Parashat Shoftim

Rabbi Boaz Tomsky

      The casualties that occur during war is a subject few soldiers wish to contemplate. However, the Torah recognizes this potential reality and thoroughly addresses it in this weeks Sedrah.

      An anointed Cohain offers words of encouragement for his troops to be mentally prepared for battle. There are some individuals who are given an honorable discharge. There are three specific exemptions: one who has built a house but hasn't inaugurated it, one who planted a vineyard but hasn't redeemed it, and one who is engaged but hadn't yet completed the marriage process. Rashi comments that these people have Agmas Nefesh - anguish of the soul. As Baltasar Graci'an, who lived in northeast Spain during the 1600's, once said, "For a thing to remain undone, nothing more is needed than to think it done." These individuals won't fight properly since their minds are preoccupied on finishing what they started.

      The difficulty with this explanation is why are these the only exceptions? Suppose the soldier was in the middle of earning his doctorate that he's been working on for years, wouldn't this too constitute Agmas Nefesh? Yet the Torah doesn't consider this a valid exemption. To compound the problem, the Torah then gives a more generalized exemption, Hayaray Vrach Halayvuv- anyone fearful and fainthearted.  Why is it necessary to state these aforementioned examples altogether? The blanket statement of Hayaray Vrach Halayvuv is sufficient grounds to exonerate each of the three people. Why then, do we need to have these two, seemingly interrelated categories? As a general rule of thumb, the Dibbor Hamatchel quoted at the onset of each Rashi indicates what the rest of the Rashi will be focusing and elaborating upon. When Rashi offered the explanation of Agmas Nafesh, he purposefully quoted, as the Dibbur Hamatchel, Vaish Achair Yachnichenu - another man will inaugurate it. It is clear according to Rashi, the Agmas Nefesh is coming about only because the soldier is afraid that he will die in battle and someone else will complete what he started. A situation where nobody can pick up from where one left off, would not leave one with this level of Agmas Nefesh and wouldn't hinder his ability to fight properly.

      Nonetheless, the reason for these people being absolved from combat is because they themselves wouldn't fight properly. However, they would more than likely keep their concerns to themselves. Why would they relay such information to their fellow soldiers? His very concern of worry and dismay is that someone may get word of his quasi acquired possessions and acquiesce it for themselves. This is the term Agmas Nefesh, for this person's anguish remains buried deep within as he wishes not to share his personal situation with others.

      The more generalized exemption of Hayaray Vrach Halayvuv is due to a much graver issue. The Passuk states, "Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and not let him melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart." This person has the capability of negatively influencing others with his fear of being engaged in combat. As opposed to the feelings of Agmas Nefesh, the sense of fear is an emotion which is often outwardly expressed uncontrollably by the one who is afraid. Therefore, the Torah is more lenient and allows anyone with such feelings, for whatever reason, to leave so as not to have a counterproductive influence on the troops.

      Earlier in the Parsha, we find an elaborate discussion of a man who kills negligently and flees to the Aray Miklat- the cities of refuge. These cities were designed to protect the manslayer from the avenger of the deceased. These cities didn't always provide protection. Only when the three cities of Eretz Canaan were constructed did the three cities on the other side of the Jordan river offer protection. It wasn't until the days of Yehoshua that these cities were eventually constructed.

      The Gemara (Makkos 10A) asks in the name of Rav Simai, what is the meaning of the verse: Ohaiv Kesef Lo Yisbah Kesef- a lover of silver will not be satiated with silver? The Talmud answers that this verse is referring to Moshe Rabainu- our teacher. He knew that the three cities across the Jordan would not provide refuge as long as the three in the land of Canaan were not chosen, but he nonetheless said, "the Mitzvah that has come my way I shall fulfill." He then went and constructed the three across the Jordan river. Moshe had the same desire to perform Mitzvot as an individual who has the continual thirst for acquiring property and assets.

      Toward the final moments of Moshe's life, we find him pleading to HaShem for the opportunity to enter into Canaan. Why did Moshe express such a desire to enter the land? The Gemara (Sotah 14A) provides for us the reason for his intentions. Moshe wished to perform the Mitzvot which could be only be fulfilled in Israel proper. Of course, he was denied the privilege of completing his life-long mission and was compelled to hand over the reigns to his disciple Yehoshua. Can you even begin to imagine how grief stricken Moshe must have been? He started the Mitzvah of the Aray Miklat but wasn't able to complete it. Instead he was faced with the realization that after his death someone else (Yehoshua) would come along and complete the task he had started. Moshe would die knowing full well that Yehoshua would complete the journey of bringing the Bnai Yisroel into Canaan, yet another thing Moshe started but couldn't complete. This is true Agmas Nefesh!

      Moshe's official title is Moshe Rabbainu since he is our teacher in everything he says and does. His actions humble us by letting us realize how far we have to reach and where our priorities lie. When we are at war, our thoughts are on our possessions. Our Agmas Nefesh is in the thought of knowing after our death someone may acquire a recently built house. Moshe is concerned in doing as many righteous acts in his lifetime as he possibly can. We both have uncompleted projects, however the focuses of he and I are quite diverse.

      Our grieving stems from the outrage of someone else taking what was coming to us. With the foresight of knowing who would take our property, we would likely display high levels of rage and anger toward that person. In Parshat Pinchas we find HaShem shows to Moshe Eretz Canaan and informs him that he wouldn't enter the land. Upon hearing such news many of us would hope for chaos among the nation. "If I can't get it then nobody can!" This is a selfish approach, but is the instinct of many of us who wish to feel important and indispensable. Moshe, our mentor, teaches us the appropriate way in which to respond. He turns to HaShem and requests a successor for the nation. "And let the nation not be like sheep that have no shepherd." HaShem then instructs Moshe to lean one hand upon Yehoshua. However, when he actually performed this task, the Torah states Vayismoch Es Yaduv-that he leaned both of his hands on him (Yehoshua) to express that he accepted this decision wholeheartedly.

      These are difficult feats to achieve, to emulate the likeness of Moshe Rabbeinu. Throughout his life he was constantly working to perfect the attribute of humility. But we too have the responsibility to try to improve our character and disposition. It is easy to feel that the world owes us and be frustrated or angry at the success of others. A greater task is to embrace life's challenges Bisimscha - with genuine happiness. We must be our own Shoftim- judges to analyze the situations and conflicts that may face us. When we do this, we are better equipped to accept whatever life hands to us without envy or resentment.



First Published August 10, 2002  for National Council of Young Israel Weekly Divrei Torah