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Thursday, April 1, 2010


Who goes to war? Nations have choices about who they recruit and who they send to war. Over the past decades there has been a debate in America about the values we project though these choices. It is a reasonable debate and one that reflects key societal values.

The rules of war outlined in the Torah describe the steps leading up to battle. A specially appointed priest, the Mashoakh Milkhama, addresses the troops according to a script found in Deuteronomy 20. The Sages divide the address into two parts, first at the border and later on the battlefield. The message, predictably, is a call to courage and a reminder that God is with them, but it also presents a list of those who may not go to war because they have more pressing obligations at home. It is here that we see the societal values promoted by the Torah and the Sages.

My focus is on the address at the border when four categories of people are sent home, and more specifically on the first two groups. Those who are commanded to return home include those who have built a new home but not dedicated it, planted a new vineyard but not used the fruit of it, one who is betrothed but not yet married, and those who are fearful and fainthearted. The Sages could have read each of these categories narrowly, maximizing those who enter the battle, but they chose to broaden the list, sending many people home.

Before venturing off to war the mashoakh milkhama addresses the troops. (B.Sotah 42b) At the border he says, “Obey the words of those who lay out the rules of battle and go home [if you are among those designated to return home].” This is not a matter of choice, an option for those who might be conflicted. Rather it is a command; these people have more important work to do at home.

When Torah says those who have built a house but not dedicated it must return home, the obvious question is what constitutes a house.
“A house”: I know only that the rule covers a house. How do I know that the
rule encompasses “a house built for straw, a house for cattle, a house for wood,
and a house for storage” [as the Mishnah states]? Scripture says, “Who has built a house” — of any sort.

And how far can this category be stretched?
Is it possible, then, that I should include within the rule a gate-house, portico, or
porch? Scripture states, “A house.” Just as a house is suitable for a dwelling, so anything that is suitable for a dwelling [is included, while these unenclosed structures are not included].
(B. Sotah 43a)
The distinction could be that a house has four walls while these other structures have only a roof or that a structure qualifies as a house if it can be used as a regular residence even if it was built for some other purpose. I hear a different emphasis. This allowance includes the outbuildings that contribute to the sustainability of the homestead: the barn for the animals, the fodder to feed them, and the storage necessary for well functioning home. A home includes everything necessary to make a homestead productive.

Similar concerns define what constitutes a vineyard. The Sages are not concerned with the provenance of the vineyard. Does it matter if the vineyard was purchased, inherited or acquired as a gift? Scripture says, “Whoever has planted a vineyard.” (B. Sotah 43b) Regardless of how he comes into ownership, the concern is that he has the opportunity to harvest its fruit. The Sages do demand, however, that it constitute a real vineyard. The Mishnah (8:2) specifies: All the same are the ones who plant a vineyard and who plant five fruit-trees, even if they are of five different kinds. Similarly if one planted such a tree, who sank them into the ground, or grafted them. Other kinds of configurations are rejected; that is, if they are less that five trees, if they are not fruit-bearing trees and the like. Similar to the definition of the home, the concern is that this new vineyard or these trees provide for the long-term prosperity of the homestead and, by extension, the nation.

I see a distinction between the values raised by the Torah and those highlighted by the Sages. The Torah emphasizes the right of the individual who built the home or planted the vineyard to enjoy the first fruits of his own labor. “Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate the home or harvest the vineyard.” The major concern is that the individual reap the fruits of his labor.

The Sages shift the focus and concentrate on what constitutes a home or a vineyard. They do not cite the biblical phrase, “lest he die in battle, etc.” Their focus is on the new home or the vineyard, the basic building blocks of a settled people. The Sages knew of the devastation that accompanied the destruction of the Temple and the devastation that followed the defeat of Bar Kokhba. They understood that war, even when it is a necessary war or a Divinely-commanded war, removes people from the land. War potentially destroys society while the goal of Torah is to establish it.

The Torah’s overriding concern is to establish a livable world. Isaiah (45:18) said it most directly: God, the Creator of heaven, “did not create [the earth] as a waste but formed it for habitation.” When the Sages opt to define what constitutes a home or a vineyard in broad terms, they support the value Isaiah articulated. Despite the call to war, those who have unfinished business in settling the land and building the society must return home. They may have the higher calling, to build for the coming generations.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

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