Approaching war correctly may be more difficult than waging war itself. In order to prepare Klal Yisrael for war a series of queries were presented to them. Soldiers who were newlywed or had recently built new homes or planted new vineyards were told by the officer in charge to leave the army and return home. Furthermore, soldiers who were faint of heart morally or spiritually were asked to return home so as not to weaken the hearts of others in battle.
But war must begin with encouragement. So before the officers ask the questions that may relieve some soldiers from active duty, the kohen gives a moral boosting speech. The kohen opens with Judaism’s most famous words, “Sh’ma Yisrael – Hear Oh Israel! You are about to approach battle on your enemies. Let you hearts not whither and do not fear, tremble, or be broken before them. For Hashem who will go with you, fight with you, and save you” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).
Rashi comments on the hauntingly familiar expression of “Sh’ma Yisrael – Hear oh Israel!” Those words are the national anthem of the Jewish nation whose doctrine of belief is contained in the declarative that follows. “The L-rd our G-d the L-rd is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Rashi connects the pre-battle pep-talk in Parshas Shoftim with the famous words read week’s earlier in Parshas Va’eschanan. He explains that the expression, “Hear oh Israel” used in the kohen’s prologue is actually used as a hint to Hashem. The kohen is in essence reminding Hashem of the unofficial anthem that Jews recite twice daily, world-over. The kohen is in essence declaring that “even if the Jewish people have only the merit of the words Hear oh Israel, they are worthy to be victorious and saved (from the ravages of war).”
I was wondering. Isn’t the kohen talking to the people? If Rashi tells us that with this choice of words there is a subtle message to Hashem, can we not also presume that there is perhaps, an important, if only subtle message to His nation as well?
Refusenik Yosef Mendelevitch, imprisoned in a work camp by Soviet authorities refused to give up his religious convictions. He made a kipah, which he wore proudly in the work camp.
Once the KGB colonel in charge of the camp heard of Mendelevich’s behavior, he summoned him to his office and threatened him.
“Take that off your head or I will kill you!” he demanded.
Mendelevich was not moved. “You can kill me, but I will not take it off.” The officer was shocked by Yosef’s calm attitude. In desperation he grilled him. “Are you not afraid to die?”
Mendelevich just smiled softly. “Those who will die by the commands of Brezhnev are afraid of death. However those who believe that our death will be by the command of G-d are not afraid of His command.”
Perhaps the symbolism of using the words of the Sh’ma Yisrael, which connect to our sincere faith in the oneness and unity of the Almighty is profoundly significant.
The kohen is commanding the Jews to enter the battlefield without fear. There is no better familiar declaration than that of Sh’ma Yisrael. Those words kept our faith and calm-headedness throughout every death-defying and death-submissive moment throughout our history. During the Spanish inquisition, it was on our lips. During the Crusades it was shouted in synagogues about to be torched. And during the Holocaust Sh’ma Yisrael was recited by those who walked calmly to meet the Author of those hallowed words that captured the faith of Jewish souls more resolutely than the fetters that held the frail bodies.
The Chofetz Chaim would urge soldiers to constantly repeat the paragraph of the Sh’ma Yisrael during battle. It would sustain their faith as it would calm their fears. And the words Sh’ma Yisrael remain the battle cry of the simple Jew who maneuvers through a world filled with land-mines of heresy and temptation.
It is the battle-cry of our faith and in encouraging a nation to be strong and remembering that Hashem is with us. And no matter what the message is, there is no better introduction than, Sh’ma Yisrael. And there are no better words during the battle either.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.