.

“The halacha, which displays so much alertness to and understanding for all human weaknesses and frailties, has given much thought to the unique psychology of the warrior who, living in constant danger, loses the perspective of spiritual values and ethical norms, and throws himself into a wild pursuit of carnal pleasures and the gratification of desires without limit.  Judaism, therefore, sought to rehabilitate the camp of the warriors and to raise it to a high level of morality and dignity.  If the rabbis of today wish to continue this glorious tradition of giving their service where it is needed most, the military camp is the place” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Devarim, p.161).

During Chol Ha’Moed Succos 1973 (during the ominous days of the Yom Kippur War, whose 50th anniversary is this year) the legendary R’ Yitzchok Dovid Grossman shlita (b.1946, the “Disco Rabbi”, Chief Rabbi of Migdal HaEmek), along with seven Chabad chassidim went to be mechazek (strengthen) the IDF soldiers before they were bused to the front lines.

“Arriving in the darkest hours of the night, at 3 o’ clock in the morning, with the star-strewn sky above, the idea of singing came into his mind.  Together with the seven other chassidim who accompanied him, he began to sing ‘v’samachta b’chagecha’ (mitzvos simchas Y”T of Succos, Devarim 16:14-15, last week’s sidra) with joy and fervor.  The rows of soldiers gradually came to life, smiles on their faces to greet the visitors who had gone out of their way to travel so far and come and sing for them, to share some fruit and drink in honor of the holiday.  It wasn’t long before some of the soldiers joined in the singing and dancing, and the mood in the camp was transformed from hopeless despair to cautious optimism, and even exultation for some.  Dawn wasn’t far off as the soldiers stood at attention before boarding the buses and R’ Grossman gave them a little chizuk.  ‘My friends,’ he said, ‘I want you to remember one thing as you head off into battle: The happier you are, the more successful you will be.  The more simcha you feel, וְשָֽׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ, the better you will fight on the battlefield!’

“It was a short speech but one that delivered the necessary inspiration.  R’ Grossman and the chassidim watched as the soldiers stepped onto the buses and drove off, just as the day was beginning to dawn.”

Uri Sasson related that “as the bombs exploded around us, the sounds of shelling assaulting our ears and the ever-present fear of death or capture in our hearts, those of us who heard the Rav’s words before we boarded the buses yelled to one another, “Remember what R’ Grossman said!  The happier you are, the more successful you will be!’  We held tightly onto those words through the coming hours and kept them in our minds as we were fighting for our people and our country” (Living Legend, Artscroll, p.134-135).

May HKB”H watch over all of our soldiers, who fight for our people and our Land, and grant them peace, security, strength and courage.  כִּ֚י האֱלֹֽקְיכֶ֔ם הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽם.

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,


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