This week’s Torah portion details the unusual sequence (at least by military standards) that was to occur immediately before initiating each voluntary war. (Within this category are all battles that were neither wars of defense nor wars expressly ordered from above.) The Torah tells us that before going into battle, a specially anointed priest would encourage the troops to not become discouraged and maintain faith in Hashem that He will deliver them to victory. Following his admonition, the army officers would instruct certain individuals to depart for fear that they would not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
And the officers shall speak to the people, saying, “What man is there who has built a new house and has not [yet] inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it. And what man is there who has planted a vineyard, and has not [yet] redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man redeem it. And what man is there who has betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her.” (Deuteronomy 20:5–7)
These men were to leave the front but remain close behind army lines, supporting the troops by providing provisions, repairing roads, and the like. And if the soldier had already married, moved into a new home, or begun to enjoy the fruit of his vine, then he would be completely absolved from army service for an entire year (see Deuteronomy 24:5).
The medieval commentator Rashi explains this first exemption (for those who had begun their respective process but not concluded before the onset of the battle) as one of sensitivity. It would simply cause too much pain and suffering to the deceased’s relatives to observe another person benefitting from what was the lawful possession of their kin. Abraham Ibn Ezra understands the concept differently. He suggests that if such people were permitted to remain amongst the ranks with their minds focused on what they had left behind, it would negatively affect their fighting capacity as well as that of their fellow soldiers. It would be better for them to be exempted so as to not damage the collective morale.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers yet another interpretation, one that focuses less on each soldier’s personal state and more on his role as a contributing member of the Jewish nation. Certainly, it is the obligation of every able-bodied soldier to be prepared for battle when called upon and to step forward to assist his nation. But it is even more important for each individual to engage in the constructive daily behaviors that produce prosperity and societal growth during peacetime. These foundational “tasks of life” — such as marrying, building a home and securing a livelihood — take precedence over reporting for battle duty, and must be fulfilled for an extended period of time before a person can be of meaningful service to his nation. It is not enough to advance the national cause by crossing over enemy lines in battle. We must also make sure to continually strengthen the home front from within by building our families and our lives.
This unique law teaches us a powerful lesson. Of course, it is important that we answer the call when summoned, to be there for others, to lend a hand and to share in their struggles. But we cannot be genuinely helpful unless we have our own house in order, and have taken the necessary steps to be productive for the long haul, at peace and in war.
This need to prioritize personal growth and stability sits at the very basis of all successful relationships, personal, professional and social. Too often, we tend to subjugate our own needs, such as maintaining our health, preserving and enhancing our relationships, and increasing our education and self-growth, for the sake of a cause. The cause might be our professions and our all-consuming drive to advance them. It may also be something more altruistic, such as our desire to teach or give to others regularly. Whatever the cause may be, we must remember that our ability to assist will remain limited unless we are prepared to invest in ourselves and ensure our own well-being.
In 1:14, Hillel offers the famous dictum: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And if I am for myself, what am I?” This statement reinforces our message. Surely, the goal is not self-aggrandizement. When he asked, “If I am for myself, what am I,” Hillel was saying that our lives are much less meaningful if we choose to live a life of selfish, material pursuits. Still, we must “be for (ourselves),” willing to ensure that we take the necessary steps, in all areas of our personal growth and wellbeing, so that we can be meaningful contributors to the whole.