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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Seitzei: Exempting Torah scholars from warfare
Torah scholars are exempt from participating in warfare, similar to the Levites. Our Patriarch Abraham was punished for taking his students along to battle when he went to war to save his nephew Lot. One night, while the Jewish army was camped outside of the town of Jericho, Joshua suddenly saw someone opposite him with a drawn sword. When everyone was obligated to go into war, they were expected to occupy themselves with Torah studies at night, when they were not engaged in active battle. When one is occupied with the fulfillment of one commandment, one is exempt from any other commandment, including Torah study. Soldiers are not exempt from studying Torah at night may be due to the special relationship between Torah study and success in war. The soldiers were able to stand firm in their battles any place only in the merit of those who occupied themselves in Torah study within the gates of Jerusalem. Torah study protects and saves a person from any peril. G'd guarantees to the Jewish people that there will always be Torah scholars who will secure our existence. Whoever is occupied in Torah study cannot be affected by our enemies. Those who toil earnestly in Torah study are carrying a huge responsibility and may in fact do the lion's share of protecting themselves and the rest of the population.
Participation in warfare
Towards the end of last week's Parasha, and in the beginning of this week's Parasha, we find a number of instructions relating to warfare. In last week's Torah Attitude, we quoted the Rambam who ruled that the tribe of Levy, in general, did not go into battle. We further quoted from the Rambam that anyone who wants to live on a high spiritual level is entitled to elevate himself and go in the footsteps of the Levites. The Chofetz Chaim, in his commentary on last week's Parasha, writes that nowadays the Torah scholars replace the Levites and it is the obligation of the community to provide them with their needs, in order to enable them to continue their studies undisturbed. This indicates that Torah scholars are exempt from participating in warfare, similar to the Levites. Why is that? Should they not share the responsibility to protect the land and its inhabitants with everyone else?
The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) relates that our Patriarch Abraham was punished for taking his students along to battle when he went to war to save his nephew Lot. Abraham should have understood that although it is a great mitzvah to free someone from captivity, one should not disturb a Torah scholar from his studies unless there is no one else to do the job. This is a general rule that pertains to the fulfillment of any commandment. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:18) clearly states that one may never interrupt from Torah study to fulfill a commandment if it can be fulfilled by someone else.
Joshua and the angel with the sword
When the Jewish people conquered the land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, everyone was obligated to participate in the battle. At that time an amazing incident took place. In the Book of Joshua (5:13-14) it is related that one night, while the Jewish army was camped outside of the town of Jericho, Joshua suddenly saw someone opposite him with a drawn sword. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Do you belong to us or to our enemies?" The stranger answered, "Oh no. I am an officer from G'd's army. I came now." The Talmud (Megillah 3a) elaborates to explain what really transpired between Joshua and the angel. The angel said to Joshua, "There are two accusations against you. Yesterday, you did not bring the daily afternoon offering. And now at night, you are not engaging in Torah study." Joshua asked the angel, "What is the main accusation?" The angel answered, "I came now" indicating that the lack of Torah study was the major of the two accusations. Immediately, tells the Talmud, Joshua accepted the chastisement, and later at the Battle of Ay (Joshua, Ch.8), Joshua spent the night delving into Torah study. The Talmud concludes that this teaches us that the study of Torah is even more important than bringing offerings in the Temple.
Study Torah at night
It appears that since everyone was obligated to go into war, they were expected to occupy themselves with Torah studies at night, when they were not engaged in active battle. This is most unusual. We can well imagine how exhausted the Jewish soldiers were after a day of battle. How could they be expected to study Torah at night? Did they not need to rest so that they would be fresh for the next day's battle?
One commandment exempts another
There is a concept in the Talmud that when one is occupied with the fulfillment of one commandment, one is exempt from any other commandment, including Torah study. Based on this concept the Talmud (Succah 26a) teaches that those travelling during the festival of Succoth on a mission to fulfill a commandment, such as redeeming someone taken captive do not have to eat and sleep in a succah, even at night when they are not travelling (see also Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 640:7). Rashi (ibid) explains that they are exempt at night because they are preoccupied with their mission, even when they are not actually travelling. The Mishnah Berurah (Shulchan Aruch ibid 38) explains that this only applies if it involves any difficulty for the travelers, such as if they will not be able to sleep well in the succah and they will be tired the next day. According to this, there is an obvious question. The soldiers who were involved in conquering the land of Israel at the time of Joshua were definitely fulfilling a commandment. So why were they not exempt from studying Torah at night?
