War charms

We live in a period when many people avidly seek segulot - extraordinary charms that have curative, palliative or preventative powers.

We live in a period when many people avidly seek segulot - extraordinary charms that have curative, palliative or preventative powers. Red strings around our wrists, smashing eggs on the tires of a new car, a young couple under a wedding canopy each vying to be the first to stand on the spouses' foot, rubies on the fingers of pregnant women - the list goes on. Admittedly, it is difficult to fathom the mechanism of such segulot and impossible to measure their sway. Nevertheless, they are widely popular, and particularly in tough times they become a haven for those seeking to do their part in influencing the outcome. Rabbi Asher Weiss, author of Minhat Asher, outlined three potent segulot that our sages describe - and perhaps prescribe - for times of war. King David was forced to fight many battles during his reign. When engaging the enemy, fear naturally enters our bones. King David, however, was able to overcome this fright: If a faction should encamp against me, my heart will not fear; if it will rise against me in war, in this I will trust (Psalms 27:3). What gave King David such strength? In what did he place his trust that made his fear dissipate? Our sages explain that the "this" to which King David referred is none other than the Torah. The expression "This is the Torah…" appears a few times in the Bible. Significantly, one verse states: This is the Torah - When a man dies in a tent… (Numbers 19:14) and our sages have explained that this tent is the dwelling place of Torah study and we need to be willing to give our lives for its perpetuation (B. Berachot 63b). Thus King David shared with us his stratagem: He overcame his battle anxieties with faith in the eternity of our heritage. Indicatively, David did not shy from the front line, he simply coupled his battle plans with an affirmation of the Tradition. The very existence of our rich heritage can only be preserved by a two-pronged attack: Brave soldiers risking their lives on the front lines while others who are not stationed there are willing to give their lives for the perpetuation of the tradition and the continued study of Torah. But do we have another paradigm for such a two-pronged attack? This brings us to the second segula indicated by the sages (Bamidbar Rabba 22:2). Just before Moses's death, the Jewish people went out to battle Midian. Our sages discuss the size of the force that was enlisted for this operation. According to one opinion, 3,000 men were conscripted from each of the 12 tribes, making a force of 36,000 soldiers. Our sages continue describing the missions of different units: 12,000 were sent to engage the enemy while 12,000 remained behind the battle lines guarding the munitions and supplies. The final 12,000 were sent to pray. Tactically, a sizable unit was ordered to beseech the Almighty on behalf of the forces engaging in fighting. In a one-to-one match up, each soldier at the front had a soldier in the rear praying on his behalf. Thus our sages reveal the second battle segula: Sincere, heartfelt prayer. A final battle segula offered by our sages (Vayikra Rabba 26:2): The learning standard in the time of David was supreme - children who were too young to have tasted sin could already plumb the depths of Torah. The proficiency was so thorough that they could offer opposing explanations for complex points of law. David was proud of this tender flock and he beseeched the Almighty: "Guard your Torah in their hearts. Protect them from this generation that may be deserving of death." Yet our sages tell us that David's prayers were unheeded and these innocent children were killed on the battlefield. In a chilling statement that is less a historical account and more a pedagogic prod, our sages explain how after such unbridled praise these young souls could be taken: Because there were among them those who were not careful about their speech, wantonly speaking badly about each other and spreading rumors. Our sages continue with a frightening comparison: In another biblical period - the days of the wicked King Ahab, known for encouraging and spreading idol worship - wars were not lost, for they was no rumor-mongering. While idol worship is most certainly not a segula for winning wars, our sages are highlighting the potential damage of gossip. To be sure, we can never truly know what precipitates an untimely death. Offering various formulae often causes more harm and anguish than help and amelioration. Yet as we seek ways to make our contribution, using the words of our sages as a guide to identify worthy action is a precious course rooted in tradition. Many of us feel distant from the front lines where our embattled brothers and sisters are holding strong in the face of adversity and danger. Our hearts are with our brave soldiers and with the families in the bomb shelters, but we want to do more. From our own corner we wish to reach out and offer any assistance we can. As a nation, we should be proud of the outpouring of love from the homefront to the homefront that has become a battleground. Hosting families from the North, setting up summer camps for the children, missions that have traveled to the bomb shelters, emergency funds - the plethora of initiatives is no small achievement. While the mortars rain down, the fortitude of our people is a tremendous feat. For those of us who are not on the front lines, we also have our role to play: Torah, prayer and careful speech. These are the segulot that our sages have bequeathed to us, and this is the call to arms for those who have not been stationed at enemy lines. The battleground for our national identity is not only where bullets fly and bombs explode. Our destiny as a people is determined by all of us collectively. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.