Going to War

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Shofetim, Week Two: Going to War

At the end of the parsha, the Torah tells us about how Jews went to war. Two comments earlier in the portion seem to me to lay some groundwork for success in war (and in life).

The King’s Character and Ours

דברים יז: כ לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ …

Devarim 17:20: So that his heart not be uplifted over his brethren and not stray from the mitzvah right and left, such that he will reign for long years.

The verse is speaking explicitly to a king, explaining the commandment to retain a Torah scroll with him at all times, from which to read. In this verse, it gives the reason, that it will help him avoid feeling superior to his brethren. Ramban sees this as a source for a general prohibition; the Torah made it explicit regarding a king because he has just cause for placing himself above the people (they are commanded to treat him with awe and fear, so that he would be helping them cultivate this attitude by acting with that sense of superiority).

For all that that’s true, he needs to maintain a humble heart, reminding himself that true greatness and exaltedness belongs only to Hashem. What’s true of the king is all the truer for the rest of us, who have no justification for putting on airs, for thinking of ourselves as in some way deserving more than others.

In context, it has little to do with going to war, but when we get to those comments, I think we’ll see that this is part of a big picture that contributes to success at war.

Trusting Hashem

At the end of a list of sources of knowledge of the future (such as witchcraft) that Jews are prohibited to consult, the verse says:

פרק יח:יג  תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלוקיך

Devarim 18;13: Be whole (tamim, the Hebrew word, is often translated as ‘perfect’ or ‘blameless’) with Hashem your Gd.

Ramban sees this as following up on what came before. We are being told that Hashem controls everything, is the only One Who knows the future, and therefore we should seek that future only from Hashem, His prophets, and those who serve Hashem best and most fully. Even if we hear a prediction, we are required to trust that Hashem can change it, should that be the Divine Will (Ramban phrases it as that Hashem is meshaneh ma’arachot hakochavim, changes the array of the stars, which we would say means that Hashem can change the laws of Nature. To us, it might look like we had discovered a facet of those laws we had not noticed before).

Ramban adds that he holds this is a positive commandment in the Torah, one of the 613. The ramifications for war seem clear: we cannot resign ourselves to the necessity of prognosticators’ prediction, say is the way it must be, whether they base their view on witchcraft or other sources of knowledge. Should Hashem decide (which can be a very big caveat), any outcome is possible. That already brings the issue of ga’avah, arrogance, into the context of war, since the likelihood that Hashem will choose to go against the flow of nature and history to help the Jewish people in war lessens when their character has flaws, such as the king or the people being arrogant.

Let’s Go To War

At the end of the parasha, the Torah prescribes a pre-war ceremony, in which a kohen would encourage and exhort the people as to how to think about the upcoming battle.

דברים כ:ג וְאָמַ֤ר אֲלֵהֶם֙ שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אַתֶּ֨ם קְרֵבִ֥ים הַיּ֛וֹם לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אַל־יֵרַ֣ךְ לְבַבְכֶ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְא֧וּ וְאַֽל־תַּחְפְּז֛וּ וְאַל־תַּֽעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶֽם:   (ד) כִּ֚י יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם הַהֹלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּכֶ֑ם לְהִלָּחֵ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם עִם־אֹיְבֵיכֶ֖ם לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Devarim 20;3: He (the kohen) shall say to them, ‘Hear,O Israel, you are nearing war this day against your enemies; do not let your hearts be soft, do not fear, tremble, or be terrified before them. (4) For Hashem your God is going with you to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.

The message Jews need to take with them to war is that they are not the primary forces of victory or defeat. The awareness of Hashem’s powers should make clear, before the war begins, that the vital factor is meriting Hashem’s help, being among those who fear Hashem (whom Hashem will bring to victory, even miraculously).

The saving mentioned in the last words of verse four is that Hashem will ensure that no Jews will be killed. That’s why Yehoshu’a is so upset when thirty-six are killed at Ai—when Hashem is with the Jews, there need not be any casualties.

How To Trust in the Supernatural While Acting Naturally

The continuation of the verses speaks of what happened after the kohen spoke, that officers listed exemptions from service. After the list of life events that lead to such exemptions,

דברים כ:ח וְיָסְפ֣וּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים֘ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־הָעָם֒ וְאָמְר֗וּ מִי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַיָּרֵא֙ וְרַ֣ךְ הַלֵּבָ֔ב יֵלֵ֖ךְ וְיָשֹׁ֣ב לְבֵית֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִמַּ֛ס אֶת־לְבַ֥ב אֶחָ֖יו כִּלְבָבֽוֹ:

Devarim 20;8: The officers shall speak additionally to the people, and say: Who is the man who is fearful and soft of heart, let him go back to his house, that he not melt the hearts of his brothers like his.

