An Ideal Jewish Army on a Full Stage

BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN

Soldiers are usually not associated with piety or theoretical studies. They are strong physically but often not spiritually or intellectually.

Judaism has a different conception. According to Rav Yossi HaGelili, soldiers who sin, even if only minor infractions, are sent home (Sotah 43a). Interestingly, the example of a minor infraction that disqualifies a potential soldier is speaking between the laying of the tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh. Many explain that the tefillin shel yad symbolizes our actions, while the tefillin shel rosh represents our thoughts, faith, and beliefs. A soldier in a Jewish army must ensure that he links his actions to his thoughts and beliefs. 

A Purim skit at the Volozhin Yeshiva emphasized the high spiritual bar set for Jewish soldiers. The skit included a re-enactment of the Torah’s military selection process. After dismissing those with a new wife, home, or vineyard, the officers dismissed those who had committed even minor sins. At that point, all potential soldiers left the stage except the Vilna Gaon and the P’nei Yehoshua, the only two Jews who could meet that standard.  

The ideal Jewish army consists of truly pious soldiers. This is how my ancestor, Rav Avraham, the brother of the Vilna Gaon, explained Yitzchak’s message to Ya’akov. After noticing that the son who appeared before him sounded like Ya’akov, but his forearms felt like those of Eisav, Yitzchak exclaimed, “The voice is the voice of Ya’akov, but the hands are the hands of Eisav” (Bereishit 27:22). Chazal explain that Eisav’s power over us depends on the strength of our “voice” of Torah learning and tefillah. Their arms are dominant when our voice is weak; when our voice is strong, their arms are not (Bereishit Rabbah 65:20).

Rav Avraham pointed out that Yitzchak’s words actually describe Ya’akov’s voice and Eisav’s hands as coexistent.1 When Ya’akov’s voice is strong, Hashem blesses Ya’akov with the strength of Eisav’s arms. When Ya’akov’s voice is weak, Eisav maintains his strength. When we are spiritually strong, we are also physically powerful (Ma’alot HaTorah, 71).2

This is the embodiment of the ideal Jewish army: soldiers whose physical strength is not just a result of their training but also rooted in their spiritual fortitude. They are the living proof of the integration of what Chazal referred to as the safra, book, and saifa, sword (Avodah Zarah 17a).

Baruch Hashem, we are witnessing a revolution in this area. Though no soldier can match the Vilna Gaon’s or P’nei Yehoshua’s piety, thousands of IDF soldiers are deeply committed to halacha and Jewish values and are genuine talmidei chachamim. Young scholars, many of whom have already finished Shas, serve in the regular standing army, and Roshei Yeshiva and Ramim serve in the reserves. 

The founding Roshei Yeshiva of the hesder yeshivot mostly did not serve in combat roles. As a second and third generation of Roshei Yeshiva have emerged, that has changed. Rav Chaim Sabato (Ma’aleh Adumim) and Rav Yaakov Meidan (Har Etzion) fought brutal battles in the Yom Kippur War, while Rav Baruch Wieder (Yeshivat Hakotel) miraculously survived the Lebanon War’s bloody tank battles. They and hundreds of others have served as role models for tens of thousands of students over the past fifty years. When forced to leave the beit midrash to fight our enemies, these talmidim take their sefarim with them. They are deeply committed to protecting Am Yisrael on the battlefield and continuing their Torah studies and growth while they do so. 

Never before in our history have we had such a significant presence of talmidei chachamim in a Jewish army.3 If the Volozhin Purim skit took place today, far more than two people would be left standing on the stage. The stage would be full of many units.

While our focus over the past eight months has been on those killed, wounded, and kidnapped, we should also appreciate the special times we are living in – when the vision of a Torah-true army is beginning to become a reality. As we approach Chag Matan Torah, we should take pride in the fact that we are beginning to realize the Torah’s conception of what a Jewish army should look like.

May we appreciate the commitment of our holy soldiers to Torah and Torah values. Their dedication is a beacon of hope. May their commitment and dedication merit the arrival of the day when they will no longer have to leave the beit midrash for the battlefield.

 

1 The Vilna Gaon explained the derashah as rooted in the fact that the first appearance of the word “kol” is written chaser (without the vav). This intimates that Eisav’s arms are strong when Ya’akov’s voice is weak.

2 Chazal explain the significance of Moshe’s arms stretched heavenward during the war with Amalek in a similar way. Military victory hinges on “looking heavenward” and remembering that Hashem is responsible for our victory (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 29a).

3 These soldiers have inspired and are inspired by army rabbis who, in the spirit of the Kohen and the officers the Torah mandates address the soldiers before battle, daven and give them words of chizuk and then join them in battle. See here for a eulogy for an Army Chief Rabbi who embodied and inspired this model – tinyurl.com/army-chief-rabbi

 

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA. His new book, Essentials of Judaism, can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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