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Isha Bekia

Shoftim – Encouraging each other

Aug 24, 2017 | Weekly Parsha


This week’s parsha, Shoftim, tells us about a special mitzvah regarding troops going out to battle. Just before troops go out to war, a special priest designated for this purpose reads out a declaration to the soldiers. In chapter 20, it says: “When you approach the battle, the priest should come and speak to the nation and he should say to them, ‘Hear O Israel, today you are going out to battle against your enemies. Let your heart not be faint, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them because the Lord your G-d is walking with you to do battle against your enemies in order to save you.’”

The necessity of encouragement

An integral part of the preparations for battle was that the designated priest had to offer encouragement to the people. The verse has four expressions for “do not be afraid”. Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, is indeed a very rich language; each word refers to a different kind of fear and the commentators discuss what is meant by each expression. For example, al tachpezu, “do not panic”, comes from the Hebrew word chipazon, which means to be in a rush; panic is the combination of speed and fear, when being afraid causes one to rush. The Ibn Ezra comments that it first says “do not be afraid”, referring to fear in the heart, then it says “do not panic”, referring to the actual action of running away.

Rashi on this verse quotes the Talmud in Tractate Sota page 42, which says that these four expressions refer to four different tactics that were employed by armies in those days. “Do not be faint of heart” refers to the neighing of the horses. The armies back then used to stir up the horses so they would neigh and the noise would intimidate the enemy. “Do not be afraid” refers to the clattering of the shields. They would scare the opposing soldiers by rubbing their shields together to make a terrible noise. “Do not panic” refers to the trumpets the enemy would blow to induce fear. “Do not be broken before them” refers to the shouting of the enemies, who would scream to scare the soldiers. All of these different methods of making noise were used to intimidate the opposition. The designated priest would therefore read out a declaration to the soldiers, saying you are going into battle and you are going to hear all of these noises; the enemy is trying to intimidate you, but don’t be afraid.

From this we learn the importance of encouragement. Courage is so vitally important when facing life’s challenges. This is why the Torah obligated that the designated priest encourage the soldiers. The Torah is teaching us that the morale of the troops is of the utmost importance; they have to believe in themselves. They have to have faith in G-d and the courage to face the dangers of war, especially with the intimidation caused by enemy tactics.

We all need encouragement, in all of life’s endeavours

The Chafetz Chaim, one of our great sages of the late 19th and early 20th century, applies this concept to other areas of life, not just going out to war. He says that on a personal level, when one is facing temptation or the challenges of doing the right thing, a person can feel very intimidated by the evil inclination. One can end up doing the wrong thing simply because he or she does not have the courage to stand up to the evil inclination and be a person of conviction and integrity. He also applies this concept in the societal context; following the principles of the Torah means one is committed to a Jewish worldview, which requires a lot of courage because it is not easy to go against the popular view. People try to intimidate us to go against our beliefs and what we know is true.

It is rather poignant that the Chafetz Chaim said these words in the early part of the 20th century; how much more so are they applicable today. We live in a very noisy world and when we stand up for our beliefs, we often get shot down. The intimidation of the media and the opinions of world leaders can lead a person to grapple with themselves and the Torah’s principles. A case in point is the State of Israel; we know that anybody who wants to stand up in defence of Israel’s right to exist is hit hard with powerful intimidation. We are surrounded by many noisy voices, which seek to change our minds by employing bullying tactics; they do not deal with the issues at hand, but just create a lot of intimidating noise. In the face of such intimidation, it is not easy to stand up for the Torah’s truth.

The enemies of long ago employed various methods to intimidate the soldiers – neighing horses, clattering shields, blowing the trumpets and shouting. Today, similar tactics are employed, though the “noise” used to intimidate us is different. The Chafetz Chaim says we must block out that noise so that we can firmly hear and adhere to our principles. We must realise that our faith and our Torah principles came to us directly from G-d Himself some 3 300 years ago, and have been passed down through history, from generation to generation. We are a people with a rich history, who have had many many prophets and scholars throughout the ages who passed on our tradition from one generation to the next. We must constantly stay focused on the heritage we have received. Following our principles requires courage to be able to stay focused and not be intimidated. We must block out the noise because otherwise we will not be able to follow the path of true conviction.

We must encourage each other

Human beings are very social. One of the greatest sources of encouragement that we receive is from each other. We are always looking around to see what other people are doing, which can be intimidating but can also be encouraging.

