Towards the end of our sedra we are given the ‘rules of engagement’ - laws of conduct in war. Before we go to war, the ‘anointed kohen’ speaks to the people, delineating the various groups people who should return home from the battlefront. These include anyone who has built a house but has not yet lived in it, has planted a vineyard but has not yet redeemed from its special status it in its fourth year, someone who is engaged but is not yet fully married, or someone who is afraid that sins they have committed will not stand him in good merit to survive the war. This is the opinion of Rav Yossi Haglili,[1] who holds that these first categories (house, vineyard, fiancee) are there to serve a purpose so as not to embarrass someone who is leaving the front because of their sins - this way, people will think that the deserter has a new vineyard. Rabbi Akiva argues though, and explains that there is no ‘sin category’ to allow people to return from fear of their sins. Rather, it is people who are too afraid to fight properly who may return from the front. We will discuss two psukim in this portion, which is the subject of a dispute between the Rambam and Ramban


The kohen warns the people before war: ‘…do not let your heart be faint, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them [the enemy]. For HaShem your G-D is the One who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to save you (20;3-4).’ The point of dispute regards the nature of this warning not to be afraid. The Rambam [2] holds that this is a prohibition - a soldier fighting for Bnei Yisrael may not have fear in war. In the words of the Rambam, ‘once he has entered the fray in battle, he should rely on HaShem Who saves him in times of trouble, and he should know that he is fighting for HaShem’s Oneness…and he must not be afraid…’ The Ramban [3], however, holds that this is not a prohibition, but rather an assurance; the kohen is telling that there is no reason to fear because HaShem is fighting on their side for them. We shall focus on the opinion of the Rambam. What exactly is it prohibited to fear in war? This is the question dealt with by the Steipler, [4] and has implications for the definition of bitachon, as we will explain. The Rambam himself, in sefer hamitzvos couples this prohibition not to fear with emunah / bitachon.[5]

The Steipler asks a searching question on the Rambam. The psukim report that the kohen himself tells the categories of people (house, vineyard, fiancee, fear/sin) to return home from war because they might die in the war (20; 5,6,7). Similarly, in a Jewish army the protocol before going out to war was that each soldier would write a divorce get to his wife which would be activated should he not return home from war. This was aimed to prevent situations of ‘missing in action,’ whereby the soldier’s wife would not be able to remarry because her husband could still be alive. The sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat and the Dakar submarine in the 1960s brought up such ‘agunah’ issues these conditional gittin were aimed to prevent.[6] How can there be a prohibition during war to fear being killed if the Torah itself prepares the soldiers for the possibility of being killed at war? Therefore, explains the Steipler, the Rambam does not mean that it is prohibited to fear being killed at war. Indeed, there is a chance that the soldier will be killed at war, and it is not a lack of bitachon to worry and fear such an eventuality. Rather, the prohibition is to conclude that ‘since the enemy have more soldiers than us/better weaponry, etc. we are going to lose the battle,’ and fear as a result. In other words, the prohibition is to fear losing the war purely based on the physical strength of the enemy - that is a lack of bitachon, for HaShem can guarantee victory no matter what the size of the enemy is [7]. This, concludes the Steipler, is implicit in the psukim themselves; the pasuk introduces the prohibition to fear with the words ‘when you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots, a nation more numerous than you. Do not fear them (20;1)’ We see that the fear is of the physical might of the enemy dictating victory in war.

However, that does not solve the entire story. The Rambam clearly mentions that part of this prohibition of fear is that the soldier is ‘not to fear, not to be afraid, not to think about his wife and children…rather he should take his mind off of everything and focus on the war.’ If the entire prohibition is to fear the numerical and physical superiority of the enemy, what does thinking of one’s family have to do with this? Therefore, concludes the Steipler, that the prohibition according to the Rambam is to have any feeling or emotion in mind that will prevent him from being completely focussed on the war.[8] But the above point remains; there is no problem fearing the possibility of death (as long as it does not distract him too much), and the promise in the following pasuk (20;4) that HaShem is fighting for us is to tell us that there is no need to fear the enemy’s physical advantage. That does not dictate the outcome of the war.

