The Sanctity of Israel's Military Camp

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Sanctity of Israel's Military Camp

By Rav Michael Hattin


With the reading of parashat Ki Teitzei, the book of Devarim and the Torah as a whole begin to draw to their close. Replete with mitzvot, some mere elaborations of earlier legislation, others mentioned here for the first time, parashat Ki Teitzei constitutes the core and the completion of Moshe's explication of the Torah. From this point onwards, his words will become progressively more exhortative, as his concern shifts from reviewing and explaining the Torah's commands to impressing upon the people of Israel their august responsibilities as God's chosen nation.

Soon they will cross over the Yarden to enter Canaan, and Moshe therefore must prepare Israel not only for the general challenges of settlement that confront any migrant group in a new land, but also for the particular challenges posed by their inevitable encounter with the Canaanites' alluring but morally corrupt culture. The final parashiyot of sefer DevarimKi Tavo, Nitzavim, Vayelekh and Vezot Ha-berakha – will therefore be concerned less with the issue of specific mitzvot and more with the matter of the covenant, Israel's obligation to remain loyal and steadfast to God's teachings in order that they might live.

There is no other parasha in the Torah, in fact, that contains as many mitzvot as Ki Teitzei. Over seventy commands are covered in our parasha, although in strict terms of its textual length, Ki Teitzei is only average. These more than seventy provisions cover the entire spectrum of human experience, detailing such diverse matters as warfare, lost articles, the donning of the fringes, planting hybrid seeds, adultery, interest on loans, divorce, kidnapping, and debtor/creditor relations, to name but a few. In this respect, Ki Teitzei is quite similar to other "codes of conduct" in the Torah, such as parashat Mishpatim in sefer Shemot or else parashat Kedoshim in sefer Vayikra.

In all of these sections, as well as elsewhere in the Torah where diverse types of mitzvot are freely mixed in the same passage, the organizing principle that is used to differentiate between dissimilar types of mitzvot is not the presumed and obvious distinction of ritual acts versus civic duties or else matters of the cult versus matters of the state. This is because on the most fundamental level, the Torah does not recognize an essential divergence between these two categories, as if one could excel in one's interpersonal moral development while ignoring any need to relate to God, or conversely become a pious and devoted servant of the Deity while giving short shrift to other people's needs or trampling underfoot their possessions or feelings. In our tradition, the complete human personality is the one that strives to develop both of these aspects that constitute the basis of our interaction with the world around us, simultaneously balancing (sometimes tenuously) our responsibilities towards others with our responsibilities towards God.


This week, we will consider a section from the parasha that deftly addresses this duality of obligation, while at the same time boldly relating to facets of the human experience that some would regard as not only utterly and irredeemably mundane but even coarse or noxious:

When you go out and encamp against your foe, then you shall guard against anything evil… You shall designate a place outside the confines of the camp and go out there (to relieve yourself). And you shall include a spade among your weapons so that when you sit down out there (and relieve yourself) then you shall dig with it in order to cover over your excrement. This is because God your Lord walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to defeat your enemies before you, and therefore your encampment shall be holy. Let He not see anything unseemly in your midst and distance Himself from you (23:10-15).

This unusual passage speaks in the narrow sense concerning the exigencies of warfare. Like many other sections of Sefer Devarim, this text addresses the expected consequence of Israel's entry into the new land: conflict between themselves and the Canaanites will almost certainly ensue. But at the same time, this passage is wholly unique, for it does not speak about what may be termed typical matters of combat such as exemptions from service (20:1-9), terms of surrender (20:10-18), destruction of assets (20:19-20), or humane treatment of prisoners (21:10-14). Instead, the topic of the section is so seemingly insipid as to be almost rude: how ought the proud and confident warriors to address the matter of evacuating their bowels!


But how profound are the words of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) on this section:

It appears to me concerning this mitzva that the text seeks to warn us about the situation that is most likely to be characterized by transgression. It is a known fact that troops that go out to battle engage in the consumption of every abomination imaginable, they rob and act violently and are shameless, even in matters of sexual immorality and the commission of every offensive deed. Even the most upright of men by nature, dons a mantle of cruelty and rage when his forces prepare to engage the enemy, and therefore the Torah warns concerning these things that "you shall guard against anything evil" (23:10), for the plain sense of the phrase is to caution about every forbidden matter.

For the Ramban, there is a special need for the Torah to address the matter of warfare because it is precisely within the confines of the warriors' camp that basic standards of conduct often become dangerously eroded and the natural inhibitions that would otherwise guard us from brutal and abominable behavior are suppressed or thrown to the wind. At times of warfare, even warfare that is just, violence against the enemy must necessarily be perpetrated; how difficult it is to ensure that that very violence not begin to encroach on the other aspects of the campaign that do not relate in a direct manner to what transpires on the battlefield. When the Ramban describes the typical encampment of the fighting force as being rife with viciousness and bereft of even basic standards of civilized behavior, he does not miss the mark. What would be deemed utterly tasteless or unacceptable in any other context is countenanced and even encouraged among the fighting men. And thus the Torah, in a passage that surely must rank among the most ennobling in the entire corpus of world literature, makes it emphatically clear that such behavior, while customary among the armies of all peoples throughout all times, is not to be tolerated in the army of the people of Israel.


The reason, like the provision itself, is singularly unique:

… This is because God your Lord walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to defeat your enemies before you, and therefore your encampment shall be holy. Let He not see anything unseemly in your midst and distance Himself from you (23:15).