There is a fascinating law in the parsha about who can be conscripted as a soldier for a war of discretion (ie, not a milchemet mitzvah, which is an obligatory war of self-defence or securing the boundaries of the G-d-given borders of the land of Israel, for which everyone is required to go out to war), which, by the way, the king could only wage with the permission of the High Court of 71 judges. There are certain categories of people who are exempt from a war of discretion, one of which is a person who is “afraid and soft of heart”.  Such a person should go home so that “he should not melt the heart of his brothers like his heart [is melted].” The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, one of our commentators from the Middle Ages, says that such a soldier has no discretion to remain. He quotes from the Bahag, one of the great codifiers of Jewish law, who holds that it is actually a prohibition for him to stay on. If he is afraid and his heart is weak within him, he must go home because he will melt the heart of those around him and lower their morale. If one person is afraid, it is contagious, because everyone is looking to the other for support. On the positive side, courage, conviction and determination are also contagious and easily spread.

Encouraging others in their commitment to Torah

This principle of social influence applies to all endeavours in life, in particular, in the pursuit of Torah. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of the great teachers of the Mir Yeshiva in the 20th century, gives the following example to explain this: the Gemara discusses the great prophet Elisha and his student Geichazi, and how Elisha went to Damascus to track down Geichazi who had left Torah observance and fled from the land of Israel to live in Damascus. Elisha comes to Geichazi and says, you must come back; you must return physically but also spiritually. Geichazi says he cannot come back because there is no option for him to repent, as he was involved in one of the most serious sins in Judaism – causing other people to sin. It is almost impossible to repent for such a sin because to repent for one’s own sins is one thing, but if one has caused other people to sin one cannot change others’ lives; one cannot “repent” for other people and fix what they have done wrong. Geichazi says there is no hope for him because there is no way for him to fix what he had done. The Rambam actually says there is nothing that stands in the way of true repentance – it is just much more difficult. But Geichazi felt he was past the point of no return and he didn’t come back with Elisha.

The Gemara discusses what exactly it was that Geichazi did which caused him to feel he was beyond hope for forgiveness. One opinion holds that he was involved in luring the people to idolatry after the kingdom split, when the Ten Tribes seceded from the kingdom of Judea. Yeravam ben Nevat, king of the northern empire, set up a form of idolatry because the Temple was in the southern kingdom and he knew that if he did not set up his own form of worship, everyone would go to the Temple and it would destroy his political power. The Gemara relates how Geichazi helped Yeravam with setting up the idol. It was a kind of golden cow on which he put metal plates and he set up giant magnets to help it levitate, creating the illusion that it had some kind of power.

There is another opinion that says Geichazi’s sin was not that he caused others to worship idols, but that he drove away Elisha’s students. The Jerusalem Talmud says that he did not actively push them away by telling them not to come, but rather it was more subtle; many students used to flock to learn with Elisha, and as they came to Elisha’s court, they saw Geichazi sitting outside. These students reasoned that if Geichazi, the great student of Elisha, is not going into the house of study, then neither are they going in to learn from Elisha. Geichazi was such an influential person that his actions had a strong impact on them; they were discouraged by Geichazi’s lack of commitment, became dismayed and left.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that the Gemara seems to be equating these two sins, which made Geichazi lose hope of ever returning to Judaism: a) being an accomplice to idolatry; and b) discouraging people – although through the indirect effects of his behaviour – from learning with Elisha. Rav Shmuelevitz says that if these two opinions hold equal weight in terms of the severity of the sin, we see how important it is to encourage people and what a terrible sin it is to discourage them –  even indirectly.

Courage is one of the pillars of serving Hashem

The Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, says that courage is one of the pillars of the service of Hashem and leading a good life. Inner strength is the most important quality, and therefore encouragement is so important. When there is weakness, when people feel discouraged, they lack the strength and conviction to do the right thing. The Alter of Kelm brings Joshua as an example: when Joshua assumes the leadership after Moses, Moses gives him encouragement and says be strong and of courageous, and on two occasions G-d gives Joshua encouragement as well; in chapter 1 of the Book of Joshua, G-d says to him twice: “Be strong and of good courage”. We see how necessary encouragement is, even for someone as great as Joshua, a man who witnessed the Jews leaving Egypt, who saw the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea; who saw the manna fall from heaven and the miraculous well; who heard G-d’s voice speak at Mount Sinai; who had the courage and conviction to stand up to the spies – he was one of the two good spies who did not agree with the spies’ false reports about the land of Israel. Even a great person like Joshua needs encouragement.

We live in a world where there is so much discouragement and confusion. We constantly need encouragement to develop the courage and conviction necessary to remain committed to Hashem and His Torah. We therefore must encourage each other – our spouse, our children, our friends, our fellow congregants; we need to exude positivity, energy and courage, which in turn will affect everyone around us and make our commitment to Hashem and His Torah even stronger.