Lazer Gurkow
Lazer Gurkow

Shoftim: The Individual

Today I want to talk to you about the individual. When nations go to war, they institute mandatory drafts. Wartime drafts are different from peacetime drafts. In peacetime drafts, soldiers are eligible for all kinds of exemptions. During war, everyone must serve. Exemptions are rare.

In Jewish law, however, it is different. When Jews went to war, anyone who had married in the past year, built a new house, or planted a vineyard, was exempt. Moreover, once the army gathered at the battleground, leaders would address them and exempt those who were betrothed, but not yet married, built a home, but had yet to move in, or planted a vineyard and had yet to harvest a crop.

In most nations, wartime exemptions are not this easy. Many a soldier went off to World War II the morning after their wedding. Why were Jews so keen on exempting their soldiers and weakening their army?

The Individual
The answer is that in Judaism, the collective does not trump the individual. Collectives are comprised of individuals, which means that their value derives from those individuals. If we devalue the individual for the sake of the collective, the collective is also devalued.

This is why Jewish law never permits the deliberate surrender the individual for the sake of the collective. For example, if the enemy surrounds a city and demands that we surrender a single person or risk annihilation, we fight and risk annihilation rather than surrender the individual. We can’t and don’t put a value on life. Every life is of infinite value and many infinities are not greater than a single infinity. Many lives are no more important than one.

Thus, when it comes to war, the individual is paramount. If his newlywed wife is waiting for him at home, we can’t be cruel to both and conscript him into the army even if it helps the collective. After all, the only reason the nation fights this war is to protect families such as these. We won’t break up a family in their tender infancy to win a war that is designed to protect this very family.

The Spiritual Component
The Torah passage that describes this exemption, yields an even deeper understanding. The Torah says, “And who is the man that betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he dies in the war, and another man take her.”

Read the last ten words carefully: “lest he dies in war and another man take her.” This is a curious ending. Of the two clauses in this passage, the greater tragedy is that the man will die. Inherent in this tragedy is that his wife will lose her beloved. The fact that another man will marry her down the line is not a tragedy. On the contrary, it is a blessing.

These curious words impart a deep life message. Our concern is not so much that another man might marry her. Our concern is that this man will breathe his last while preoccupied with negative selfish thoughts. Resentment that another man will take what should have been his.

Our last thoughts ought to be holy thoughts. Our last moments should be devoted to begging forgiveness for our shortcomings and forgiving those who hurt us. It should be about communicating love and exuding holiness, not selfishness and resentments.

This man, thrust into war so soon after marriage, is incapable of such selfless thoughts at this desperate time. If he dies, he will die a terribly sad death, and we the Jewish collective, can’t allow for that possibility. Better to weaken our army, than to allow someone to die in self-absorption.

Judaism is not just about winning wars and securing independence. Judaism is about living a G-dly life devoted to a higher cause. If our war might cause our fellow to die with negative thoughts, it is not worth winning.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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