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No Exemption from Tradition
By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
"Once a person has died, what difference would it make to him if someone else were to live in his house, or harvest his grapes, or even marry his betrothed?"
This is the blunt question that Don Isaac Abravanel, the great 15th-century sage, asked, concerning the Torah's exclusion of certain individuals from the obligation of military service. As this week's Torah portion describes the scene, the officers, just prior to the commencement of battle, would address the troops: "Whomsoever has built a house but has not yet dedicated it, let him go and return home, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it." The officers would then repeat this order for the man who has planted a vineyard but has not harvested it, as well as for the man who has betrothed a woman but has not married her.
It is here that Abravanel poses his question. Post-mortem, what difference does it make? Abravanel certainly doesn't mean to be insensitive. He simply wants to understand precisely what the Torah's concern is, and what all of us -- whether we've ever faced battle or not -- can learn from this passage.
In working toward his solution, Abravanel lays down the premise that, as tragic as it would be for any one of these soldiers to be unable to complete the important project that he had begun, this concern is not the one that drives the military exemption law. Abravanel suggests, rather, that these particular exemptions were chosen for the beneficial impact that they would have on the army as a whole. The primary benefit of these exemptions would accrue not to the soldiers who would be going home but to the ones who would be staying and fighting.
How so? To understand it, we need to think for a minute about the value system that soldiers need to adopt in times of war. Success, in both communal and personal terms, needs to be defined in the most brutal of terms. The highest value must be placed on the ability to overpower the other, to seize and possess that which is his. Glory and honor will devolve on the ones who most successfully train themselves to see the human beings on the other side of the line simply as "the foe." In short, the normative values of Jewish living all need to be temporarily suspended and replaced with their polar opposites.
The Torah takes several steps to mitigate the effect of this inversion of values. (See for example, Deuteronomy chapters 20, 21 and 23). One of these steps is the sending home of the new home-builder, vine-planter and betrother. Each of these three had been on the verge of performing a vital mitzvah. The house-builder was about to put up a ma'akeh (the railing around the roof, which would prevent anyone from falling off), and the vine-planter was soon to leave the gleanings and tithes for the poor. The newly betrothed was within months of fulfilling the ultimate of life-affirming mitzvot -- the mitzvah of procreation. They were being sent home to perform their respective mitzvot as a way of sending the message to all of the troops that it is mitzvot that occupy the highest rungs of our value system, and that define our goals and aspirations. It may be that we sometimes have no choice but to enter a world in which compassion and loving-kindness have little place. But this other world must not come to define who we are or what our lives are about.
So often in our professional lives, we find ourselves in a world that is driven by a set of values that stands in stark contrast with the one that our tradition teaches us. We can find ourselves in situations in which we are required to do that which is "legal" rather than that which is truthful. We are sometimes asked to assess a particular person's beauty in external rather than internal terms. And, more often than not, it is competition -- not cooperation -- that we need to engage in vigorously. We could use the soldiers' reminder just as much as they did.
The good news is that the daily reminders of our value system and the Jewish tradition's definition of success are near at hand. They come in the form of our daily obligations of prayer, study and acts of tzedakah. Somehow, the daily obligations are the ones that often get forgotten in favor of the glitzier, once-a-year religious experiences. But it is the power of the dailies that keep our lives on track, that ensure we return at the end of the day, still knowing who we really are.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.