When our ancestors would mobilize their forces for war, they were addressed by a high ranking priest. First he would offer brave words of encouragement and confident predictions of victory. “Let your heart not be faint; do not fear the enemy nor enter into panic and do not be terrified for G‑d will vanquish your enemy for you.”

The military officers would then announce: “Any man who has built a home, but has yet lived in it... planted a vineyard, but has yet to render it fit for use... betrothed a woman, but has not yet married her... should return home, lest he die in war....” (Deuteronomy 20)

This is an astounding time for such announcements. The priest has just bolstered the morale of the troops and the officers; yet now, it seems, he proceeds to demoralize them by thinning their ranks!

(There are a number of explanations that are offered by the commentaries for these announcements. Ibn Ezra1 argues that this was strategically wise. Men with such concerns on their mind will worry about their affairs at home and will be unable to keep their mind on the battle. Filling their ranks with such unmotivated troops would weaken the military and undermine their prospects for victory. Abarbanel2 argues that since these men did not have opportunity to fulfill the respective mitzvot associated with their endeavor (the house builder has yet to build his parapet, the vineyard planter has yet to offer the priestly gifts and the betrothed has yet to sire children) they would not merit the miracles required for victory.)

Protecting a Way of Life

The Talmud remarks that the order of these announcement reflect the proper conduct of life: First we ought to build a home, then plant a vineyard, or establish alternative sources of income, and only then should we marry.3 This remark indicates that our sages viewed these three announcements as a reflection on the ordinary routine of life.4

Why does an army go to war? To protect its national interest. What is a nation's primary interest? It's citizens' unhindered pursuit of life's ordinary routine. When an enemy threatens the ordinary pursuit of day to day life, the nation's very fabric is undermined.

In this way, perhaps we can explain the priest's public announcement of these exemptions from battle immediately following his words of encouragement. The troops were reminded of their exalted purpose. Why are we going to war? To enable our comrades to pursue the normal routine of life. So they can build homes, plant vineyards, and establish families.

The troops that were sent home knew that they were entitled to recuse themselves from military draft, but they came anyway. How could they not come? They could not sit home while their brothers fought for their country. It was not easy for them to abandon their brothers and go home.

Yet they were told to do just that. These soldiers, with their departure, validated their comrades' efforts on the battlefields. If they went to war, their comrades would die in vain.

Modern Application

When the enemies of Israel threaten our cities with rockets, when they threaten our lives with suicide bombers, when they send our citizens to bomb shelters and destroy our way of life, the nation is justified in going to war.

No argument can justify a cease fire that does not achieve the goals for which the nation set out to war. If our soldiers are not safe, if our borders are still violated and if our cities are still under attack then our war is not over.

We mourn the loss of innocent lives on all sides, our Torah ethic demand it. We pursue the war with a vengeance, till peace can be restored, our Torah ethic demands that too. We do not seek a peace that will lead to another war. We seek a war that will lead to a lasting peace. This is the unfortunate reality fostered upon us by our enemy.

We must embrace life. But if victory is not achieved, then those who have sacrificed their life will have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

Fear Nothing, but Sin

Just before the army embarked for war, one last announcement was made. “He who is fearful and fainthearted should return home, lest he melt his brothers' heart as well.” There are those who fear the consequences of war, but such fear is intolerable in war. The Torah instructs us to keep such fears silent, lest they melt the hearts of the brave.

According to one of our sages this announcement was directed to sinners. An enemy that G‑d promised to vanquish need only be feared if we were made unworthy by sin.5

Israel's destiny is in G‑d's hands. We have no reason to fear our enemy, but we do have reason to fear our own sins. If we fear the odds in this war it is because we are not worthy of G‑d's miracle. The obvious antidote is repentance.

This time of year is conducive to repentance. So let us repent this year not only for ourselves, but for our entire nation.