Judaism: Ki Tetsei: Wars, past and future
Dedicated to the memory of Stanley (Zevul Moshe) Rose z”l, a devout Jew, a gentle soul, and a true Mensch, who passed away shortly before Shabbat, 3rd Ellul (29th August), the third day of blowing the Shofar to herald the approaching Rosh Hashanah. “One who lives in the Land of Israel, and who dies on Erev Shabbat, and is buried before nightfall at the season when the Shofar is blown, will experience no punishment in the grave” (Tractate Semachot, Sefer Hibbut Hakever 1:8). Yehi zichro baruch.
“Ki teitzei le-milchamah al oy’vecha…” – “When you go out to war against your enemies and Hashem your G-d will deliver them into your hand and you will take from them captives…”, begins our parashah (Deuteronomy 21:10).
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743), in his commentary on this first verse in Parashat Ki Teitzei, writes that this going out to war is “to avenge yourselves on your enemies, who are the enemies of Hashem, in accordance with ‘do I not hate those who hate You, O Hashem? And against those who rebel against You I strive? I hate them with the utmost hatred, they have become my enemies’ (Psalms 139:21-22). This is the reason for your going out to war, and if you do this, then ‘Hashem your G-d will deliver them into your hand and you will take from them captives’. And from this you can learn that if you go out to war for any reason other than this, then there is no guarantee that Hashem will deliver them into your hands”.
The opening verse of Parashat Ki Teitzei is the second of only two times that the phrase “when you go out to war against your enemies…” occurs in the Tanach. The first occurrence is in last week’s parashah, Shoftim: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and you will see horse and chariot, a nation greater than you – you shall not fear them, because Hashem your G-d, who brings you up from the land of Egypt, is with you” (20:1).
And then the Torah devotes the rest of the chapter to various rules of warfare – how the Kohen (Priest) anointed to lead the nation in battle addresses the soldiers, who among the nation is exempt from military service, how and under what circumstances to engage the enemy in battle, how to relate to enemy civilians and loot, the differences between the seven Canaanite nations and other enemy nations, and finally the prohibition on chopping down fruit-bearing trees when besieging an enemy city.
On the phrase “when you go out to war against your enemies…”, the Midrash picks up on the seemingly irrelevant words “...against your enemies…”, and asks: “What do the words ‘...against your enemies…’ mean? [i.e., would one then go to war against his friends? ‘When you go out to war’ is by definition ‘against your enemies’.] G-d said: Go out against them as enemies! Just as they have no mercy on you, so too you shall have no mercy on them! See hat they say: ‘Come, let us cut them off as a nation, so that the name of Israel will never again be remembered’ (Psalms 83:5) – the name of Israel, of whom it is said ‘Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Israel’ (Psalms 106:48). Therefore go out against them as enemies!
Israel said: Sovereign of the Universe! How long will they continue to stand against us? – as it says, ‘G-d, wanton sinners have risen against me, and a gang of tyrants seek my life’ (Psalms 86:14). [G-d] said to them: And not against you alone have they risen but also against Me, as it says ‘the kings of the earth and the princes stand firm, conspiring against Hashem and against His anointed’ (Psalms 2:2). And therefore it is written, ‘When you go out to war against your enemies’” (Tanhuma, Shoftim 15).
The Torah then switches to a new topic – a human corpse which is discovered in the open countryside, clearly murdered, but it is not known who the murderer was, and the procedure that the elders of the nearest town are enjoined to follow. With this, Parashat Shoftim closes.
And following this, 30 verses after the Torah had first introduced the rules of warfare with the words “when you go out to war against your enemies…”, it again uses the same words when introducing the subject of a beautiful woman of the enemy population whom a Jewish soldier desires.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes here that the previous parashah concludes with the words “…you shall do that which is upright in Hashem’s eyes” (Deuteronomy 21:9), and immediately continues with the words “when you go out to war against your enemies…”. The Ba’al ha-Turim comments on this juxtaposition, “because only tzaddikim go out to war”.
To understand this comment of the Ba’al ha-Turim’s, we return to Parashat Shoftim and the officers’ speech listing those among the nation who are exempt from military service (Deuteronomy 20:5-7): anyone who has built a new house and not yet inaugurated it, or planted a new vineyard and not yet redeemed it, or betrothed a woman and not yet married her.
And then there is a fourth category: “Who is the man who is fearful and faint-hearted? – Let him go and return to his house, so that he will not melt his brethren’s heart like his own heart” (v. 8).
This is sound military strategy: one coward or defeatist in a military unit can easily spread cowardice and defeatism among the ranks.
The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) has an interesting twist: “‘Fearful’ of hitting another person, and ‘faint-hearted’ when suffering the blows of the other person”. That is to say, according to the Ibn Ezra, the person who is afraid of hitting the enemy (out of misplaced mercy, perhaps?) has no place in the military ranks. Better that he go home than remain in the battlefield and demoralise the rest of his unit.
