‘But Fear Itself’ Parashat Shoftim 5780

The Jewish People stand ready to enter the Land of Israel. They will spend the next seven years waging war against the local Canaanite population in order to wrest the land from their hands. Near the end of Parashat Shoftim, the Torah designates a “Meshuach Milchama” – a priest (Kohen) who will serve as a spiritual leader in times of military crisis. Before the troops go out to battle, the Meshuach Milchama addresses them. His address is divided into two parts. The first part is a general introduction [Devarim 20:3-4]: “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is G-d who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.” The second part of the address of the Meshuach Milchama is more practical, releasing those soldiers who are incapable of serving in the army because of socio-economic reasons. Three types of exclusions are described: [1] a person who has become engaged to a woman but has not yet married her, [2] a person who has planted a vineyard but has not yet enjoyed its fruit, and [3] a person who is too scared to fight [Devarim 20:8]: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his”.

One of the verses uttered by the Meshuach Milchama is difficult to understand. This verse is the one translated above as “For it is G-d that marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory”. In Hebrew, the verse begins with the words “Ki Hashem E-lokeychem ha’holech i’machem…” The Hebrew word “holech” means “marches”. The letter heh, when used as a prefix, means “that” or “whom”, such that the word “ha’holech” means “that marches”. With this background in hand, let us try to translate the verse: “Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For G-d that marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory”. Translated thusly, the verse has a subject but it lacks a predicate. What action will “G-d that marches with you” perform? The Torah doesn’t seem to say. The JPS translation adds the words “it is G-d that marches with you” so that the verse will make sense. Nevertheless, this translation is untenable because if this is what the Torah wanted to say, it could have simply written “Ki Hashem holech i’machem” – “Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For G-d marches with you…” – without having to add the problematic letter heh to the word “holech”. What, then, is the verse trying to tell us[1]?

I would like to propose an admittedly non-standard way of understanding the verse. The Talmud in Tractate Gittin [90a] teaches that the Hebrew word “ki” has four potential meanings: “If”, “perhaps”, “rather”, and “for”. The JPS translation – and for that matter, every translation I have seen, English, Aramaic, or otherwise – translates the word “ki” in the verse “Ki Hashem E-lokeychem ha’holech i’machem…” as “For”. What if we translated the word “ki” in this instance as “rather (ela)”? The verse would then be translated as follows: “Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. Rather G-d that marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory”.

Before continuing our explanation, we must take a deep dive into the concept of “fear”. Let’s return to the opening statement of the Meshuach Milchama: “You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them.” Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, who lived in France in the eleventh century, differentiates between “fear”, “panic”, and “dread”. Quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [42a], Rashi explains that a person “fears” the noise made by the fastening of the shields, “panics” from the sounds of the horns, and “dreads” the noise of the shouting. Using the lexicon of modern warfare, a person “fears” the sound of the bullets whistling by, he “panics” from the air raid sirens and he “dreads” the blasts of the explosions.

In the second half of his address, the Meshuach Milchama describes another kind of fear: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened (ya’reh v’rach ha’levav)” Our Sages in the Midrash disagree as to precisely of what this person is “afraid and disheartened”. According to Rabbi Akiva, this person “cannot stand in the closed ranks of battle and look upon a drawn sword”. He suffers from what psychologists call “traumatophobia” – literally “Fear of Trauma”. He fears being physically injured or worse. According to Rabbi Jose the Galilean, this person is scared that the sins he has committed will render him unworthy of Divine assistance and so could lead to his death in battle. Why is this fear discussed only in the second half of the Meshuach Milchama’s address? Why is it not mentioned in the first part of the address along with “fear”, “panic”, and “dread”?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, who lived in Poland in the nineteenth century, can help us out. The Kotzker explains that the fear described in the second half of the address is an overwhelming debilitating terror that prevents a person from functioning. He sinks into a dark depression and becomes despondent to the point that his presence on the battlefield becomes a source of danger to his fellow soldiers[2].

The explanation of the Kotzker can be supported by the wording of the verses. The first part of the Meshuach Milchama’s address warns not be “be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them”. The soldiers must not fear the enemy. Even though fear of an object or a situation is perfectly natural, in this instance it can and must  be overcome through trust in G-d. The second part of the address attempts to isolate people who are “afraid and disheartened”. Not “afraid and disheartened of the enemy”, just plain scared. This kind of overwhelming fear cannot be countered and so that person must be summarily sent home. There is only one instance that undirected fear is acceptable. The Torah commands us [Devarim 10:20] “You shall fear [only] G-d, worship [only] Him, and cleave [only] to Him”. According to the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the twelfth century, the Torah does not mean that we should fear that G-d will punish us if we sin. Rather, it means that we should be in awe of G-d’s infinite beneficence. This kind of fear does not push us away, it draws us near[3].

Now we can return to our non-standard understanding of the Meshuach Milchama’s problematic verse: “Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. Rather [you should fear only] G-d who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory”. Do not fear war because G-d is marching along with you. Rather, you must sublimate your fear into something that is much more powerful and much more beneficial: the fear – the absolute awe – of Al-mighty G-d, a fear that negates all other fears.

In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, he uttered the now famous words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. At the time, during the Great Depression, the fear of abject poverty and of unemployment was rampant and justified. Even so, said the President, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses” – a twentieth century kind of “afraid and disheartened” – could not be tolerated. That kind of debilitating fear had the potential to destroy the United States. In 2020, in the throes of a global COVID-19 pandemic, we share different kinds of fear. We fear contracting coronavirus. We fear being in the vicinity of other people. We fear losing our jobs. These fears are natural and justified. But we must not let this pandemic make us despondent. We must place our trust and our fear in Al-mighty G-d, that marches with us, leading us to a world that is healthy and safe.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The answer to this question is doubly important because in many synagogues around the world, this verse is recited every Shabbat. It is the concluding line of the “Prayer for the Welfare of the IDF Soldiers”. The prayer was authored by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who eventually served as the Chief Rabbi of the IDF and then as the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Not to understand a prayer that is said weekly borders on sacrilege.

[2] The Kotzker knew what he was talking about. He spent the last twenty years of his life in a severe depression, in seclusion in a small room in his house.

[3] The Kabbalists refer to the fear of punishment as “yir’at ha’onesh” and the awe of G-d as “yir’at hit’rome’mut

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments