There are three deferments allowed soldiers going into battle according to this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (see Deuteronomy 20:5-8).
If a person has built a new house and not yet dedicated it, planted a vineyard and not yet harvested it, or paid the bridal price for a wife and not yet married her, the individual may be excused from fighting a war.
I asked a former Israeli officer in the Navy Seals what deferments or accommodations the IDF allows its soldiers. He explained that even before young Israelis turn 18 years old, from about the age of 16, young people are tested to determine many things, including their intellectual aptitude, emotional disposition and physical capacities so that by the time they reach the draft age, the IDF is able to direct them appropriately, as soldiers destined for battle, as officers, as intelligence specialists, and a myriad of other duties that the IDF needs fulfilled. People with serious physical or emotional disabilities are excused. Religious students are also excused per agreement with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, but that is beginning to change.
The question for us relative to the Torah portion this week is this – ‘What links the un-dedicated house, the non-harvested vineyard, and the not-yet-married groom? The answer includes both practical and religious concerns.
An effective soldier cannot be distracted while in battle, and both uncontrolled fear (see Deuteronomy 20:1-4) or distractions such as these three deferments were understood to limit the soldier’s effectiveness. Though every soldier, ancient and modern, is frightened when going into battle, Israeli soldiers understand that Israel cannot afford ever to lose a war. If it does, the soldier knows that his/her family and friends are in danger of losing their lives and everything that the Jewish people has worked so hard to build in the state of Israel will be destroyed.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz in a JTS commentary (August 26, 2006) wrote that the religious concern at the basis for these deferments involves ways in which Jews sanctify life. Judaism calls one’s home a mik’dash m’at, a small sanctuary (reflective of the Beit haMik’dash – the Temple in Jerusalem), a sacred space in which God’s presence abides and the inhabitants are inspired to live lives of higher meaning and purpose.
One’s vineyard produces the wine or grape juice used to sanctify Shabbat and the holidays; in other words, the sanctification of time.
And one’s marriage reminds us of the first commandment in Torah, p’ru ur’vu (Genesis 1:28), to be fruitful and multiply; that is, our obligation to bring forward the next generation of Jews and sanctify the future.
Though family is defined in the Bible narrowly, it is important for modern Jews to embrace family in much larger and more expansive ways, that those who may not marry or have children of their own can nevertheless impact the future of our community in many significant ways; as teachers, health care workers, big brothers and sisters, favorite uncles and aunts. They can work on behalf of the elderly, act politically to assure the quality of life for the most vulnerable in our community, use one’s business and financial resources to bring comfort, solace, compassion, and justice into our community affairs.
The sanctification of space – the sanctification of time – the sanctification of the future – all are fundamental Jewish values brought forth through the generations since the earliest stages in Jewish history.
This is the first Shabbat in the Hebrew month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah, and so it is a time for us to begin to ask ourselves questions such as these:
How do we sanctify space, time and the future?
How do we define a life based in meaning and blessing?
In what ways are we sanctifying our lives and the lives of others?
What tasks have we completed that have brought a great sense of holiness into our lives, our families and friends, our community, people and nation?
These are all worth pondering now as we move closer to the High Holidays.