War is a frightening matter.  And the closer the combat, the more frightening it is.  One can hardly compare the close-quarter trench warfare of World War I with the impersonal, remotely-controlled missiles that are sent from one country to another.  It is precisely because of the fear of war that the morale of soldiers is so important.  A battle can be lost before it even begins if one of the side is not mentally prepared for the engagement.  It is no wonder then that when the Torah speaks about war, that it mandates a ‘pep-talk’ to the troops who are massed at the front lines (Devarim 20:1-4):

“When you go out to the battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot – a people more numerous than you – you shall not fear them, for Hashem, your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.  It shall be that when you draw near to the war, the Cohen shall approach and speak to the people.  He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are coming near to battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them.  For Hashem, your God, is the One who goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies to save you.”

After the designated Cohen’s speech, officers would come forward to offer exemptions to certain categories of soldiers.  The passage then concludes (ibid verse 9): “When the officers have finished speaking to the people, the leaders of the legions shall take command at the head of the people.”  Rashi explains this as follows, “Wardens were appointed to stand at the front and the back of the ranks with iron rods in their hands.  If any man attempted to flee, they were permitted to strike him.  Moreover, these men were designated to assist the fallen and set them upright and to encourage them with words, saying, “Return to the battle and do not flee, for the beginning of defeat is fleeing.”  In fact, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (in Meshech Chochma 20:3) explains the phrase of the Cohen “do not be afraid” as a warning to the soldiers not to flee the front.  If not for this warning the wardens would not be allowed to strike them.  The morale of the troops, even that of the bravest men, can be completely broken when they see their fellow fighters fleeing in panic.

The author of Kli Yakar notes that several commentators interpret the passage of the battle homiletically as referring to the battle that every person has with his evil inclination.  This brings to mind the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato in his classic ethical work Messilat Yesharim (chapter 2): “This is precisely the device the evil inclination employs against people, for he is a master of war, trained in cunning, and it is only possible to escape him by acquiring great wisdom and foresight.”  It follows that the evil inclination will use the strategy of forcing his victims to flee the battlefield and will thereby win a decisive victory.  In that case “flight” is despair.  When someone despairs of improving himself and gives in to depression, the evil inclination has defeated him.  This is true of the myriad battles in the life of an individual Jew and in the life of a community.  It is worth noting that the sages often speak about Torah study as a “war” that must be waged in the battlefield of the House of Study.  Wrapping one’s mind around a difficult passage of the Talmud can be a frustrating exercise and very often a young scholar will close his book in despair.  It is precisely at moments such as these that one must not give in to despair, for the beginning of defeat is flight.

There have been so many difficult periods in Jewish history from Biblical times to the present day when the leadership of the Nation of Israel could easily have thrown in the towel.  The situation was bleak, even hopeless.  But it was precisely at such times that they refused to flee.

When the Roman emperor Hadrian forbade the study of Torah on pain of death, the very future of the Jewish people hung in the balance.  Who would be the next Torah leaders?  How would the youth learn about their religion?  Would the transmission of Torah come to an end?  Rabbi Akiva stepped forward and began teaching Torah in public.  He risked his life and paid the ultimate price when he was executed by the cruel Romans.  But his actions brought a sense of hope to his disciples who maintained his legacy and went on to renew their master’s work.

When the ashes of World War II settled and the true scale of the decimation of European Jewry became known, there were many great Torah leaders who counted themselves as part of the victims.  They lost everything – their families, their yeshiva, their students.  Was there any point in starting again?  A lifetime’s work was gone.  But these great men of spirit, among them Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe; Rabbis Eliyahu Meir Bloch and Mordechai Katz of Telz and Rabbi Kahanneman of Ponovez, picked themselves up and began afresh.  They rebuilt their institutions, their families and their disciples and so Torah flourished again.  It was a yeoman, almost super-human effort.  But they knew that if they gave in to despair, if they fled the battleground, the “average” troops would be completely demoralised and the war would be lost.

Today there is also a battle for the soul of the Jew.  The enemy is not a Ukrainian Cossack or an officer of the Inquisition.  The enemy is the appeal of the fleeting pleasures of the Western World.  For those of us at the front of the flanks, we dare not flee.  We dare not give in to despair even when we see mass assimilation.  Now is the time to pick ourselves up and lead the charge.


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Liebenberg

(Chairman of Phyllis Jowell School)