The practical point for us to take out of this revolves around the definition of bitachon. The Steipler makes clear that there is no lack of bitachon for the soldier to worry that he might be killed. What is problematic is to fear that he (and all his comrades) will be killed purely based on the strength of the enemy; that is a lack of emunah in HaShem’s capabilities. This shows us an important point about bitachon - as highlighted by Rav Yisroel Reisman. Bitachon does not mean ‘it will be alright, I will get that salary increase,’ or ‘it will be alright, my child will pass those exams.’ That is hope, not bitachon. Bitachon means that whatever happens, it is under the control of HaShem. Bitachon does not mean that things do not go wrong - it means that when they do go wrong, HaShem planned things to happen that way for a reason. This definition is echoed by the Steipler’s brother-in-law, the Chazon Ish.[9] In similar vein, someone asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether it was a lack of bitachon to buy life insurance.[10] Rav Moshe wrote back that there is no lack of bitachon here. This echoes the above definition of bitachon - bitachon does not mean ‘I will not die within the year,’ rather it means ‘if I do die, HaShem wanted it to be that way.’ It is all in the hands of HaShem.

This is one explanation of the statement ‘anyone who gets angry is as if they served idols,’[11] one would not get angry because of an event if they had realised that HaShem had dictated the event to occur - anger is thus a symbol of failing to be loyal to the concept of HaShem controlling the world; it is like worshipping idols instead. This definition of bitachon should also be used to ultimately negate jealousy of others [HaShem wanted them, and not you, to have that item], and as motivation for mitzvos; HaShem gave me money/talents, for He saw that I could use them positively in His world. Rav Elon said that each morning in the modeh ani when we thank HaShem for returning our souls and say ’great is Your emunah,’ we are referring to this idea that HaShem has faith that we can fulfil our missions in His world, and so returns our souls to us each morning.
‘It’s all in the hands of HaShem; He plans it all’ is a sentence easier said than lived with, and Chazal have said that it requires working on before the bad event comes along [12]. A twelve year-old daughter of a certain major Rabbi was suffering from a painful and dangerous disease and her father was davening for her recovery. The girl turned round to her father and asked him why he was davening - I am ill because HaShem wants me to be ill. Whilst one should always daven in such situations to try and effect and change, one can appreciate the girl’s temimus and attitude in realising that her illness came from HaShem and for a reason.

Have a great Shabbes, Daniel, Janine, and Dovid

1 Mishna Sotah 44a, also cited by Rashi in our sedra (20;8)

2 Sefer HaMitzvos lo ta’asei 58, Yad HaChazaka hilchos melachim 7;15. He actually quotes different psukim in the above sources. In Sefer HaMitzvos, he brings the psukim from Devarim 7;21 and3;22 - parshiyos Ekev and Devarim. But in the Yad HaChazakah, he quotes the psukim from our sedra Shoftim.

3 Hasagos on Sefer HaMitzvos, lo ta’asei 58.

4 Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985). We are citing from his sefer ‘birkas peretz,’ parshas Shoftims

5 “For in this matter it is possible to fulfil true emunah”

6 Rabbi Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel, at the time, argued that the Israeli army should institute conditional gittin. Rav Goren, rabbi of the IDF, disagreed on the basis that he ha prepared such forms but the soldiers had refused to sign them. The commanders argued that having soldiers sign a conditional get just before going into battle would seriously hurt the troops' fighting morale and increase their fear and concern for their families. This is precisely the issue we are dealing with in the Rambam.

7 There are countless examples of Bnei Yisrael beating an enemy larger than them in Nach, as well as in wars of Israel in modern times. We have previosuly quoted the University professor of war studies who, when asked why the faculty do not teach about the modern Israeli wars, responded ‘there is no natural way to explain their victories.’

8 As the Rambam says in melachim hilchos 7;15 ‘if he does not fight with all his body and soul it is as if he has killed many people…and anyone who does fight full heartedly without fear and the sole intention [is to be] to sanctify HaShem’s name…’

9 In his sefer ‘emunah u’bitachon’ - I have heard it quoted but have not read it.

10 It is in igros moshe orach chaim 2;111 - I have not read it myself. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 3:85) agrees with Rav Moshe, apparently.

11 Gemarra Shabbes 105b, Rambam hilchos de’os 2;3 # Heard on Rabbi Reisman tape - I can’t remember the source.

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