Leaving the Desert Behind

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






Leaving the Desert Behind

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha continues discussing the laws of warfare that began in Parashat Shoftim.  Just as Chapter 20 began with the introduction “When you go out to war,” so too does our parasha.  However, a huge difference exists between the two sections that a cursory read often overlooks.  In Chapter 20, the phrase “when YOU go out to war” refers to the people as a whole, and the laws are addressed to the national collective.  However, at the beginning of our parasha, the phrase “when YOU go out to war” clearly refers to an individual soldier, specifically one who may not be able to overcome his lustful desires in the heat of the battle.  Clearly, our parasha reflects a shift in focus from the public needs to the behavior of private members of the community.  Indeed, the 72 commandments contained within our parasha reflect almost every area of human endeavor, from business to personal life.


This week, we shall investigate the laws of warfare as they are reformulated in our parasha, Chapter 23:


9 When the army goes out against your enemies, then keep yourself from every wicked thing. 10 If there is any man among you who becomes unclean by some occurrence in the night, then he shall go outside the camp; he shall not come inside the camp. 11 But it shall be, when evening comes, that he shall wash with water; and when the sun sets, he may come into the camp.  12 Also you shall have a place outside the camp, where you may go out; 13 and you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and turn and cover your refuse. 14 For Hashem your G-d walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and give your enemies over to you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He may see no unclean thing among you, and turn away from you.


The Rambam, in his philosophic treatise Moreh Nevukhim (the Guide to the Perplexed), discusses why the Torah felt the need to re-emphasize the holiness of the camp before battle, even though the laws of warfare had been previously discussed:


Guide to the Perplexed Part III, Ch.41: This book [ever referring to the Rambam's code Sefer Shoftim, or Sefer Devarim] also includes the commandment [Dev.23:13-14] to prepare a secluded place and a peg [paddle, spike]. For one of the purposes of this law consists, as I have made known to you, in cleanliness and avoidance of excrements and dirt and in man's not being like the beasts. And this mitzva also reinforces in the soldiers, by means of the actions it enjoins, the awareness that the Shekhina [Divine presence] dwells among them, as is explained in the reason given for it "For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp" [Dev.23:15]. It has also included another concept, saying: "That He see no ervat davar [unseemly, unclean, unchaste thing] in you, and turn away from you [v.15]. This is [an admonition] against what we know are widespread practices among soldiers in a camp after they have stayed for a long time away from their homes. Accordingly He, may He be exalted, has commanded us to perform actions that remind us that the Shekhina has descended among us so that we should be preserved from those actions, and has said: "Therefore shall your camp be holy, that He see no ervat davar in you..." Etc. He has even commanded that a man "who has had a nocturnal emission" should go out of the camp "and at sundown he may re-enter the camp" [v. 12] Accordingly everyone should have in mind that the camp is like a "sanctuary of the Lord' and not like the camps of the Gentiles destined only to destroy and to do wrong and to harm others and rob them of their property. On the contrary, our purpose is to inspire people to obey God and to introduce order into their lives.


According to this approach, the Torah was very cognizant of the real dangers that accompany every military camp or gathering.  Is it possible to maintain an elevated state when a person is separated from society, training together with other men only for the purpose of warfare and potential bloodshed?  Did living in this manner automatically lead to a coarsening of a person’s values and conduct?  This approach is also found in the commentary of the Ramban, who attempts to explain what laws Moshe gave the people in Shemot 15, immediately after leaving Egypt:


"It may mean that Moshe instructed them in the ways of the desert, namely to be ready to suffer hunger and thirst and to pray to God, and not to murmur. He taught them ordinances whereby they should live, to love one another, to follow the counsel of the elders, to be discreet in their tents with respect to women and children, to deal in a peaceful manner with the strangers that come into the camp to peddle. He also imparted moral instruction, i.e., that they should not become like bands of marauders who do all abominable things and have no sense of shame, similar to that which the Torah commanded, "When you go out [as] a camp against your enemies, be on your guard against anything evil" (our verse in Devarim 23).  (Commentary to Shemot 15:25).


What, however, was the wicked thing that the Torah commanded that we avoid at the beginning of our section?  According to the Rambam and the Ramban’s commentary in Sefer Shemot, this was a general category referring to the common lessening of morals and standards that often accompanied the going out to war.  For the Rambam, the subsequent laws (physical hygiene, spiritual cleanliness) detail specific actions to maintain this general goal.  However, the Ramban in our parasha provides a different explanation of what “wicked thing” was meant to be avoided:


"Be on your guard against any wicked thing” - 'because Satan indicts people in the hour of danger.' This is Rashi's language. The correct interpretation regarding this precept appears to me that the Torah is warning of a situation when sin is rampant. The well-known custom of forces going to war is that they eat all abominable things, rob and plunder, and are not ashamed even of lewdness and all vileness. The most upright of men by nature comes to be possessed of cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy. Therefore, the Torah warned, "be on your guard against any wicked thing". The plain meaning is that this is an admonition against doing anything forbidden. In the Sifri it is stated: 'I might think that the Torah is speaking of the laws of defilements and purities and tithes. It therefore says 'erva' ... [Here Ramban quotes the entire Sifri, see above] … besides the specific admonitions which are stated concerning these severe sins, he added yet a [special] prohibition to an army that we guard the Israelites who are there, just as he said, "For Hashem your God walks in the midst of your camp" [see verse 15]. Thus he who commits any of the great sins while in the army, those about whom it is written [Jer.7:30] "they have set their detestable things in the house whereon My Name is called to defile it"… The Sages [in the Sifri] added evil talk [Iashon hara as derived from this admonition] in order that contention should not increase among them and smite them with a very great plague, [even] more than the enemy [will inflict upon them].


