Naomi Graetz

Let My Soldiers Go: Parshat Vaera

This week one of my grandsons, who as a reserve soldier was called up on October 8th, is being released from the IDF. My other grandson who was called up on October 7th with tzav shemoneh is still serving somewhere in the South. Tzav shemoneh (Order 8) is the emergency call-up order which means you have to drop everything and get back into uniform. The grandson who was just released, had finished more than 3 years compulsory service in August and was planning to travel abroad when he was called up. The other grandson is in the middle of his studies, and even though his classes have already begun, there is no sign of his being released.


I looked into tzav shemoneh and was shocked to find out that there is no end date to this order. It is a military term which is “an open-ended call-up of army reservists” at a time of war:

בנסיבות חירום, שר הביטחון רשאי לקרוא בצו לכל איש מילואים לשירות מילואים. צו חירום הוא הצו הידוע גם בכינוי “צו 8”.השירות על פי צו החירום אינו מוגבל בזמן.קריאה לשירות מילואים לפי צו חירום יכולה להיעשות בטלפון, ושלא על פי הוראות הקריאה לשירות מילואים. שירות מילואים לפי צו חירום אינו נמנה במכסת שירות המילואים השנתית. חייל מילואים שנקרא בצו 8 זכאי לתשלום עבור שירות מילואים. על אף שימי שירות לפי צו 8 אינם נמנים במספר ימי שמ”פ בשנה לחייל מילואים לצורך הגבלת מספר הימים המירבי, במלחמת חרבות ברזל ימי השירות נספרים במניין הימים המזכים בתגמולים. למידע רשמי ראו באתר “מילואים”

What this means is that a reserve soldier can theoretically be called up for an indefinite period of time and this service is not included as regular yearly miluim.  What hope does a soldier in the reserves have of getting on with his day-to-day life of family, work, studies, traveling etc., if the war is endless? In short, tzav shemoneh is a form of slavery. This is unlike tzav tesha (Order 9) which is for a limited time (25 days). My grandson who was released told me that there is nothing to stop the army from calling him back with a tzav shemoneh even now when he has been released if there is a need, a new emergency.


A comparison can be made between the indentured servant who sells his services for a finite time and then is released after the agreed upon period, to a slave who does not know if he will ever be released. Obviously, the comparison is an exaggeration on my part, because the soldier may have even volunteered and presumably knows that he is fighting for his country, whereas the slave may not feel any loyalty to the master who has enslaved him.

Slavery in the bible is very interesting! If we look at Leviticus 25: we can see that there is a differential law for Israelite slaves and non-Israelite slaves:

If your kin under you continue in straits and must be given over to you, do not subject them to the treatment of a slave. Remaining with you as a hired or bound laborer, they shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then they, along with any children, shall be free of your authority; they shall go back to their family and return to the ancestral holding.—For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.— You shall not rule over them ruthlessly; you shall fear your God.

So the Israelite slave is like the indentured servant who serves a finite time. However, the law is different for the non-Israelite:

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves.

So, it is clear that these slaves are akin to aliens/ non-citizens who have no rights.

And to immediately clarify the unequal contrast between citizens and aliens, the text continues: “But as for your Israelite kin, no one shall rule ruthlessly over another” (Leviticus 25: 39-47).


We all know the story of how Moses goes to Pharaoh and demands that he let his people go free and that it takes ten plagues to finally convince the latter to let them go. In this week’s parsha Va-era, Pharaoh is exposed to the first three plagues, but God “hardens” his heart so that he doesn’t release his slaves. But it is not only Pharaoh who suffers, it is his entire population. Pharaoh doesn’t seem to care about his own citizens; he only cares about himself. Only with the last and tenth plague, the one about killing the first born, –which will bring the suffering into HIS OWN household, will he do an about face and let the Israelite people go.


This ancient story is too close to comfort to our story today. We have our own hard-hearted Pharaoh in place, with Israel’s hardest-line government ever, but no Moses to lead us out of our misery. Our Prime Minister and his cronies have hardened their hearts in order to stay in power and take reckless gambles with our lives in order that all will miraculously turn out well for them. Will this go on until their own lives and their own children are threatened? They don’t seem to care about the harm that an endless war, with no plans for the future, causes the citizens that elected them. All they want is to stay in power. Imagine if there was a tzav shemoneh for all the Knesset members and the ministers. What would happen if they were called up for an open-ended period of time to serve on the battlefield? What would happen when the screaming of the people got to be too much and ended up affecting their own households? Pharaoh learned his lesson:

In the middle of the night יהוה struck down all the [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Exodus 12: 29-31).

When Pharaoh was called down from his perch and forced to see that the next one to die would be his first born and perhaps himself, he realized that it was time to let go.


There have been many signals, missteps and catastrophes these past 100 days, but nothing seems to move this government to own up and behave responsibly. Even though our government sometimes seems to be in thrall to a theocracy, we are still a democracy, so change will only come with the next election.

This week’s parsha ends on a bitter note:

After the seventh plague of hail “Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I stand guilty this time. יהוה is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong…. But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers. So, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go.”

Hopefully, next week’s parsha will bring about change and some relief for the overburdened people of Israel and that finally our Pharaoh will learn his lesson and accept the facts on the ground without demanding of us even more sacrifice.


And we should keep in mind as a mantra during the next few weeks the following Talmudic warning:

Anyone who can effectively protest the sinful conduct of his household and does not protest, is accountable for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is held accountable for the behavior of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world (BT Shabbat 54b).

And Maimonides goes further in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 6:7. He states:

It is a mitzvah for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to correct his behavior and to inform him that he is causing himself a loss by his evil deeds as [Leviticus 19:17] states: “You shall surely admonish your colleague.” A person who rebukes a colleague – whether because of a [wrong committed] against him or because of a matter between his colleague and God – should rebuke him privately. He should speak to him patiently and gently, informing him that he is only making these statements for his colleague’s own welfare, to allow him to merit the life of the world to come. If he accepts [the rebuke], it is good; if not, he should rebuke him a second and third time. Indeed, one is obligated to rebuke a colleague who does wrong until the latter strikes him and tells him: “I will not listen.”
Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].

The last statement refers directly to the Talmudic passage from Shabbat 54b which relates that after the destruction of the first Temple, the righteous were also slain mercilessly. Why were they subjected to this punishment? Because they failed to rebuke the transgressors. What this means is that we have to go back to protesting and doing everything to change our government and make sure that we call for new elections and do everything to bring out the vote, for that is the only tool in a democracy that can be used for rebuking sinners–and if we don’t exercise our voting privilege we will be responsible for the sins that will continue to be committed in our name.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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