The basic duty of every government is to provide security and protect its citizens both from internal criminal activity and the threat of war from an external enemy. This weeks parsha, which contains the mitzvah to appoint a king, contains the mitzvoth of appointing a police force and the laws relating to a Jewish army. Our inability to have a Jewish army for close to two thousand years served to highlight our national degradation. In fact during the battles for Jewish emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries Jews fought hard for the right to join the armies of their host countries. It was only with such service that acceptance of the Jew was at hand.
Thus while we must seek peace at all costs we must be prepared for the realities of war. And those preparations involved the appointment of a special officer who would rally the troops impressing upon the soldiers their Divine mission.
He shall say to them Listen Israel you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint hearted and do not be afraid
G-d your Lord is the One who is going to war with you. He will fight for you against your enemies, and He will deliver you (20:3-4). It is only one who has faith in G-d and who truly believes his cause is just, who can be fearless in battle. He understands that whatever happens in war is the will of G-d. One who does not see war in this light can not serve in a Jewish army. His fear would become contagious and the morale of the army would be severely damaged. Thus the officers shall continue speaking to the people and say is there any man among you who is afraid or faint-hearted? Let him go home and let him not make the heart of his brother faint as well as his heart. (20:8). One who is afraid to die or even to kill can not serve in the army of G-d.
While it is undoubtedly true that an army can not tolerate fear amongst its ranks some of our Sages felt the Torah was referring not to physical fear but to fear of spiritual failing. Perhaps due to my sins, muses the soldier, G-d will not protect me during battle in keeping with the rabbinic notion that in times of danger G-d analyzes our deeds to see if we are worthy of being saved. Thus only G-d fearing men of piety are allowed to serve in the army. (How ironic the situation is today!) After all, if we are dependent on G-d for victory why would we want a sinner in our midst? In fact these Sages argue that the only reason other exemptions were granted from the army is to spare the sinner embarrassment. His comrades will assume his discharge from the army is for one of the other reasons mentioned. Interestingly and frighteningly amongst the Talmudic list of sins that gets one a (dishonorable?) discharge is that of talking during davening.
Parshat Shoftim is always read right around the beginning of Elul, the month when one is supposed to ready oneself for the upcoming divine judgement. This should instill us with fear and trembling as we stand before G-d who as we think about our lame excuses for sinning.
How many of us are afraid of the repercussions of our sinning? Do we like our soldier described in the Chumash, at least recognize that if we sin we are hurting the Jewish people? How tragic that fear of sin and its aftermath is such a foreign concept to us. Yes a Jewish army must be made up of those who recognize the danger of sinning and thus act accordingly. Are we ready to be drafted? Shabbat Shalom!