This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
שֹׁפְטִים ~ Shoftim
“Torah Wars & the Way of the Jewdi”
|[20:10, 16-19, 21:1] “When you will come close to the city to do war against it, then you shall call out to it for peace… Only from the cities of these nations that Hashem your G-d has given to you for an inheritance, do not let any soul live… When you lay siege to a city for many days to do war against it to grasp it, do not destroy its tree, to wield an ax against it, for from it, you shall eat; and [thus], it do not cut off, for is it the man, a tree of the field, that it should enter the siege before you?…
When you find a carcass on the soil that Hashem your G-d is giving to you to inherit it, fallen in the field, and it is not known who smote him…”
|כִּֽי־תִקְרַ֣ב אֶל־עִ֔יר לְהִלָּחֵ֖ם עָלֶ֑יהָ וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֵלֶ֖יהָ לְשָׁלֽוֹם
רַ֗ק מֵֽעָרֵ֤י הָֽעַמִּים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁר֙ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְ֖ךָ נַֽחֲלָ֑ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּ֖ה כָּל־נְשָׁמָֽה
כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר
כִּֽי־יִמָּצֵ֣א חָלָ֗ל בַּֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁר֩ ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵ֤ן לְךָ֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ נֹפֵ֖ל בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖ע מִ֥י הִכָּֽהוּ
Parshas Shoftim begins a series of many laws pertaining to the unpleasant topic of war. This series starts with the laws of the Chozerim MeiOrchei Milchamah, the returnees who are excused from war due to unique, extenuating circumstances [20:1-9]. Afterwards, we’re given a plethora of rules regarding Milchamos Reshus, “optional wars,” versus the Milchamos Mitzvah, “mandatory wars” [20:10-20], and so forth. And although the Torah seems to digress from war to discuss the laws of Eglah Arufah (Decapitated Calf), a ritual performed in response to a “mystery murder” [21:1-9] (which presumably did not occur during wartime), in the very next Sidrah, Ki Seitzei, the Torah picks up with the laws of the Yefas To’ar, the beautiful woman who is taken as a war captive, apparently continuing the war series.
With that introduction, we can already ask an obvious question, that being, why the Torah apparently interrupted the war program to bring us the seemingly unrelated laws of Eglah Arufah? Even if we can fathom some deeper connection between the Torah’s mystery murder case and the laws of war, which by the way, various M’forshim (commentators) do, why couldn’t the Torah merely juxtapose the laws of Eglah Arufah to those of war? For example, the Torah might’ve either mentioned the laws of Eglah Arufah a little bit before or a little bit after our war series. For some reason, Eglah Arufah was stuck right in the middle of the discussion. Why is that?
We might suggest that the Torah is trying to hint to us that, in some way, the laws of Eglah Arufah are really a part of the war series, or at least they shed some important light on the laws of war. The question is how.
Further along in the war series, the Torah takes a couple of verses to address the Halachic restriction known commonly as “Bal Tash’chis” (lit., “Do not Destroy”) which prohibits the destruction of any fruit trees amidst war sieges even if it’ll somehow benefit the war effort [20:19-20]. Why is it so bad to destroy the fruit trees? So, as far as Rashi’s reading goes, the Torah sort of explains the issue with rhetorical question, “…Ki HaAdam Eitz HaSadeh Lavo MiPanecha BaMatzor?”-“…for is it a man, the tree of the field, that it should enter the siege before you?” In other words, it is not like the tree is one of your human opponents who pose a threat to you in the war. Thus, do not waste the life source of the tree. With this understanding, it seems that the Torah is being sensitive for the life of the tree.
The problem is that the logic here seems a little backwards. From our Sidrah, it is apparent that the Torah supports the concept of war which includes the killing of other humans, taking lives. Should the Torah then go out of its way to save the trees? Why should the Torah care more about the trees than about human lives? It sounds crazy, yet the Torah presents the challenge as such by asking, “Is the tree a man?” How could that be?
As we think about this question, there is a more global and uncomfortable issue that comes to mind which pertains to the Torah’s view of war.
