Nobody wants a war, but unfortunately it is a sad reality in the history of our world. This week’s Torah portion speaks of a number of mitzvot regarding waging war. Part of those laws detail who may be entitled to an exemption from the war effort. The Torah narrates how a chief army officer – a Kohen appointed especially for this task – makes the following pronouncement to the soldiers before battle:
Which man has built a new home and not lived in it? Let him return to his house, lest he will die in the war and another man will dwell in it. And which man has planted a vineyard and not benefited from it? Let him return to his home lest he die in the war and another man redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her. (Deut 20:5-7)
All societies have exemptions from the military but they usually focus on physical disabilities or involvement in the clergy. It seems odd that one who is engaged to be married, or is on the verge of dedicating a new home or vineyard, should be able to avoid the front lines.
The key to understanding these cases depends on when they apply. According to Jewish tradition there are two types of war. Firstly, there is a Milchemet Mitzvah – A “mitzvah” war which took place during the times of the Tanakh (Biblical period) when a king would declare war to fulfill something required by the Torah. Examples of this would be the war against the biblical nation of Amalek who was our sworn enemy – the Iran of the time – or a war where the very existence of the Jewish people is being threatened, such as the pre-emptive strike Six-Day war of 1967 or the Yom Kippur war.
The other type of war is a Milchemet Reshut – an “optional” war, for lack of a better translation. This type of war was not defensive in nature and the nation was not threatened nor were vital interests at stake. It was a proactive engagement waged to expand territory or for economic reasons. (Let’s leave aside the moral issues involved in such a war for now.)
The exemptions mentioned above apply to a Milchemet Reshut, the “optional” type and not a Milchemet Mitzvah when everyone is being threatened.
We can understand why indeed the exemptions would be made for those in these specific circumstances for an “optional war”. These exemptions are for people involved in things that are building up, creating and strengthening a nation. It would be self-defeating if we were to take people who are on the threshold of making significant breakthroughs away from those opportunities. Think about it, for what? To go to war to build the nation or economy? But they are doing that already!
It becomes counter-productive to take people away from their personal projects of creating a home, a future and a livelihood by asking them to strengthen the economic situation of the country in an “optional war” scenario.
The strength of any nation and its economy starts with the stability of family and small businesses. Any time the family and livelihood are being sacrificed for the seemingly greater good of the economic strength of the nation will ultimately be counterproductive and in essence undermine the good of the nation in the long run. This is why communism and socialism always fail – think USSR or Venezuela.
It just doesn’t make sense to limit people during their most productive years and tax them to the point where they cannot build up their livelihood and home. The nation in the end loses out by disrupting people’s lives who are on the verge of producing essential cornerstones and foundations to their personal well-being. The nation will end up suffering as a whole.
Perhaps we need to keep this in mind when we consider our “war” against the COVID epidemic. It is a conflict presently being waged in all nations. We need to continually ask ourselves: How much do we sacrifice in our attempt to stem the COVID epidemic? At what point does it become counter-productive to stifle so much of living to lower the risk of possible danger to life? Should we forego the mental health of people by keeping them isolated in their homes, in addition to their ability to make a livelihood for lengthy periods of time? Is it worth it? Do we keep children from attending school for their physical health but pay little attention to how it may affect their mental or social well-being? Do we mandate a whole school to wear masks to avoid the very low probability of some getting seriously ill from this disease?
Of course we need to do everything in our power to minimize the spread of COVID, especially since we are fortunate to live in a time and place where a vaccine was so quickly developed. We need to take full advantage of the miracle of modern science and I am in no way trying to diminish the severity of this disease. But perhaps we can learn from the Torah’s exemptions to give ourselves a perspective on how we need to wage this battle. That we should not stop living life to increase our probability to live life.
Karen and I and many others give lots of credit to Rabbi Leizerson and the staff at our children’s school, Bais Yaakov on how they handled school attendance last year and going forward. We were so grateful that our daughters were able to have about 75% of their normative school experience, especially when we heard of how difficult it had been for parents and kids whose schools were pretty much shut down the entire year. Bais Yaakov summed up their philosophy in a recent email that was sent about the upcoming year: Throughout the COVID experience, our guiding force has been common sense, and balancing health and safety with a practical and realistic approach.
This is what we need whenever we face any wars we may have in our lives. We always need to have a proper balance for all aspects of our well-being. Any war is unfortunate but we must never “throw the baby out with the bath water” and ruin so much good in life for the sake of an alternative good. The most important thing is life and living – in all respects – and the ability to flourish, grow and develop even in trying times. So even if we are in the midst of COVID, we still need to go ahead and plan our weddings, build our homes and plant our vineyards.
We’d love to take life over, that is plain
Forget about sorrow, forget about pain…
We’d like to take life over again
When time of war had passed away into the rain