Before discussing what Rashi and Ramban add to our understanding of the verse, let us concentrate for a moment of the rabbinic interpretation that these verses are the source for the prohibition against slanderous talk.  The rabbis are connecting between the epistemological similarity in Hebrew between the words “thing” and “speech” - conflating davar ra with diboor ra as both davar (thing) and dibur (word, speech) contain the same root letters.  For a moment, let us compare the words of the Sifri with a more textual based interpretation in the commentary of the Meshekh Chokhma:


It is not farfetched to understand the verse as meaning that one should not reveal military secrets, and should not reveal any matters of tactics or strategy to others. The best way to insure this is not to allow anyone to leave the camp, lest enemies capture him and force him to reveal secrets as the Egyptian told David at the end of 1 Sam.30:13-15. This is included in the concept of davar ra [an evil thing] as discussed in the Sifri: dibur ra [lit. evil speech] which is lashon hara [evil talk, slander, gossip]. This coincides with what I wrote... We find in the Jerusalem Talmud [Peah 1:1] "From whence do we deduce the warning about lashon hara? From 'be on your guard against davar ra [anything evil]. Rabi said, no, that R. Yishmael derived it from 'You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people'. In fact, there are two negative precepts according to the Jerusalem Talmud, for the two kinds of lashon hara (see also Ketubot 46a, above): one dealing with lashon hara among the children of Israel, and that is based on You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people' - among the people of Israel. The second is lashon hara outside the camp of Israel, and that is the simple meaning of 'When you go out (as a camp against your enemies) be on your guard against anything evil' in order not to reveal secrets, as I have explained.  (Commentary to 23:10)


The Meshekh Chokhma interprets the words "When you go out - a camp" as "when you go out from a camp”.  In addition, he notes the following difference between the two mentions of slander in the Torah - In Vayikra it says, "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people" - when you are among your people.   Our verse, however, describes a situation of going out to battle, i.e. Israel versus the enemy.  Therefore, he limits the prohibition against slander to a specific case of giving information over to enemy units, like the abandoned Egyptian lad dif for David, enabling David to avenge the capture of Ziklag by the Amalekites.


However, this leads to the obvious question: since we always must be on our guard against doing or speaking evil, and not only in times of war, why does the Torah admonish us about this in connection with a situation of armed conflict?  Rashi provides a short answer – Hashem is more likely to punish the Jewish people for their accumulated wrongdoings when they are facing danger.  The Ramban develops upon this idea in two directions.  First, unlike the Sifri which explains "from any wicked thing" as referring to certain specific sins, the Ramban widens the admonition cover unethical and unseemly deeds in general.  More importantly, he expands the rationale for refraining from unseemly acts.  Not only do these acts endanger the people due to the volatile nature of war (see Ramban’s commentary to Devarim 20:4)[i], but they forget that the camp is more than a gathering of hardened soldiers.  It is the very reflection of God’s name and presence on earth.  For this reason, those who go out to war must behave in a manner that reflects extra stringencies and caution, for they have the potential to carry the Divine banner on their shoulders.  As such, the verses reflect a challenge for all of us – to remind ourselves that even in our daily lives, we carry a far greater challenge and opportunity than we often remember.

[i] Ramban’s commentary on Devarim 20:4:  The intention of the verse, "For it is the L-rd your G-d who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to save you" is to admonish [the Israelites] against becoming faint-hearted and to warm them not to fear their enemies. He states that they are not to rely in this matter on their own strength, thinking in their hearts, "We are mighty men, and valiant men for the war" [Jer.48:14] but instead they are to turn their hearts only to G-d and rely on His help, thinking that "He delight not in the strength of the horse, and He takes no pleasure in the legs of man" [Ps.147:10] for "the L-rd take pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that wait for His mercy." [Ps.147:11]. He states "to do battle for you against your enemy" [Deut.20:4] meaning He will make them fall before you by the sword. He states "to save you" [Ibid.] meaning that they will be spared in battle and that not a man among them will be missing in action [see Num.31:49] for it would be possible that they vanquish their enemies and that many of them, too, would die, as is the way of battles. Therefore, Joshua cried out [Josh.7:7] when "about thirty-six men" fell in the battle of Ai, for in His obligatory war [milchemet mitzva] "not one hair of their heads should have fallen to the ground" [1Sam.14:45] "for the battle is the Lord's" [Ibid.,17:47]. Now the priest who serves God is to admonish [the warriors] to fear Him, and give them assurance [of His help]. The officers, however, speak in the customary way of the world, "lest he die in the battle", [Deut.20:5] for in the normal course of events even some people of the group of victors die. He commanded that these three categories [of people] return [verses 5-7] because if one's heart is on his [new] house, vineyard, and wife then he will [understandably be the first to] flee.