Although a devoted Jew would like to think of Judaism as being a humane, religion of peace, there are many skeptics who challenge this notion on a daily basis due to various laws with which they take issue. One of their major platforms for challenging this notion is rooted in an explicit command in our war series, that when it comes to a Milchamas Mitzvah, the B’nei Yisrael are commanded to kill every man, woman, and child of the seven Cana’ani nations. This command is echoed in other places in reference to the nation of Amaleik whom must also be wiped out. As impractical as the command may be in common times (as Sancheiriv mixed up the nations), the Torah commanded it once upon a time, thus demonstrating an apparent attitude and philosophy.
Now, surely, war is an unfortunate reality that we have learned to accept, and certainly, the execution of any extremely wicked people is justified, but the extent of this particular command seems plainly inhumane, at least on the surface. The killing of any children, for obvious reasons, should make us feel queasy. Doesn’t the Torah value human life, especially that of an innocent child?
Thus, the question is not just from the standpoint of a skeptic, but of an intellectually honest individual who wants to be both a good and religious Jew. How is one to relate to such “radical” laws? How does a religious, Jewish believer in the Torah see his religion as being any more humane and peace-loving than other religions whose code of law commands the execution of those whom the religion deems “infidels”?
Before we can begin to provide an explanation for such issues, we have to prepare to accept the possibility that there may be no real “socially acceptable” answers to our question. One might say that Milchamas Mitzvah is unique because the B’nei Yisrael need to conquer Eretz Yisrael, but again, it is children we’re being told to kill here. Some might suggest that the wicked nations are bound to corrupt their children or even kill their own children in their idolatrous services [See 12:31], but, in such circumstances, most would probably argue back that we should just spare their children and bring them to a shelter somewhere so that we can teach them to be good people. Killing them before their parents do does not seem to make sense. And yes, Rashi [citing Sifrei 202] points out that in the event that any wicked individuals from those nations repent and want to convert, we will allow them to, it is still hard to justify the execution of the children, should they convert or not.
As much as we try to avoid it, the Torah commands something that is very difficult to swallow. It’s hard to justify killing children.
However, for now, before we label the Torah based on this marginal, uncomfortable law, let us return to our other questions and investigate the Torah’s war culture a little further.
We first wondered why Eglah Arufah was inserted into what we called the “war series,” and we started to suggest that maybe, the Torah wants us to relate to war in light of Eglah Arufah, that Eglah Arufah somehow sheds light on the Torah’s perspective of war. Well, what is Eglah Arufah about?
In the case of a mystery murder, the Zikeinim (elders) of the nearest city are called upon to tend to the dead with a special ritual to atone for the death. The ritual includes the decapitation of a young calf which has never worn a yoke or performed any labor. And, the Torah explains that the whole procedure must take place in the infertile land known as “Nachal Eisan.” Why decapitate a young calf? Why does it have to be done in Nachal Eisan? Why perform any ritual at all? Why must the elders achieve atonement?
The goal behind all of the variables of Eglah Arufah is to make us sensitive to the life that was lost. We don’t know who the murderer is. We can’t kill him. But, that does not mean that a man was not murdered and that we shouldn’t be bothered by the life cut short. Thus, atonement is needed. A young calf who has not worked is killed, symbolizing the life mission cut short for this individual, the work that could not be done. The location must be infertile, similarly, symbolizing the loss of cultivation and productivity which this individual suffers. The point is that the life that was lost matters very much, and the Torah wants us to care.
Why would the Torah place this law in the war series? To teach us that even in the unfortunate but very real setting of war, we cannot take lightly the concept of killing human life. Yes, war exists, but, not because it’s ideal. We should feel heavyhearted about the idea of taking a human life.
This would also explain why the Torah expresses concern for the fruit trees. We argued that it appears as though the Torah cares more about the trees than about human life. However, that’s not the Torah’s point. Yes, as we suggested, the Torah accepts the reality of war, the concept that humans have to sometimes take the lives of other humans. But, explains the Torah, even when we must do war, “Lo Sashchis”-“Do not destroy.” We are not permitted to just steamroll over and destroy everything in our paths just because war is happening. We are not to lose ourselves in the heat of war and become complete destroyers. We cannot lose appreciation for life and fertility just because for the time being, we have to be aggressive and more brazen than usual.
