Bo: The Army

An essay based on a discourse that the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered on Shabbat Parashat Bo in 1961.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Jewish boy sits next to picture of Lubavitcher Rebbe
Jewish boy sits next to picture of Lubavitcher Rebbe
Flash 90

Every country has an army, and every army serves a country. The question is who is in charge, the army or the country?

You see, militaries are tricky things. On the one hand, they give the country power and stability, on the other hand, they can easily assume power. This is why the hallmark of every good army is discipline. If you distribute rifles and grenades to a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, things can grow messy quickly. A group of teenagers with rifles is a menace, not an asset, to their country. The army, therefore, drills discipline into its cadets. From morning to evening, cadets are trained to obey. The orders don’t need to make sense, they just need to be followed. Cadets are constantly reminded that they are not trained to think, they are trained to do.

With such discipline, the military can become a fine-tuned weapon in the hands of a wise leader. In good times, the country’s leader is its commander in chief and he or she directs the army. But the army is a coiled spring that requires just the right amount of tension. If abused, it can turn on its leader and the leader can turn into prey overnight. Leading a finely honed military that is armed to the teeth is like holding a tiger by its tail. You think you are in charge, but at any moment the tiger can turn, and suddenly it is in charge.

So, does the army belong to the country our does the country belong to the army? The answer depends on the military and on its leaders.

The Army of G-d
When the Jewish people came out of Egypt, the Torah assigned them the moniker, Tzviot Hashem—an army of G-d. It is fascinating that many of the prophets referred to G-d as Hashem Tzva-ot, G-d of the army. You might be more familiar with the phrase G-d of legions or G-d of hosts, but my point will be better understood if we stick to the word army.

Let’s consider the difference between the two phrases the army of G-d and G-d of the army. On the surface, they are two sides of the same coin. There is an army and there is G-d. G-d controls the army and the army serves G-d.

But if you examine these phrases closely, you will notice a profound difference. Who belongs to whom? If it’s the army of G-d, the army belongs to G-d—it is G-d’s army. If it’s G-d of the army, G-d belongs to the army—He is the army’s G-d. G-d’s army has only one allegiance—to G-d. When you say the army’s G-d, the army gets to choose its master. Today, the master is G-d, tomorrow the army can change its mind. This is not an army, it’s a mercenary force. If they fight on the right side, they can do good. If they choose the wrong side, they can wreak havoc.

G-d called the Jewish people an army of G-d because from His perspective G-d is the only true power and nothing can turn against Him. The prophets called Him G-d of the army because from an earthly perspective we have free choice, and the prophets were freely choosing to serve G-d.

The Hundred Dollars
Let me give you an example to bring this home. Two people approach a poor person and both hand him a hundred dollars. On the surface, they did the same thing. However, like the difference between G-d’s army and the army’s G-d, the difference is subtle but profound.

The first fellow said to himself, G-d gave me a hundred dollars, therefore, I will give it to the poor person. The other fellow said to himself, the poor person needs money, therefore, G-d gave me a hundred dollars. Subtle difference, but profound. Does the hundred dollars belong to me to do with as I please or does the money belong to charity and will get there through me?

A man once visited Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin. There was a bowl of apples on the table and each took an apple, recited the blessing, and took a bite. The man remarked arrogantly, you see there is not much difference between me and a Rebbe. The Rebbe and I both recited a blessing, and both ate the apple.

Rabbi Shlomo explained the difference. You saw the apple and desired it. Knowing that G-d won’t let you have it unless you ask nicely, you recited a blessing. I looked at the apple and was enchanted by G-d’s beautiful nature. I wanted to recite a blessing to thank G-d for the beauty that He created so I took the apple and recited the blessing.

You said a blessing to eat an apple, I ate an apple to recite a blessing. For you, it begins with your choice and ends with G-d. For me, it begins with G-d and ends with G-d. I’m just the agent.


Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin: You said a blessing to eat an apple, I ate an apple to recite a blessing. For you, it begins with your choice and ends with G-d. For me, it begins with G-d and ends with G-d. I’m just the agent.
When G-d looked down on the Jewish people marching from Egypt to Sinai, He said this will be my army. Their only role is to serve me, to perform good deeds and to be a light unto the nations. But the prophets looked up from below, beheld a splendorous G-d, and made a choice. We can look upon the beauty and pleasures of the world and ignore the infinite splendor of G-d, or we can choose G-d’s infinite splendor over the world’s finite pleasures. Which should we choose? Well, when you put it that way, it is a no brainer. We choose G-d, but it was their choice.

The question that we must ask every day is which army do I belong to, the one that chooses G-d or the one that belongs to G-d? Do I belong to G-d or does He belong to me? The answer need not be either-or, it can be an answer by degree. This part of me belongs to this army, that part of me belongs to the other. Yesterday, I belonged to this army, today I switched to the other one, and tomorrow I hope to switch to this army. We are works in progress and that too is okay.

Which is Better?

In the final analysis, which army is better?

The answer is both. Each holds an advantage over the other. When the army’s discipline is so well-honed that there is no choice for them but their commander in chief, the country is fully synchronized, stable, and protected. When the army or at least its leaders think for themselves, they can turn on a dime.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about being protected by someone who chooses to protect you. He values you, adores you, and risks his life for you. You can depend on him. If he can serve anyone and he chose you, it means that he thought it through and concluded that you are is his most important cause. The choice wasn’t foisted on him. He made it freely.

So, both are special. Both are important. From the top down we are the army of G-d and we follow Him wherever He may lead us. From the bottom up, He is the G-d of the army and we choose to follow Him because we admire Him and because we love Him.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, serves as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario. He is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.



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