Sign In Forgot Password

Parsha Shoftim

08/16/2018 07:38:17 PM


With the Jews on the brink of entering Israel, the laws and protocol for fighting wars is very relevant in the discussions of Parshas Shoftim, and one of the key themes involved in the laws of war is the various discharges provided for certain soldiers to return home.  After the Torah delineates the particular dispensations for a man who has betrothed a woman but not yet consummated his marriage, a man who has built a home and not yet lived in it, or a man who has planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruits, there is one last clause provided that speaks in more general terms.  “A man who is afraid or of feeble heart” may also return home, but the definition and parameters of this clause are left quite vague.  The matter is disputed in the Gemara Sota, where one opinion is that the exemption should be taken literally to refer to a soldier who is paralyzed by the gruesomeness of battle, while a second opinion suggests that the exemption refers to one who is afraid of battle because of the guilt and shame of past committed sins.  Taking this point further, this second opinion suggests that even the lightest of sins, such as one who speaks between putting on the arm Tefillin and placing the head Tefillin, warrants an exemption to return home on account of sin.  It seems that one has much to be afraid of during times of war, and that even the smallest of sins is grounds for genuine fear and concern.


Another law mentioned regarding wars is the appointment of a special Kohen, whose main purpose is to give a speech to the soldiers before engaging in battle.  Opening his speech, the Torah prescribes that the Kohen shall say: “Shema Yisroel- Listen, Israel, you are entering into battle…”  Finding irony in the choice of opening words, Shema Yisroel, the Gemara in Soata 42 explains that the Kohen’s choice of words encourages the people, by suggesting that even if their only merit is simply that they recite the Shema twice a day, it is enough merit to guarantee God’s assistance to win the war.  It seems that these words of encouragement are incongruous with the exemption of returning home on accounts of sin, because if even the lightest of sins is grounds for concern, how can the simple merit of reciting the Shema assure victory?  Moreover, why would one who heard the Shema Yisroel message of the Kohen be afraid of his small sin of talking while putting on the Tefillin?   


The mitzvah of reciting the Shema is inextricably linked with the mitzvah of wearing Tefillin, as the very words of the Shema themselves are the source for the mitzvah of Tefillin.  Given this link, the Gemara teaches that one who recites the Shema without Tefillin is tantamount to “giving false testimony against himself,” because his very recital makes mention of his failure to wear Tefillin, and this hypocritical act of reciting Shema without Tefillin is deemed not only as inconsistent, but as actually hurting oneself.  Taking this one step further, one can wear the Tefillin in flawed manner, where technically there is some level of mitzvah observance, but the mitzvah act is still deficient because of the imperfections.  These flaws create imperfections not only to the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Tefillin, but given their linked relationship, the mitzvah of reciting the Shema as well.  If one spoke between the arm Tefillin and head Tefillin, there is a certain “blemish” of sorts that indelibly smears the entire mitzvah fulfillment, and as light as this blemish may be, it still limits the full capacity of mitzvah fulfillment.  Although this is a slight sin, it is important to realize that because of Tefillin-Shema relationship, this slight sin ends up tainting the fulfillment of reciting Shema as well.  Based on this observation, perhaps it can be suggested that the truth between the two conflicting messages regarding merits in battle is somewhere in the middle.  On the one hand, even the one merit of reciting Shema is itself grounds for reassurance that God will help us win the war, but the caveat to that lesson is that only a complete fulfillment of the Shema will guarantee success.  Even a small sin like speaking while putting on the Tefillin, something one may not fathom as having anything to do with the Shema, may actually be undermining that one merit of Shema.  One small sin in it of itself is not the reason to be afraid, as long that sin is not something that insidiously undermined the completeness of “one small merit.”  Chazal often speak of the power of one act, and relate how much reward and spiritual elevation can be gained in just one moment of mitzvah observance.  The point of that message is to recognize the power of one small act in its purest form, when despite being weak in quantity, the quality of a mitzvah has endless potential.  This balanced idea is both comforting and demanding- sometimes we only need one merit, but that one merit must be compete and untainted by sins that prove inconsistency and even hypocrisy in our good.  It is easy to think of many mitzvos that we have observed and yet hard to think of even one merit that is fully pure, and this paradox is perhaps an additional flavor behind R’ Yisroel Salanter’s famous advice of using one small new “kaballah” to inspire oneself during Chodesh Elul, because finding one area of mitzvah observance that is pure can be more valuable that many new and grand projects that are tainted.

Mon, November 29 2021 25 Kislev 5782