World of the Sages: Marching orders

War always involves near-impossible choices: tactics, weapons, strategies. Who are our friends and who are our foes? How do we prioritize between competing ends?

joshua shofar 88 (photo credit: )
joshua shofar 88
(photo credit: )
War always involves near-impossible choices: tactics, weapons, strategies. Who are our friends and who are our foes? How do we prioritize between competing ends? Our Tradition preserves the tale of an audacious chief-of-staff in the aftermath of the destruction of the second Temple - the gallant Bar Kuziba (Y. Taanit 68d). The Romans had 80,000 pairs of horn blowers besieging the city of Betar. Each horn blower had the responsibility of notifying the soldiers in his unit of their instructions. Against this tremendous force, Bar Kuziba gathered 200,000 of the bravest warriors, known as "finger drippers" - to prove their grit and gain acceptance into this elite unit, they had to put a hand in fire until blood dripped from a scorched finger. According to another source they were know as "fingerless," referring to an even harsher rite of passage: Each soldier had to cut off his own finger to demonstrate his gutsy mettle! The rabbinic leadership was unenthusiastic about this ordeal, rebuking the head of the army: "How long will you continue to maim Jewish people?" Bar Kuziba replied: "How else would you have me test the courage of my potential recruits?" The sages were not to be deterred: "Let the test be - anyone who cannot uproot a Lebanon cedar while riding on a horse does not deserve to join your bold corps." Bar Kuziba accepted this suggestion and the ranks of his force swelled: 200,000 fingerless and 200,000 uprooters now faced the Roman army. With full faith in his own might, Bar Kuziba would brashly tell God to stay away from the combat zone: "Master of the universe, do not help us win the battle, but do not hinder us in our path." On an entirely different front, the sage Rabbi Elazar Hamodai sat in sackcloth and beseeched God with a different prayer: "Master of the universe, do not sit in judgment today." Rabbi Elazar Hamodai hoped that his prayer would provide a stay of execution. The war raged for three and a half years as Adrianus surrounded Betar but could not raze the city. Finally, Adrianus decided to return home, acknowledging that he could not conquer the city. Before he departed, a Cuthite arrived: "Do not leave for I will show you what to do, and the city will fall into your hands." Through the sewer system the Cuthite entered the city and he found Rabbi Elazar Hamodai standing in prayer. He approached the sage and pretended to whisper in his ear. Ensconced in prayer, Rabbi Elazar Hamodai did not realize. People saw the sage consorting with the enemy and the Cuthite was hauled before the military leader: "We saw the Cuthite talking to your uncle, Rabbi Elazar Hamodai." "What did you say to him and what did he say to you?" questioned Bar Kuziba. The Cuthite responded: "If I tell you, then the king will kill me. If I don't tell you, then you will kill me. I prefer to be killed by a king." Thus the troublemaker falsely reported: "Rabbi Elazar Hamodai said to me - 'I will give the city over to Adrianus.'" Bar Kuziba went to his uncle and confronted him: "What did that Cuthite say to you?" "Nothing," responded Rabbi Elazar Hamodai innocently. "What did you say to him?" "Nothing." Angrily, Bar Kuziba kicked the sage and killed him. With Rabbi Elazar Hamodai and his heartfelt prayer gone, the city stood little chance and quickly fell. Bar Kuziba's strength alone could not prevent the fall of Betar; he needed his uncle's prayer. Such a symbiotic arrangement may be the thrust of the rabbinic interpretation of a biblical episode (B. Megilla 3a). While besieging the city of Jericho, Joshua was met by an unexpected scout (Joshua 5:13-14). Seeing a drawn sword, Joshua quickly asked: "Are you friend or foe?" "No, I am an officer of the army of God. Now I have come." The sages explain that the mysterious soldier was chastising Joshua: "This afternoon you neglected to offer the afternoon tamid sacrifice and now you neglect to study Torah!" Thus in the first campaign for sovereignty over the Land of Israel, a divine message was conveyed to then chief-of-staff Joshua, questioning his priorities in battle. "For which of these two offenses have you come?" Joshua inquired. "I have come now - during the nighttime when you should have been learning Torah." Seeing the folly of his conduct, Joshua sought to rectify his behavior at the next opportunity. On the eve of the following battle the Bible relates that Joshua slept in the valley (Joshua 8:9, 13). Playing on the word for valley - emek - our sages explain that Joshua encamped in the depths - omek - of Jewish law, thus repudiating his misdeed. Returning to the indictment of Joshua - do we really expect our brave soldiers to spend their few hours of respite delving into the labyrinth of Jewish law? Even on pure halachic grounds it would appear that Joshua was justified, for one who is involved in fulfilling a divine command - such as conquering the Land of Israel - is exempt from discharging other obligations, such as studying Torah (B. Succa 25a). Perhaps the angel's accusation was not concerning Joshua's neglect of a commandment, rather the mysterious soldier was chastising the military leader for his tactical error in disregarding a most potent weapon at this fateful hour - the Tradition. Our strongest weapon is loyalty to the principles of our people, to our heritage of being a moral army, to our goal of fighting just wars, to coupling the fight on the battlegrounds with a commitment to tradition. There are weapons against all types of arms - against artillery, against guns, against missiles, yet there is no arsenal that can breach fidelity to Tradition. Thus we all need to respond to a national call to arms, even - and perhaps especially - those who for whatever reason are not on the frontlines. We aspire to a partnership of morals and might, of the book and the sword. These are our marching orders preserved in the timeless texts of Heritage. 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.