Parshat Matot-Masei: Sharing the burden

'Shall your brethren go to war, while you settle here?' (Numbers 32:6)

Sharing the burden (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Sharing the burden
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
The tribes of Gad and Reuben are so taken with the grazing potential of the land east of the Jordan River that they request permission to remain there and establish their settlement.
Moses rebukes them, insisting that they must first join the other tribes in battle, and only once the entire land is conquered, “may you return, so that you come out pure in the eyes of God and of Israel.” (Numbers 32: 22) Last year, Rabbi Shaul Robinson (who is now my successor as rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and a very beloved student) was surprised on entering a Satmar bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a large Hebrew sign which read, “Shall your brethren go to war while you settle here?” He immediately asked the owners, “Can this be true? Are you encouraging young haredi men to join the IDF? Have you really joined the ranks of the religious Zionists?” The owner of the bakery pointed out that the verse was actually being cited by the Satmar Hassidim to encourage participation in demonstrations in favor of Sabbath observance. Unfortunately, the hassidim did not understand the irony in the verse whose meaning they were distorting for their purposes.
Israeli haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society is currently going through a cataclysmic shakeup. Until now, virtually all of their young men lived a life of exclusive Torah study. This is a result of David Ben-Gurion’s agreement with the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, to fill the ranks of Torah scholarship which had been so decimated by the Shoah.
There is now a strong likelihood that a great many, if not all, haredi young men will be called up for several years of national service. At Ohr Torah Stone educational institutions, we are even involved in accepting a group of 30 haredi young men who wish to study Torah for one year before entering combat units of the IDF.
Interestingly enough, even before the present political constellation enabled the possibility of a haredi draft, many haredi young men were showing interest in joining the IDF, sharing the burden of military service and integrating themselves into the workforce.
There was never a halachic justification for military exemptions for those studying Torah. Our sages declared that if Israel is under threat of attack, “Even a groom must leave his bridal chamber and even a bride must leave her nuptial canopy in order to protect our land and its citizenry” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 7:4).
The great hassidic authority, Rabbi Isaac of Karlin, writes in his talmudic commentary Keren Orah that, “In an obligatory war everyone goes to battle, and so even Torah scholars must be freed from their studies” (Commentary to Sota).
The ultra-Orthodox decisors base their insistence upon exemption on two major sources. They cite the Sifrei (Numbers, Parshat Matot, 157), which comments on the biblical text enjoining universal military conscription: “With the exclusion of the Tribe of Levi” – implying that the tribe of Levi was exempted from serving in the army.
However, there is an alternative manuscript of this midrash which reads, “with the inclusion of the tribe of Levi.” This reading is preferred by Rashi, who insists that the tribe of Levi went out to battle against Midian – even though that battle was not an obligatory war in the classical sense (Numbers 31:4).
The second text they cite is the talmudic ruling that the righteous deeds of Torah scholars guard them against attack, and thereby exempt them from sharing in the cost of defensive city walls (Bava Batra 7b). But the Tosafot (ad loc) and the Hazon Ish (on Bava Batra 5:18) limit this exemption to defenses against robberies – protection of property. If the wall is to be erected for the protection of human lives, even Torah scholars would be expected to contribute! After all, we dare not rely upon miracles when lives are at stake.
Even within our talmudic passage (Bava Batra 7b), there is a fascinating difference of opinion between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish as to whether it is the Torah study or the righteous deeds which bring protection.
This question was seemingly resolved in an earlier generation in favor of righteous deeds. The discussion took place between two rabbis imprisoned during the Hadrianic persecutions. Rabbi Hananya ben Teradion noted that while he stood accused of only one crime he would receive the death penalty, his colleague Rabbi Elazar ben Parta would survive despite having five accusations against him. Rabbi Hananya ben Teradion explained his colleague’s special fortune thus: “Because you occupied yourself with the study of Torah as well as the performance of good deeds, whereas I occupied myself exclusively with the study of Torah. And it has been taught: He who only studies Torah is compared to someone who has no God” (Avoda Zara 17b).
In the present Israeli climate, when businessmen – if they work alone – must simply close their shops and somehow absorb the loss of clientele for 30 to 90 days of reserve duty a year, and young husbands must leave wives and fledgling families for the same period, what greater “good deed” could there be than lessening this pressure and sharing in this national obligation? What better way can there be to remove the resentment against the ultra-Orthodox and pave the way toward a united Jewish nation than by a united sharing of the burden and merit of protecting our future?

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.