The Bible's Curious Exemptions for Serving in the Military | Aleph Beta | Aleph Beta

The Significance Of Saving Private Ryan

The Bible's Curious Exemptions For Serving In The Military

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this week’s Torah portion we learn about four types of people who are exempt from going to battle. What makes these people so unique? Why is their individual safety more important than the communal need? How can we as a nation reconcile individuality and community?

Rabbi Fohrman dives deeper into the question of what gives our life meaning in his audio course "The Meaning of Life."


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Shoftim, you are watching Aleph Beta.

What are the grand, overarching things we can do in life, that if we do them successfully can actually give our lives meaning, can answer the question, why was I put here in the world? Or, if not quite that, how do I make my life worthwhile now that I am here?

I think that this week's parsha – actually in just the space of a few sentences – puts out for us a remarkably coherent framework for thinking about these questions of meaning. I want to sketch that out for you here today.

This week's parsha tells us that before going out to war community leaders are meant to address the troops on the eve of battle and to tell four kinds of people to go home and not to fight. Who are those four kinds of people?

What Does the Bible Say About Serving in the Military?

Well, we're going to go through them and as we do let's play one of my favorite games: Which one of these things is not like the other? Which of these people stands out as different from the others?

Here they are:

  • Person number 1 – mi ha'ish asher banah bayit chadash, who is the person who has built himself a new home, v'loh chanacho, and has not yet lived in it? Yeilech v'yashov l'beito, let such a man leave the battlefront and return home to live in his house; pen yamut ba'milchama, lest he die in war and another man come and take over his house instead of him.
  • U'mi ha'ish asher natah kerem – who is the man who has planted for himself a vineyard, v'loh chillelo, and has not yet tasted the first fruits of that vineyard? Yeilech v'yashov l'beito, let him go back and return to his house lest he die in war and another man take over his vineyard.
  • U'mi ha'ish asher eirass isha – and who is the man who has engaged to a woman, v'loh lekacha, but has not yet married her? Let him go home to her lest he die in war and another man take her.
  • Finally, the fourth – mi ha'ish hayarei, who is the person who is afraid of battle, v'rach ha'leivav, and is of soft heart? Yeilech v'yashov l'beito, let him go back and return home; v'loh yimass et levav echov kilvavo, and let him not melt the hearts of his brethren as his own heart has been melted in fear.

So if you just read through these four kinds of people it's pretty clear that the last one is different from all the others. You see the last one goes home for the good of the community. Here's this guy, he's cowardly, he's scared, and we don't want the other troops to be just as scared as he is because cowardice is infectious, so go home because it's better for the community that way. That's what the text explicitly says.

But when you look at the other three there's a private imperative, the reason why they're supposed to go home has nothing to do with the interests of the community, it has to do with the interests of those individual soldiers themselves.

The guy who has built himself a house and hasn't yet lived in it should go home, why? Because it would be a tragedy for him if he were to die in war and not get a chance to live in that house. Same thing for the fellow who is engaged to be married, same thing for the person who planted a vineyard. It's about them, not about the community.

And if it's about them, and not about the community, then I have a question to ask you, and it goes like this. I can understand the idea of a community excusing a soldier from battle on the basis of some individual, private need. A good example, albeit fictional, comes from Steven Spielberg's film "Saving Private Ryan." In that film a mother loses three of her children in battle on the same day and when the War Department finds out about it, a high-ranking general makes the decision to send a platoon into Normandy with the express purpose of extracting the final, remaining child of this woman from battle. Because the last child is also a soldier and it would be a surpassing tragedy for this woman to lose four children – her only four children – to lose every last one of them in battle. So look what you have here, this general is willing to risk the lives of other servicemen in order to do this, for that private imperative.

Yet here, there is a kind of logic to this, it really would be a terrible, surpassing tragedy for this mother to lose four of her children, to spend the next 40 years in mourning, in anguish over every last one of her children having died this way. The community needs to have some understanding of individual sacrifice, and has to honor that, and sometimes the interests of the individual come first.

But think about the situation here, the situation as the Torah describes it. You've got a person who has planted himself a vineyard but hasn't got the chance to taste the fruits. Let him go home and tastes those fruits, why? In the words of the Torah, lest he die in battle and someone else take over his vineyard and taste those fruits.

Now here's my kind of devil's advocate question here, and I hate to put it so bluntly, but if he dies then he's dead, once you're dead so who cares if this vineyard is around that someone else takes? He's dead, he's not even around to see that anymore. So what's the great, private imperative here that is motivating the community as a whole to send these soldiers home?

Or I'll put it to you another way; death, that's like the worst thing that can happen to someone, so is it really worse if I died and I didn't get a chance to live in my house yet? It's like if death is infinity bad, so infinity plus five, you know it's still infinity, death is death, so how come these soldiers are told to go home?