The answer to this may be due to the special relationship between Torah study and success in war. This is most apparent from the way the conquest of the land of Israel is described in Tehillim (44:4-8): "For not by their sword did they possess the land, and their arm did not help them, for Your right hand and Your arm and by the light of Your countenance, for You wanted them … For I do not trust my bow, and my sword will not save me. But You have saved us from our enemies and put to shame those who hate us."
Occupied in Torah studies
How did the Jewish people merit that G'd wanted them? The Targum adds that this was due to the fact that they occupied themselves with Torah studies. Later, in Tehillim (122:2) we find the same concept when King David expresses: "Our feet stood firm in your gates Jerusalem." On this Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Makkos 10a) that the soldiers were able to stand firm in their battles any place only in the merit of those who occupied themselves in Torah study within the gates of Jerusalem.
The Talmud (Sotah 21a) teaches that Torah study protects and saves a person from any peril. Elsewhere the Talmud (Bava Basra 7b) rules that this has practical implications to the effect that Torah scholars are not obligated to participate in the expenses for the defence of their town, for they are protected by their Torah studies (see also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 243:2).
G'd's covenant of protection
The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashas Noah) elaborates on this and describes how G'd made a covenant with the Jewish people in order to ensure our continued existence for all generations. As it says (Shemos 34:27): "And G'd said to Moses, 'Write these words for yourself, for on the basis of these words I have made a covenant with you and Israel.'" The Midrash explains that this covenant specifically refers to the Torah scholars who toil in the study of the Oral Law in depth. This, says the Midrash, is the same covenant that the Prophet Isaiah (59:20-21) refers to when he says, "And I [affirm] this is My covenant with them, says G'd. My spirit that is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth shall not be removed from your mouth, and neither from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children's children, says G'd, from now and forever." G'd here gives a guarantee to the Jewish people that there will always be Torah scholars who will secure our existence. The Midrash continues that this is why G'd brought about the establishment of two great Yeshivot where Torah was studied day and night. These Yeshivot, says the Midrash, were not taken captive or affected by any of the perils from the various exiles. The Torah scholars were exiled to Babylon already before the destruction of the First Temple with King Yechonya in order to ensure that they could continue to study Torah. The Midrash concludes that all through the exile, right up to the difficult times prior to the arrival of Mashiach, there will be Torah scholars who will be spared in order to guarantee this continuity. As the Prophet Zacharia (2:11) says: "Ho, to Zion you will escape, You who live in exile in Babylon." This indicates that right from the first exiles who went to Babylon, there will be a continuous link until Torah is fully restored in Zion, with the coming of Mashiach.
Heavenly decree overrides
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 6:2) quotes what it says (Shemos 32:16): "And the tablets are the work of G'd, and the script is the script of G'd engraved on the tablets." The Hebrew word for "engraved" is "charut". In this connection the Mishnah continues, "Do not read this word as "charut" but as "cherut" (which means freedom), for you do not have a free person but for the one who is engaged in Torah study." The Zohar (Parashas Chayei Sarah 131b) explains that the meaning of this "freedom" is that whoever is occupied in Torah study cannot be affected by our enemies. Asks the Zohar, have not many Torah scholars perished throughout our exiles? The Zohar answers that there are situations where a Heavenly Decree overrides this rule, such as the Ten Martyrs, when Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were put to horrible deaths. The reason for such a decree is only known to G'd Himself and is not revealed to anyone else. But, continues the Zohar, this does not change the fact that in general Torah study does give "freedom" to the scholar.
In modern-day Israel, the exemption of Yeshiva and Kollel students from being conscripted to the army has often been a thorn in the eye of the general population. Should not everyone participate in the protection of the Holy Land and its inhabitants? When we look at this through the words of the Torah we see that those who toil earnestly in Torah study are carrying a huge responsibility and may in fact do the lion's share of protecting themselves and the rest of the population. Who knows how many lives have been spared in the merit of their Torah study? We pray and hope that every Torah student understands his responsibility and that the rest of the population will learn to appreciate the great benefit from having Torah scholars amongst us. May we soon experience the fulfillment of the words of the Midrash, that the Torah scholars will be spared from the birth pangs of the Mashiach and may we all join them to be inscribed for a year when we will see the final redemption. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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