This philosophy and sensitivity might answer another question that can be asked on our war series, regarding the special law of the returnees from war. The Torah allows four individuals to remain home from war; one who recently built a house but has yet to lived in it, one who recently planted a vineyard but hasn’t redeemed and partaken of its produce, a newlywed who has yet to live with his wife, and a softhearted individual whose fear might discourage the rest of the soldiers. We can understand why the fourth individual is excused for war, as it is for the betterment of the soldiers. But, why should we be concerned about the other three individuals? The Torah expresses the concern that these individuals may die and then another person will take over the estate or the vineyard, or he’ll marry the widow. But, the question is why it should matter what stage of life the individual is at? The nature of war, and really all of life, is that death exists and death takes all lives, many times, without regard for what stage of life a person is at. Are we not concerned for the other soldiers who might die? Don’t all lives matter?
Apparently though, the Torah is telling us that there is a higher level of sensitivity when it comes to the choices we make in terms of how we engage in war, how we view life, and how we view people in various stages of life. When we can help it—when we have any say in the matter, we temporarily protect certain individuals. We do not haphazardly disregard special circumstances and throw all bodies onto the field for the needs of war. Yes, life and war includes death and all people are at risk, but we do our best to take into account and respect the sensitivity of individual people and their personal situations and milestones.
All the above would also explain why the Torah goes out of its way to explain that in event of Milchamas Reshus, an optional war, the first thing we’re commanded to do is to offer Shalom, peace. That is because we don’t want to be at war. The true goal of the Torah is to have peace. That does not mean that there will never be war. That does not mean that certain measures of violence will never be the answer. But, it means that the Torah takes life and war seriously.
But, it’s not just in the surrounding laws that reveal the Torah’s true philosophy of war and its value of human life. If one looks at the very law which we’ve challenged, the Milchamas Mitzvah which requires the execution of all Canaanite souls, we can see the Torah’s heaviness of heart. The Torah actually mentions the Milchamas Mitzvah in contrast to the extra sensitivity which is required during Milchamas Reshus. Thus, it commanded that in event of a Milchamas Reshus, we do not just take the lives of everyone we see, rather just the male adults; all women and children, as a rule, must be spared [21:13-14].
Then, the Torah modifies its statement with an almost reluctant passing reference to Milchamas Mitzvah [21:16], “Rak MeiArei HaAmim HaEileh Asher Hashem Elokecha Nosein Lecha L’Nachalah Lo Sichayeh Kal Nishamah”-“It is only from the cities of these nations that Hashem your G-d has given to you for an inheritance, do not let any soul live.” In this exceptional case, for reasons beyond our full comprehension, Hashem says that we cannot let the souls live. Notice the passive expression, how it does not even say to kill them, but to not allow them to live. No differently than war itself, whatever we’re commanded to do, it is because we’re commanded to. It is not because we do not care about human life, or about the lives of children. And perhaps the original command was meant to be performed with somewhat of a heavy heart. It is because, despite the seeming brazenness of this unique Torah law, “Diracheha Darchei No’am V’Chal Nesivosehah Shalom”-“Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its pathways are peace” [Mishlei 3:17].
Now, as was mentioned before, at the end of the day, this information will likely not satisfy everyone, and if the idea of taking a child’s life makes us uneasy, then, good. It certainly should. But we cannot mistake the Torah way for a marginal case which, on the surface, reflects brazenness. We have to know the strict rule of peace that dominates the Torah and pervades every single command, even the most seemingly brazen ones which we cannot conceive as being peaceful. “Chal Nesivosehah Shalom” means “all of its pathways are peace”—every single one. That means that even at war, the Torah way is one of peace.
May we all be Zocheh to trust in the Torah way, seek out peace in all settings as we fulfill the Torah to the best of our abilities, and Hashem should grant us complete peace in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