The basic duty of every government is to provide security and protect its citizens from both internal criminal activity and external enemies. Parshat Shoftim, which contains the mitzvah to appoint a king, thus also contains the mitzvot 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. 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. 

All those above the age of twenty were to be drafted into the army. However, the details of the draft differed depending on the type of war. In an obligatory war, i.e., one of self-defense (the only wars allowed nowadays), every possible person was to serve, with no exceptions; even, the Mishna (Sotah 44b) rules, “a bridegroom from his room and a bride from her wedding canopy”. 

But when it came to what’s known as an optional war, i.e., those Dovid Hamelech fought to expand the borders of the land of Israel, the Torah lists a series of exemptions—those who acquired a home, planted a vineyard or were recently married. And then the Torah adds a fourth exemption. 

“The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his” (Devarim 20:8). Having people serve in an army who are afraid to fight is a recipe for disaster and thus, these “soldiers” must be sent away.  

Yet not all understand the Torah only in its literal sense. “Rabbi Yosi HaGelili says: ‘The one who is fearful and fainthearted’; this is one who is afraid because of the sins that he has” (Sotah 44a). Fear in our context refers not to physical fear, but to fear that one has not lived up to the moral and religious demands placed upon him. The problem is not fear of man, but fear of G-d or, shall we say, the lack of fear of G-d. 

G-d is The Commander in Chief of the Jewish army. “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" (Devarim 20:4). If G-d is in charge, then we cannot have in the army any who do not accept His authority. And if one accepts the notion that our moral actions have an impact on world events—a notion stressed over and over again in the Bible[1]—why would we want a non-religious Jew in the army? 

Fascinatingly, and quite boldly, Rabbi Yosi Hagelili claims the other exemptions—a home, a new vineyard or marriage—are no more than a smokescreen to provide cover for this ‘irreligious soldier’. “Therefore, the Torah provided him with all these additional reasons, so he can ascribe his leaving to one of them”.  One may be a sinner, but that gives us no right to embarrass him[2], and we need to allow for an honourable discharge[3]

And what type of sin might we be talking about? According to Rav Yosi Hagelili, the “great sin” that calls for one to leave the army is talking between the time one puts the tefillin on one’s arm and one’s head!

Fortunate are those whose fear of G-d allows them to have no fear of man.

[1] How this fundamental notion may have been modified in a post-Biblical period, when G-d’s presence in the world is hidden, is much beyond the scope of this devar Torah. 

[2] The prohibition of embarrassing another is specifically recorded in the context of rebuking a sinner. Rebuke must stop where embarrassment begins. 

[3] This was also a very practical measure. Many soldiers who fall into the category of “being afraid” would be unlikely to actually leave the camp if it was announced that "All who are afraid of their sins" should leave.