Evidently the Torah doesn't see it like that, it's not like death is the ultimate, infinite, bad thing. The way the Torah sees it is there are worse things than death. I mean, let's face it, we're all going to die, that's just the way it is, it's not the worst thing in the world.

You know what the worst thing in the world is? If you die and you were that close to achieving some sort of end goal that would have given your life meaning, meaning that could transcend death, and you didn't do it in the end because you died first, that would be a terrible tragedy.

You know, if you think about finding meaning in life, one way to think about it is using death as a kind of litmus test – is there something you'd be willing to die for? If the answer to that is yes, then it means my own life is not just an end in and of itself – which is kind of circular because I'm just living to live so what does it all mean anyway?

No, my life stands for something, I'm willing to die for something, whatever that is; God, country, love, but there's some transcendent thing that's larger than me, that I'm willing to die for. So now even if I don't die for it I'm living for it, I have something to live for. Which means you can also think of it this way: what is it that I'm living for such that were I to die I could say my life is still meaningful because I lived for that?

So if death is kind of a litmus test for meaning, then let's ask what are those kinds of things that strike us as so meaningful that we could live for them? I think the Torah has given us three of them here – three emblematic milestones:

  • building a home,
  • planting a vineyard,
  • marrying a woman.

Somehow if you do one of these things and taste the fruits of that success you could feel like it would be okay to die afterwards and therefore the Torah sends the soldier who is on the cusp of achieving one of these accomplishments home. Because when you're so close to having achieved a kind of meaning that would help you transcend death, it would be a tragedy to die and not actually have achieved it.

But now let's ask this question, where is the Torah getting these three things from? Is it just picking them out of a hat or might they come from somewhere? Where does their meaning come from?

The Origin of the Bible's Verses for Military Exemptions

I want to suggest that the Torah itself talks about these things all the way back at the beginning – the beginning of mankind itself. Back in creation man is described as created in the image of God.

God, the great creator, He creates a world, a universe, and that universe is a home, a home for humanity, God builds a home. The next thing God does is He plants a garden, a wonderful garden, and after that He places man in the garden because God is there in the garden, and that way God can relate to this man that He's created. They can both be in the garden and share that special place together.

Do you see where I'm going here? God did three things, in the same order that the Bible describes them here in Deuteronomy:

  • builds a home – the universe itself;
  • plants a garden – this wonderful vineyard;
  • and places the being that He loves in that garden in order to relate to him there.

What are the human analogies to these things? Man is described as created in the image of God, we too do these three things just like God. God did these things because they were meaningful to Him, we do them because they're meaningful to us.

The Message Behind the Bible's Military Service Exemptions

Here's what we do.

Thing number 1 – God created a world, a home for us, we too, we try to build and the greatest thing that we can build perhaps is a home. When we achieve that milestone it feels to us that we've achieved something ultimate, something that is an end in and of itself, we could die at that point and it would be okay. The reason that is so is because that's how God created us. God, the ultimate Creator made us a little creator and when we create we feel ultimate meaning, it's our destiny.

Ah, but once you have a home, once you have a home that opens up a possibility, you could have a garden. A garden is a special place; a home is utilitarian, it's somewhere that you need to be because you have to have shelter, but a garden, a garden is wonderful, it's aesthetic, it's beautiful. Once you have a home you can build a garden, and if you build a garden you could lie back in your garden and you say, ah, this too has ultimate meaning, if life was only for this it would be meaningful. I could die and it would be enough somehow.

But then that too opens a door, you say to yourself, I have this home, I have this garden, I could share it, a relationship can be had there, I can give it as a gift to the one that I love. Who can I bring in to this home and garden that I can relate to and love?

God did it for man when He invited us into the garden and asked us to partake of all these wonderful fruits; we do it when we marry and share the bounty of our lives with a spouse, with our family. If I do this, I've achieved a third great thing in life that seems to give life ultimate meaning; a relationship with the one that I love in the place that I built just for them.

Each alone feels meaningful enough to cheat death, but their true meaning lies in the progression of all three; one leads to two which leads to three. And in three – in these loving relationships – we find ultimate meaning. It's true with people and we build a home and a garden and we share with others; our wife, our family, our guests, and it's true with God.

We here on this earth, we try to build a home for God, we do it collectively through this thing called the Mishkan – the Tabernacle, the Temple – we build that and make a home. Then, we invite God in to inhabit it, so we can be there connected with the one that we love.

These three things really are the grand ends in and of themselves through which we human beings find a reason to be alive and the mechanism of cheating death. Building, planting, and above all, relating.

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