Thursday, August 8, 2013

Shoftim 73 – Fear and Anxiety in War

In Parashat Shoftim  the Torah  - Deuteronomy/Devarim chapter 20 talks about Israel as a nation going to war. The nation is commanded not to fear the enemy as God is with them. A priest ' anointed for battle ' would address the people saying that they are about to engage in a war against their enemies and should not be frightened, because   fear will hamper their  ability to fight, cause soldiers to   panic and flee from the battle field. They should be confident, and inspired with a sense of mission from the fact that 'God is with you and will fight for you and save you.' 
The priest then made a proclamation, which was then repeated by the commanding army officers to their troops. They said that if anybody was unsuited for combat he should leave the war front, lest his fear and lack of enthusiasm erode the morale and confidence of his comrades.  This exemption from the army would include a person who had built a new home and had not yet begun to live in it, or they had planted a vineyard and had not  being able to enjoy its fruit , or he was engaged to a girl and was not yet married. It would be tragic for a man to die in battle and for someone else take possession of his unlived home, enjoy his vineyard or marry his fiancé. These men would not make good soldiers as their minds would be on their houses, vineyards or brides and so lack the will to fight. 
The priest then left the scene and the officers then said that cowardly and fainthearted people should leave the field because their presence would undermine the confidence and morale of the soldiers. Someone who had heard the priest's assurances and still lacked faith in God was not worthy of a miracle and thus had no place in the army. There were those that were fearful and fainthearted because of their sins and knew that they were unworthy of God's help and protection.

In order to protect the sinner's or coward's dignity , the Torah also exempted and freed those who had built a house etc, so onlookers would assume that he was going because of his home, vineyard or bride.

All these procedures applied only to an 'optional war '  - 'milchemet reshut ' but where the war was a 'milchemet mitzvah' – a mandatory war fulfilling the divine command , such as in defending the country against an attacking army , there were no exemptions and everybody had to take his place on the battlefield.

 The obvious question is -  Are we not afraid that the fear and anxiety of cowardly or fainthearted soldiers would undermine the morale of other soldiers , aren't we worried that certain soldiers will have their new homes, vineyards or fiancés on their minds and not on  the battle. How does changing the war into a mandatory one – God's command change things.?

An 'optional war '  always raises the doubt about the legitimacy of the war, undermines personal commitment and thus allows fear to surface ,despite the fact that the ' anointed priest ' promised divine protection and help in the battle. It is easier to have faith and deal with fear when soldiers go to war at God's command. If soldiers go to battle without fear, they display faith and then they are afforded divine help and protection. When people are exempted because of  fear and other personal reasons, the unity and power of the collective, the 'Tzibur ' is weakened. In a milchemet mitzvah everybody goes, so there is tremendous support, a sense of mission and a shared fate. The individual benefits from being part of a community which has special merits.

There are lessons to be learned as to how we should handle fear and anxiety. If we understand that what we are doing is meaningful , has purpose , not an option and God's will , we are then  able to displace thoughts of fear and anxiety with a sense of mission and a confidence of divine help. If what we do benefits the community and is done in the context of community it is likely that we are not alone but receiving lots of support and cooperation. 
In our homes, schools, and work place we should encourage cooperation and certainly not competition. We  can  talk in the plural ' we' and be  guided by higher values and a sense of divine mission. This should help deal with emotions like fear and anxiety as we negotiate  our daily challenges, and try  to be better , caring and more competent people.

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