Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Parshat Chukat: The time has come to leave the tent

For thousands of years in the Diaspora, without the Beit Hamikdash or a country of our own, the Jewish people were in survival mode. Many laws discussed in the Torah, including those in this week’s parsha, Chukat, lost their practical applicability. Yet our Sages, understanding that the Torah never loses its relevance, sought deeper meanings in these laws and verses.

Reish Lakish’s explanation in the Gemara (Brachot 63b) illustrates this very approach in his reinterpretation of the verse, “This is the Torah, a person who dies in a tent” (Bamidbar 19:14), which refers to ritual impurity caused by a dead body. Recognizing its lack of relevance for non-Kohanim in his time, Reish Lakish suggested an alternate meaning: only one who “dies in the tent” – who toils in Torah study – can become a true Torah scholar.

This interpretation, born of Diaspora necessity, encouraged sacrifice of comfort and ease of life for the sake of Torah study. However, in our contemporary reality as a sovereign nation in Israel, this explanation is no longer pertinent and continues to be misapplied by some voices of fellow observant Jews who abuse this teaching to justify refusing IDF enlistment – even during a milchemet mitzva (obligatory war) like the one we face today.

This misinterpretation contradicts the Rambam’s clear ruling based on the Mishnah in Sotah: “In a milchemet mitzva, the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber, and a bride from her pavilion.” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Malachim u’Milchamot 7:4) Furthermore, it ignores the mitzvah of not standing idly by while your friend’s blood is being spilled. (Vayikra 19:16)

We would never authorize violating Shabbat, consuming non-kosher food, stealing, or forgoing mitzvot between Jews for the sake of studying Torah. How, then, has it become acceptable that Torah study trumps the law of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – and of milchemet mitzva, defending our sovereign nation under attack? (It should also be pointed out that the current system doesn’t actually ensure that those exempt from army service on grounds of learning Torah are even really learning Torah. There is evidence that many obtain exemptions under false pretenses, and are not actually learning in the Beit Midrash either, so they are simply avoiding their national duty, contributing neither to Torah scholarship nor to the country’s defense.)

In our times, the true fulfillment of “dying in the tent” is not reflected by pursuing or advocating a life secluding ourselves in the Beit Midrash. Rather, it refers to the righteous men and women who, out of dedication to Torah and religious observance, temporarily leave the study hall to defend the Jewish people on the frontlines. At the same time, many go to great lengths to continue learning Torah even on the battlefield, embodying the sanctity of Torah in the darkest moments.

With countless soldiers and civilians having lost their lives, it’s time to set aside outdated Diaspora patterns of thought and action. We must unite, as the Torah mandates, to ensure the wellbeing and flourishing of the entire Jewish people. It’s time to “leave the tent”; not God forbid to abandon Torah, but to fulfill its true intent in our generation.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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