That is to say that the encampment of the fighting men is to be regarded like the larger encampment of the people of Israel. Just as God's presence that is centered at the Mishkan dwells in the midst of the people of Israel as a direct function of their conduct, so too the Divine presence that inspires the Israelite army to victory over the enemy will not brook any debasement among the warriors. Let not the war that must be fought dehumanize and disgrace those that are called upon to fight it. We may only presume, of course, that if such is the concern for maintaining the "sanctity" of the camp, then of necessity this sensitivity will find expression in other aspects of the campaign, including those that impact more directly on the treatment of the enemy forces.

The Ramban goes on to quote an early Rabbinic tradition (Sifrei Devarim) that attempts to define exactly what activities are assumed under the rubric of "guarding against anything evil…." (23:10):

Shall I perhaps say that the intent of "anything evil" is inattention to the laws of ritual purity or else the laws of tithes? The text therefore goes on to say "let He not see anything UNSEEMLY in your midst and distance Himself from you" (23:15)… This refers to actions that caused the Canaanites to be driven out of the land and that distance the Shekhina (Divine presence) such as sexual immorality, idolatry, bloodshed, blasphemy…and even evil speech!

For the Rabbis, then, it is not ritual infractions such as laws of purity and impurity that the Torah singles out for special censure but rather cardinal sins that elsewhere are regarded as the yardstick of basic civilized and religious behavior. In the course of battle, the fighting force will encounter death and therefore the state of ritual purity will necessarily be compromised; but let that not serve the men with the license to jettison all basic mores of acceptable conduct so that they might shamelessly act without compunction or care for all that is proper.


The application of these laws of the encampment, if they are confined to the contingency of warfare only, is necessarily narrow. Remarkably, though, the ancient Rabbis understood the text to have much broader relevance. In Talmud Bavli Tractate Berakhot 22b through 26a, the Rabbis discuss a whole series of laws that pertain to the proper state of one's body as well as one's environment during the recitation of the Shema and prayer. The Scriptural source for these provisions is none other than our passage's discussion about the proper state of the encampment and the fighting men. A representative selection follows:

One who feels the need to evacuate one's bowels should not pray (until he has done so), and if he does pray under such conditions then his prayer is regarded as an abomination…(23a).

Our Rabbis taught: one who enters the privy must first remove one's tefillin at a distance of four cubits and only then may he enter…(23a).

Said Rabba bara bar Chana in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: in all places it is permissible to think thoughts that pertain to the Torah, except in the bathhouse and the privy…(24b).

A beraita was taught in support of Rav Chisda: a person may not read the Shema opposite human excrement…or a malodorous garbage heap…rather, he must distance himself so that these things are not at all in his field of vision…and so too for prayer. One must distance oneself four cubits from an object that emits an odious smell, that is to say four cubits from where the odor can no longer be detected…(25a).

Our Rabbis taught: it is forbidden to recite the Shema opposite a chamber pot whether it is used for excrement or for urine, and even if these containers are currently empty…(25b).

In all of these provisions, the halakha intended to expand the definition of the "encampment" of the warriors as narrowly understood in our passage from parashat Ki Teitzei. The "encampment" was not only about the specific situation of the soldiers' bivouac but was identified with one's dwelling or even one's personal space (i.e. "four cubits") wherever one might be. The specific provisions of the designated location and the spade, intended to keep the army's environs fit for humans as well for God's presence, were understood by Talmudic tradition to include all necessary measures for rendering the environment suitable for prayer. Thus it was that every Jewish home and house of worship could become a focal point for holiness, where holiness meant not only suitability for a genuine spiritual experience, but also sensitivity to mundane things that might otherwise be regarded as beneath one's dignity to even address.


For this author, the myriad halakhot outlined above that pertain to the physical state of the body and the place are the surest indication that the Torah that we possess is Divine in origin! Where else could one find such attention to the act of defecation or urination, not as an inane and puerile fascination or else as an endless source of ribald mirth (as these acts tend to be viewed and addressed in our enlightened popular culture), but rather as a vehicle for sensitizing the human being to his Godly potential? In what other system of religious law or philosophical thought does there exist anything to compare to these provisions that gently but firmly remind us that though we may share biological functions with the lower creatures we dare not share their instinctive vulgarity? It is in fact just a short conceptual distance from our parasha to the above Talmudic discussion to the Rabbinic blessing instituted over the act of relieving oneself (!), and recited to this day by those sensitive souls who seek God's presence everywhere in their lives:

Blessed are You God, Lord of the universe, who has fashioned the human being with wisdom and created within him myriad orifices and myriad vessels. It is revealed and known to You that if one of these should rupture or else become obstructed, then it would be impossible to continue to exist and to stand before You. Blessed are You God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

Thus, while the narrow context discussed in our parasha pertains to what the Ramban characterized as the situation most likely to require such emphatic proscription, the application of the principles is actually quite vast. As human beings and as loyal students of the Torah, God demands that we never deny our Godliness and debase our bodily functions or biological drives by regarding these (and by extension ourselves) as inherently animalistic. As sentient beings fashioned with a moral will, we can decide to sanctify our physicality or else to defile it. The choices that we make in this regard will ultimately determine whether we serve God as an occasional outlet for our spiritual needs, or else truly live our lives in His constant presence.

Shabbat Shalom