A modern military tactical and strategic genius, the British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (who was instrumental in defeating the Nazis in World War II), famously said that morale is “the single greatest factor in war”. And Montgomery also observed that “the best way to achieve a high morale in wartime is by success in battle”.
Another British military commander who commanded the troops in two world wars, Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, observed that “high morale means that every individual in a group will work – or fight – and, if needed, will give his last ounce of effort in its service”.
And some 2,400 years ago, the Greek historian, soldier, and philosopher Xenophon (a student of Socrates) expressed the same idea: “Not numbers or strength bring victory in war; but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies cannot withstand them”.
“If someone will tell you that there is wisdom among the nations – then believe it” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13).
The Mishnah (Sotah 8:5) cites the opinions of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yossi the Galilean regarding the phrase “…the man who is fearful and faint-hearted”. Rabbi Akiva understands it according to its simple, literal meaning: “that he is unable to stand in the battle-ranks and see drawn swords”.
By contrast, “Rabbi Yossi the Galilean says: ‘The man who is fearful and faint-hearted’ is the one who is afraid of the sins he has committed, which is why the Torah made him contingent upon all the others, so he can return because of them”.
That is to say, instead of admitting that he is afraid (either afraid of war or afraid of being killed because of his sins), he can leave honourably together with the other soldiers who built a new house and did not yet inaugurate it, or planted a new vineyard and did not yet redeem it, or betrothed a woman and did not yet marry her.
This is sound psychology: after all, a man who is afraid of war might well also be afraid of admitting in public that he is afraid or that he is a sinner, and might out of cowardice remain with the ranks, only to lose nerve once the battle begins and thereby demoralise the other troops. So the Torah allows him this way out without embarrassing himself.
As a consequence, the soldiers who remained on the front lines were (ideally at least) the ones who were unblemished by sin. Hence the Ba’al ha-Turim’s remark that “only tzaddikim go out to war”.
The Midrash Lekach Tov begins its exposition on Parashat Ki Teitzei: “Said Rabbi Tuviyahu, son of Rabbi Eliezer: There is great rejoicing in the world when it is well with the tzaddikim, when they sit and learn Torah, which is the work of Heaven; and thus Deborah and Barak said, ‘My heart is for the lawgivers of Israel, who are devoted to the nation; bless Hashem’ (Judges 5:9). ‘And at the destruction of evil people there is joyous song’ (Proverbs 11:10) – these are the enemies of Israel who are called ‘evil’”.
The Midrash then cites several examples of evil enemies of Israel – Pharaoh, who admitted that “Hashem is the Righteous One and I and my nation are the evil ones” (Exodus 9:27); Korach and his band, who were killed when the earth swallowed them; Sisera, the commander of the army of the Canaanite King Jabin, who oppressed Israel for 20 years until Deborah and Barak defeated and killed him (Judges 4-5); King Ahab, the wicked and idolatrous king of Israel who reigned for 22 years, and who was killed in battle against Aram by a stray arrow (1 Kings 16:28-22:40); and Haman, his wife Zeresh, and their ten sons, who were hanged for their plot to exterminate all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
What is the connexion between this Midrash and the beginning of Parashat Ki Teitzei?
The obvious answer is that when Israel goes out to war against their enemies, who are the enemies of G-d, with His guarantee that so long as we go out to war for the correct motives, then inevitably the enemies of Israel and of G-d will be destroyed, which is always a reason for rejoicing.
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the final word of the previous parashah is “Hashem” (“you shall remove the innocent blood from your midst when you do what is right in the eyes of Hashem” – Deuteronomy 21:9), and infers from this juxtaposition “that Hashem goes out with you, in accordance with ‘Hashem will go out and will wage war against those nations’ (Zechariah 14:3)”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim quotes here from one of the last prophecies of Zechariah, who was one of the last prophets ever to arise, a man whose lifetime spanned the final years of the First Temple and the first years of the Second Temple. This is a prophecy of the war of Gog and Magog: “Behold! – a day is coming for Hashem, when your spoils will be divided in your midst. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem for the war; the City will be captured, the houses will be pillaged, and the women will be violated; and half the City will go out to exile, but the rest of the nation will not be cut off from the City. Then Hashem will go out and will wage war against those nations, as He waged war on the day of battle” (Zechariah 14:1-3).
Rashi explains “a day is coming for Hashem” to mean “a day that is beloved by Hashem”, and the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) explains it to mean that “that day will be the time when Hashem’s glory and might will be seen; that is the time when Gog and Magog will come upon the Land of Israel, as Ezekiel the Prophet prophesied”.
And Rashi and the Ibn Ezra explains “the day of battle” to mean the day that He destroyed the Egyptians at the Red Sea.
So the Ba’al ha-Turim implicitly connects the opening verse of Parashat Ki Teitzei with the final war, the war of Gog and Magog, the war which is prophesied to begin with a grand international coalition attacking Israel (sounds familiar?), and which, in its opening stages, will yield the nations an apparent victory as they conquer part of Israel.
But then, G-d Himself will go out to fight for Israel against His enemies and ours; and then, as our parashah promises, “Hashem your G-d will deliver them into your hand”.