Then the officers will speak to the people, saying, “Who is the man
who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return
to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. And
who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go
and return to his house. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and
has not married her?...
Granting exemptions from military service ought to be a straightforward
affair. The Torah’s version, however, seems to be mired in bureaucratic
excess, as well as confusing detail. Many of us wouldn’t even notice. If we
wouldn’t see piles of regulations heaped upon layers of inefficiency, it
wouldn’t feel like government. We expect officialdom to lumber ahead on its
own course, oblivious to how it serves the common man. Examined more
closely, though, we discover in these pesukim the a very different ethic.
Let’s first look at the inefficiency. The rules and regulations are
described here as coming from the “officers.” But these rules are only a
continuation of a motivational speech given by the mashuach milchamah –
a special kohein gadol appointed specifically for the purpose of standing
before the army in war. According to the gemara, the mashuach milchamah
first spoke, followed by fuller explanation coming from the officers. Why
would we need two kinds of officials to do the job of one? In fact, the
same gemara tells us that the exemption of those who feared battle was
conveyed by the officers alone, without the participation of the kohein.
What could the difference be?
We would explain as follows: The exemption of the faint-hearted served the
interests of the conduct of the war. Soldiers who would freeze in battle,
petrified by fear, would not only be ineffective, but would demoralize
others. They served no purpose on the front lines; elminating their
presence was good for the army as a collective. This task legitimately fell
to the officers, and they dealt with it without any assistance. The
exemptions in our pesukim have a different purpose. They do not relate to
the army as a whole and how it can best achieve its military objectives.
These exemptions speak of Torah truths. Therefore, they are conveyed by a
kohein, one who ministers to the Mishkan, which is a Sanctuary not only of
Hashem’s Presence, but of His Torah. The kohein speaks for Torah and its
values – not for pragmatic concerns alone. (There are practical issues that
grow out of providing exemptions for qualified soldiers. For this reason,
the kohein’s words are subsequently repeated by officers, who were the ones
to implement the exemptions. They scrutinized the evidence presented by
soldiers applying for an exemption, and decided on its validity.) Moreover,
at least part of his speech must use the actual text in the Chumash,
delivered in the original Hebrew, not in translation. This further has the
effect on the listener of conveying a message directly from G-d, rather than
from a human official.
We will take the matter another step or two before putting things together.
The exemptions come in two forms. Those who planted vines, built houses,
betrothed women and did not have any opportunity at all to benefit from
their efforts are all exempted from fighting on the front – but not from
military service. They follow the troops massing on the border, and only
there are dismissed and sent back home, where they nonetheless continue
service on the home front, by contributing logistical support.
A different group, however, is exempted entirely. Those who began
benefitting from their efforts, but only for a brief period of time, do not
leave their homes to follow the troops in the first place. Theirs is as full
exemption. They are permitted the opportunity of enjoying the fruit of their
labor and effort for a full year.
The Torah’s stated reason for the exemptions also puzzles us. We would have
thought that the Torah finds tragedy in human endeavor that is begun, and
then is cut short by premature death. This is not, however, what the Torah
stresses. Rather, it speaks of a different ironic tragedy: the vine
yielding its fruit, the house being occupied, and the betrothed woman
subsequently getting married – all of them to a person other than the one
who put in the initial effort, hopes and dreams into the enterprise. The
aspirations are attained – albeit by a different person.
Now we begin to understand. The exemptions are not about projects that are
started and not completed. They are about the expectation and right of each
and every individual to have the opportunity to participate in the joy of
reaching important milestones in life, and then fully enjoying their benefits.
The Torah sends a kohein to speak for it. The Torah reminds the assembled
troops that the purpose of governments is to promote the well-being of
individuals, to help them enjoy the special moments of life. Even when a
government asks its citizens to risk their very lives for the good of the
collective – more accurately, precisely at that time – the Torah stops to
reassert the primacy of the individual and his personal entitlements.
These exemptions tell a different story from what we might have expected –
one of the value of the individual, and how that value must never be
trampled by the collective.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 20:5-7; 24:5
2. At least in the way they appear in the text. The order in which the
different sub-sections were delivered to the people may not have followed
this order. See Yerushalmi 8:1
3. Sotah 43A
4. For a different answer to this question, see Netziv.
5. Devarim 20:8
6. The Mishnah in Sotah 32A specifies that the kohein’s speech must be
delivered in Hebrew. It is not clear whether this applies only to the
opening lines of encouragement to the troops, or extends to the reading of
the exemptions. The Yerushalmi 8:1 and the Rambam seem to favor the more
inclusive reading of the Mishnah. See, however, Rashash to the Mishnah 7:1.
7. See Devarim 24:5