- Then the officers will speak to the people, saying, “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and has not married her?…
Granting exemptions from military service ought to be a straightforward affair. The Torah’s version, however, seems to be mired in bureaucratic excess, as well as confusing detail. Many of us wouldn’t even notice. If we wouldn’t see piles of regulations heaped upon layers of inefficiency, it wouldn’t feel like government. We expect officialdom to lumber ahead on its own course, oblivious to how it serves the common man. Examined more closely, though, we discover in these pesukim the a very different ethic.
Let’s first look at the inefficiency. The rules and regulations are described here as coming from the “officers.” But these rules are only a continuation of a motivational speech given by the mashuach milchamah – a special kohein gadol appointed specifically for the purpose of standing before the army in war. According to the gemara, the mashuach milchamah first spoke, followed by fuller explanation coming from the officers. Why would we need two kinds of officials to do the job of one? In fact, the same gemara tells us that the exemption of those who feared battle was conveyed by the officers alone, without the participation of the kohein. What could the difference be?
We would explain as follows: The exemption of the faint-hearted served the interests of the conduct of the war. Soldiers who would freeze in battle, petrified by fear, would not only be ineffective, but would demoralize others. They served no purpose on the front lines; elminating their presence was good for the army as a collective. This task legitimately fell to the officers, and they dealt with it without any assistance. The exemptions in our pesukim have a different purpose. They do not relate to the army as a whole and how it can best achieve its military objectives. These exemptions speak of Torah truths. Therefore, they are conveyed by a kohein, one who ministers to the Mishkan, which is a Sanctuary not only of Hashem’s Presence, but of His Torah. The kohein speaks for Torah and its values – not for pragmatic concerns alone. (There are practical issues that grow out of providing exemptions for qualified soldiers. For this reason, the kohein’s words are subsequently repeated by officers, who were the ones to implement the exemptions. They scrutinized the evidence presented by soldiers applying for an exemption, and decided on its validity.) Moreover, at least part of his speech must use the actual text in the Chumash, delivered in the original Hebrew, not in translation. This further has the effect on the listener of conveying a message directly from G-d, rather than from a human official.
We will take the matter another step or two before putting things together. The exemptions come in two forms. Those who planted vines, built houses, betrothed women and did not have any opportunity at all to benefit from their efforts are all exempted from fighting on the front – but not from military service. They follow the troops massing on the border, and only there are dismissed and sent back home, where they nonetheless continue service on the home front, by contributing logistical support. A different group, however, is exempted entirely. Those who began benefitting from their efforts, but only for a brief period of time, do not leave their homes to follow the troops in the first place. Theirs is as full exemption. They are permitted the opportunity of enjoying the fruit of their labor and effort for a full year.
The Torah’s stated reason for the exemptions also puzzles us. We would have thought that the Torah finds tragedy in human endeavor that is begun, and then is cut short by premature death. This is not, however, what the Torah stresses. Rather, it speaks of a different ironic tragedy: the vine yielding its fruit, the house being occupied, and the betrothed woman subsequently getting married – all of them to a person other than the one who put in the initial effort, hopes and dreams into the enterprise. The aspirations are attained – albeit by a different person.
Now we begin to understand. The exemptions are not about projects that are started and not completed. They are about the expectation and right of each and every individual to have the opportunity to participate in the joy of reaching important milestones in life, and then fully enjoying their benefits.
The Torah sends a kohein to speak for it. The Torah reminds the assembled troops that the purpose of governments is to promote the well-being of individuals, to help them enjoy the special moments of life. Even when a government asks its citizens to risk their very lives for the good of the collective – more accurately, precisely at that time – the Torah stops to reassert the primacy of the individual and his personal entitlements.
These exemptions tell a different story from what we might have expected – one of the value of the individual, and how that value must never be trampled by the collective.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 20:5-7; 24:5
2. At least in the way they appear in the text. The order in which the different sub-sections were delivered to the people may not have followed this order. See Yerushalmi 8:1
3. Sotah 43A
4. For a different answer to this question, see Netziv.
5. Devarim 20:8
6. The Mishnah in Sotah 32A specifies that the kohein’s speech must be delivered in Hebrew. It is not clear whether this applies only to the opening lines of encouragement to the troops, or extends to the reading of the exemptions. The Yerushalmi 8:1 and the Rambam seem to favor the more inclusive reading of the Mishnah. See, however, Rashash to the Mishnah 7:1.
7. See Devarim 24:5