Nahal haredi soldier 248 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Amajor difference between a slave people and a free people is that a free people
has not only the ability but also the duty to defend itself. This is a theme
that runs throughout the Torah and indeed the entire Bible. I was
reminded of it during the recent government debates concerning the exemption of
haredim from army service.
In the story of the Exodus, the struggle to
free the Israelites is conducted entirely by God through miracles that are
presented by His spokesmen, Moses and Aaron. The people of Israel do not
rise up and do not fight for their freedom. This is true even at the Sea of
Reeds, the climax of redemption, when they are specifically told: “The Lord will
fight for you; you keep still!” (Exodus 14:14). This is emphasized when the
Egyptians say, “The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt” (Ex. 14:25) and
verse 14:30, which sums up the story with the words “Thus the Lord delivered
Israel that day from the Egyptians.”
Yet very soon thereafter, their
first test as a free people is to defend themselves in the battle against
Amalek, not to depend upon a miracle from the Lord. For the first time, Moses
commands Joshua, “Pick some men for us and do battle with Amalek” (Ex. 17:9). It
is a battle in which they triumph, “And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek
with the sword” (Ex. 17:13).
Unfortunately, this triumph does not
continue throughout the wilderness story. Their fear overcomes them all
too often, and they express a desire to return to Egypt rather than face the
difficulties of defending themselves. This reaches its moment of disaster when,
listening to the report of the spies, they refuse to continue the journey and
undertake the battle for the land, preferring to die in the wilderness. “Why is
the Lord taking us to the land to fall by the sword?” (Numbers 14:3), they ask,
and they determine to head back for Egypt. As a result, they must remain in the
wilderness for 40 years so that the entire generation will die out and never
reach the land of promise (Num.14:26-35). A slave generation is not
capable of fulfilling the task.
This theme repeats itself again at the
conclusion of their journey in the story of the tribes that ask Moses’s
permission to remain behind on the other side of the Jordan, an area not
considered part of the land of Canaan. Moses castigates them with the caustic
rhetorical question, “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?”
(Num. 32:6). The sin of these tribes, in the eyes of Moses, is not that they
want to remain in Transjordan but that they, like their fathers, are not willing
to fight for their freedom and will cause all Israel to turn and flee (Num.
Only when they explain that indeed they are willing to fight –
“We will hasten as shock-troops in the forefront of the Israelites until we have
established them in their home...” (Numbers 32:17) – does he grant their
We find this same idea in the stories told of the period of the
Judges. In the Song of Deborah, for example, the tribes that did not join in
battle are castigated for their timidity (Judges 5:15-17). Those who “came not
to the aid of the Lord, to the aid of the Lord among the warriors” are even
bitterly cursed (5:23).
Deuteronomy stresses the need for all the males
of appropriate age to fight in Israel’s wars and lists those who are exempt: One
who has built a new home and not dedicated it, one who has planted a vineyard
and not harvested it, one who has betrothed a woman but not married her, one who
is afraid and might cause others to be frightened (Deuteronomy 20:5-8). Those
are the only exemptions.
The Mishna, compiled hundreds of years later,
determined that even these exemptions applied only to certain types of warfare –
those that were not mandatory, but that in required wars such as wars of
defense, “all must serve, even the groom from his room and the bride from her
canopy” (Sota 8:6). Yes, women too are obligated to come to the defense of the
nation in times of danger according to rabbinic law.
Just as the ancient
Israelites had to change from a nation of slaves and become a free people and in
so doing take upon themselves the responsibility for their own defense and the
lives of the entire people, so too the emergence of a free Jewish state mandated
such a change. While asking for God’s help, we can no longer be passive in our
own defense. That is what it means to be a free people.
From a religious
point of view, then, it is difficult to understand how one who purports to
observe the mitzvot and obey the Torah can claim an exemption from army service
in these days when it is crystal clear that without a strong defense force, this
nation could not survive and its civilian population would be
Would not Moses, were he alive today, turn to such people and
say to them, “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?” The writer,
former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and current member of
its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was the founding director of the
Schechter Rabbinical School. An author and two-time winner of the National
Jewish Book Award, his latest book is Entering Torah.