Ramban reports two views in Sotah 44a. R. Yose HaGlili held that once the kohen had promised that Hashem would be there to help them, the only ones who could be afraid would be those who knew that their sins excluded them from that extraordinary help. R. Akiva took the verse more literally. In his reading, anyone who could hear the kohen’s promise and still feel fear had not achieved enough faith in Hashem’s salvation to merit it. (It’s a sort of Catch-22, in that he cannot get that help unless he believes in it.)

Behag understood the end of that verse as a prohibition, that a Jew afflicted with such fear or lack of trust has to leave the camp so as to be sure he doesn’t spread his negativity to others.

Much as Jews must trust in Hashem, Ramban notes that verse nine says that after the officers spoke to the people, u-fakedu sare tzeva’ot be-rosh ha’am, they shall appoint officers of war at the head of the nation. Ramban says that’s because people have to live ordinary lives, in which wars are fought by people, leaving Hashem to “hide” His miracles within that. Hashem changes Nature only when there’s no other way to bring about a desired result or to make Hashem’s Name more known, such as at the Splitting of the Sea.

Ramban (and he’s by far not the only one) understands that Jews must hold in their minds two seemingly opposed ideas, that Hashem runs their lives, at least militarily, and that they must do all they can to find success naturally (F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying that the “mark of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.” Ramban here seems to require all Jews to develop that kind of first-rate intelligence).

One challenge comes in finding that balance—if we’re to trust Hashem about the future and in our wars, how do we build up the enthusiasm or interest in making our own efforts? Conversely, if we put in a lot of effort and then find success, how do we remember Hashem’s role?

Avoiding the Worst Horrors of War

Many Jews struggle with the version of war that the Torah sets up, in which Jews must kill all the adult men in any city that originally fights against them. While Ramban doesn’t address that topic directly in a way that sheds useful light here, two of his comments show ways in which that kind of extreme war was meant to be a last resort.

דברים כ:י כִּֽי־תִקְרַ֣ב אֶל־עִ֔יר לְהִלָּחֵ֖ם עָלֶ֑יהָ וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֵלֶ֖יהָ לְשָׁלֽוֹם: (יא) וְהָיָה֙ אִם־שָׁל֣וֹם תַּֽעַנְךָ֔ וּפָתְחָ֖ה לָ֑ךְ וְהָיָ֞ה כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַנִּמְצָא־בָ֗הּ יִהְי֥וּ לְךָ֛ לָמַ֖ס וַעֲבָדֽוּךָ:

Devarim 20;10: When you approach a city to do battle against it, call out to it for peace. (11) If it answers you peacefully, and opens up to you, all the people in it shall pay you a tax and serve you.

The verse is discussing a milchemet hareshut, a voluntary war, but Ramban understands this rule to largely apply to an obligatory war as well (such as conquering Israel). The major difference between the two types of war is what the city needs to accept to avoid war. Faraway cities (the way the Torah refers to a voluntary war) need only agree to make peace and pay taxes, whereas cities within Israel will need to agree to refrain from idolatry (notably, Ramban mentions only idolatry. Rambam in Laws of Kings 6;4 thought these nations would have to accept all the Noahide laws, whereas Ra’avad required full conversion; for “faraway” cities, I think Ramban must mean those where the Jews are not going to stay and rule over them. Once those cities are going to stay under direct Jewish control, they would need to renounce idolatry, so that they not lead the Jews astray, as we discussed last time).

That this was part of how Jews conducted war makes the incident in Yehoshu’a 9, with the people of Giv’on, problematic—if Jews called out for peace, why did they need an elaborate ruse to secure a peace treaty? Ramban offers several options. First, they may have misunderstood the deadline for accepting the peace terms.

If they originally rejected the idea, they may have thought they could not change their minds, and were therefore doomed (and Rambam notes a dispute as to whether they were correct, that the call for peace came with an expiration moment, or were mistaken). Or (for a third option), they may have wanted a better deal, to be equal partners, not to accept the taxes and tribute ordinarily required (if so, they didn’t get it; once their ruse was discovered, they were made into eternal water carriers and wood choppers).

To fight wars with Hashem’s hidden supernatural intervention, Jews need to develop the character and trust that that’s the way the war will go. Once they do, they can be confident of their victory, and can require their adversaries to accept and adopt their worldview in order to make peace.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories