Israel-Gaza War 5784: Bamidbar – Still in the Wilderness?

Bamidbar is the name of not only this week’s Torah portion, but the new book of the Torah it begins. (Books of the Torah are called by the names of their first portions.) Bamidbar, meaning “In the Wilderness,” is also called the Book of Pikudim (Census), because it starts with a census of military-age men. Males from the ages of 20 and upward were numbered, by their legions, implying that they were being mustered for war. This made sense. The Israelites had recently escaped from Egypt, pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots, and now had to make their way through possibly hostile territory to conquer their promised land.

But the Levites were not counted in this census. They were numbered separately, from the age of one month and up, so obviously not for military duty, and assigned to various tasks associated with the Tabernacle.

The Levitical families were then assigned to four encampments around the Tabernacle, an inner layer of protection. The other Israelite tribes were placed in a second, outer square. The Levites stood between the Tabernacle and danger, while the other Israelites stood between the Levites (and the Tabernacle) and any enemy force. This implies that the Levites’ main charge was to protect Israel’s spiritual life, while others protected Israel’s physical existence. And, indeed, some Torah commentators have argued that the Levites were exempt from wars that did not involve survival, but were to participate in defensive wars.

Today, debate rages as to the proper roles of all sectors of Israeli society regarding the military. There is a division between the ultra-Orthodox community known as haredim, and some other religious, as well as secular, Jews. The latter believe all or most Israeli Jews should serve in the military. Most haredim claim that they should be exempted from military service to focus on Torah study. They believe that they protect the Jewish people through prayer and Torah study every bit as much as other Israelis protect the nation physically.

Does the Torah support the position of these haredim? While the Torah says that the Levites’ primary duty was to serve Hashem: “…and the Levites shall be Mine” (Numbers 3:12), it does not directly address this issue, and we no longer have a Tabernacle or Temple, and no priestly service. The Mishnah, the authoritative collection of Oral Law, gives four categories of men exempt from military service: one who has built a home and not dedicated it; one who has planted a vineyard and not enjoyed its fruit; one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her; and one who is afraid, because his fear might infect his fellow soldiers. But nothing about exemption for Torah study.

At the modern state of Israel’s founding, Ben-Gurion granted an exemption to those who studied in yeshivot full-time, because so many scholars and students were wiped out in the Shoah. At that time, this exemption only affected several hundred men. Today, haredi men make up close to a third of the males eligible for military service. Fewer than 10% voluntarily enlist. This places a heavy burden on a country that is currently fighting an existential war and facing enemies on multiple fronts. Many of those who do serve, as well as their families, resent the community that refuses to share their burden. Yet haredi men who do enlist face stigmatization within their community. Either way, disunity of Israeli society results.

Another reason given by the haredim for not serving is that close encounters with the secular way of life will cause their young men to abandon the haredi lifestyle. Haredim live in cloistered communities and avoid mixing with others. In the military and especially during war, such isolation would be impossible. Israel has attempted to address these concerns by creating all-male, all-haredi units, but many haredim feel this is inadequate. On the other hand, there are those in the haredi world who believe their brethren should serve in the military and have spoken or written publicly saying so.

Another sector of Israeli Orthodox Jews, Religious Zionists, justifies military service. While believing in the mitzvah of Torah study as necessary for preserving the soul of the Jewish nation, they cite the obligation of pikuach nefesh, saving life. They believe that only a small group most qualified for religious studies should be exempted. In this, they would seem to follow the example of our Torah portion in partially exempting just one tribe, the Levites.

Many Western countries give (or gave) draft deferments to divinity students, similarly recognizing that they make another, but equally important, contribution to society. However, during the Vietnam War, the House Armed Services Committee voted to eliminate draft deferments for divinity students. In a time of war, it was felt that their contribution was needed more in the military than in a house of worship. However, divinity students did not make up a third of American military-age men.

Just as haredim do not interact with the secular community, secular Israelis frequently have little or no contact with religious Jews—except when serving with them in the military. Those they encounter there will seldom be haredim. Inevitably, there is a lack of understanding and appreciation of each other’s beliefs and values. This split has been growing for a long time, with active hatred for each other by some on the one hand, and on the other hand, efforts to bridge the gap and promote tolerance.

There is another group of Israelis who are not required to serve in the military, but who get nowhere near the condemnation given to the haredim. Arab Israelis also are exempt from the draft, because it is recognized they might have difficulty fighting against other Arabs. (As with the ultra-Orthodox sector, increasing numbers are volunteering to serve.) Yet we do not see anger at this sector for not serving, although they have all the benefits of other Israeli citizens. Why?

One reason might be that secular Jews do not feel as judged by members of a different religion. Indeed, the feeling of being judged is not imaginary. Incidents of haredim harassing those they believe do not dress modestly enough or who drive on Shabbat foster such feelings. This not only enrages secular Israelis, but makes them fear that strict religious rules will be enforced on them against their wills.

To heal these divisions, both sides will need to make an effort. If they do not, Israelis will be wandering in a figurative midbar, wilderness, unable to reach the promised land of a united nation.

The haredim will need to acknowledge the obligation of all but a minority of Torah scholars to defend the country when it is threatened. They must stop stigmatizing their members who serve. They will need to accept their fellow Jews’ rights to practice Judaism, or not, according to their understanding and conscience. It is a common saying in twelve-step programs that recovery is for people who want it, not people who need it. This is true of religion as well.

Secular Israelis will need to acknowledge and appreciate the centrality of Torah, both historically and today, in our people’s survival and flourishing in the face of extreme persecution and adversity. I study Torah weekly with a woman who is an avowed atheist. She strongly believes that the Torah has shaped who we Jews are. As well, secular Israelis will need to grant their Jewish brethren at least the same tolerance they grant to Israeli Arabs. As an example, in 2012, the IDF announced it would not excuse religious soldiers from official events where women sang, although it is many Orthodox believe that men should not hear women singing, unless they are immediate family members. Yet this is a situation that, with tolerance and a little creativity, has since been easily remedied.

Our tradition says that sinat chinam, baseless hatred, destroyed the Second Temple. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, pre-state Israel’s chief rabbi, said the antidote was baseless love. Love can be hard where there is bitterness and anger. Acceptance of the other is a good place to start. But even acceptance can be hard when we feel threatened. Last September, secular Jews demonstrated against a gender-segregated Yom Kippur service held in public, and heated arguments broke out.

I have another friend who bicycled through a haredi neighborhood as Shabbat approached. He was invited, sweaty and in shorts, to a Shabbat dinner. What a beautiful acceptance of the “other,” accompanied by love. We need more such actions of baseless love, both to foster unity against our enemies, and to thrive and flourish together when, G-d willing, our enemies are conquered.

Am Yisrael chai—the people Israel live—will only be a reality when we can accept, support, and, yes, love one another.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at and @KosherKitty1.
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