May 26, 2019

Table for Five: Shoftim

Weekly Parsha: One Verse, Five Voices
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his. (Deuteronomy 20:8)

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
Writer, Lecturer, Professor, American Jewish University
On the eve of battle, most soldiers are afraid, fearful of death or injury, fearful also that they will run, uncertain that they are prepared to kill. Rabbi Akiva, who is usually the most fanciful of rabbis — the one so given to interpretation that he meditates on the crowns of letters — understands this verse quite simply: It says what it means. The man is afraid that he cannot withstand the rigors of war, a sword hanging over his head.

The Hebrew is intriguing — “soft of heart” is the way that Everett Fox translates it; Robert Alter interprets it as “faint of heart.”

The Torah understands that fear is contagious and demoralizing for an army. And from time immemorial, military commanders have understood that military recruits must be toughened by training, by the harshness of their conditions. 

The soft-hearted can be dangerous in battle, perhaps even more dangerous on the eve of battle when fears permeate the air. The characteristics so important and so admired in civilian life may endanger a military mission. 

One must not give in to that softness and flee, and yet we dare not have a hard-hearted military. 

For everything there is a time; there is a time for softness and a time for toughness. Perhaps also a time for both.

Cantor Michelle Stone
Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
Is it undignified to be afraid? Fear is often treated as a sign of weakness. As a result, some commentators sought alternative ways to interpret “afraid and disheartened.” But Rabbi Akiva explains that the verse means what it says: This person is afraid to fight in battle and should therefore go home. But this doesn’t absolve him of his responsibility. Chizkuni, the 13th century French commentator, adds that he still must provide supplies to the front. 

The message is clear: We must take the time to really know ourselves. Not everyone is cut out for combat, but every person who supports the front line is an essential component of its success. We all strive to be positive contributors to our communities and our society. We are most successful when we choose roles that best suit our strengths and minimize our deficiencies. 

We are about to enter the month of Elul, the time of year when we engage in heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul. This is a good time not only to take stock of our actions over the past year, but also to get to know ourselves better; to ask ourselves critical questions: What do I do best? What do I have to offer? What am I not well-suited for? So, no, it is not undignified to be afraid. We bring dignity to ourselves and others when we take the time to figure out where and how we can be most beneficial to the greater good.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
Recently, Avraham Perlmutter came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and shared his story of how he survived the Holocaust, chronicled in his new memoir, “Determined.” He was asked: What gave you the courage to keep going, after hiding in a hole in the ground, dodging bullets and skirting death time and time again? 

He explained that he had been a “wild child” who tended to sneak out and run away from his teacher and baby sitter. This instinct to flee served him well when he was captured by the Nazis and always managed to escape. He also noted that since he was raised religious, he believed God was watching over him and that he would survive. 

The verses from this week’s Torah portion show the danger of becoming disheartened. One soldier’s anxiety can spread to others and cause despair. During war, losing hope can lead to losing one’s life. 

Surely, fear is a contagious disease. Anxiety about the unknown can spread from one person to another and build over time. 

Yet, as terror is contagious, so too is hope. Perhaps by listening to the stories of those far braver than ourselves, we can catch a smidgen of their courage and their faith. To hear survivors’ stories, visit

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Hospice Chaplain
Breishit to Devarim: growth. In Genesis, God asks Adam, “Aayeka,” (“Where are you?”) What was the actual question? “Adam, [what] were you thinking?” or “Whom, my beloved creation, have you become?”

By Shoftim, God knows what we might, or might not, be capable of. Considering would-be soldiers, She reveals deep know-ledge of us: the need for dispensation. Our ancestors stand on the threshold of a holy war, and suddenly an exemption: “If your heart isn’t in it, please stay home.” 

Rashi cites Rabbi Akiva describing soldiers who “can’t even stomach the sight of an unsheathed sword.” God no longer asks where we are; She knows and meets us there. By Shoftim, God knows that the Law is not only black fire and white fire; with us, there is going to be gray. This holy wisdom mandates “cities of refuge.” We are going to err. It’s going to get messy. There are consequences, but also safety, for those whose fate would otherwise be spiraling toward reprisal or payback. 

In Parashat Noach, God’s solution is extreme, almost instantly regretted. By Shoftim, we and God have learned that mutual vulnerability and acknowledgment of limitations is essential for trust and safe love. 

The partnership will fray at times. In Lamentations, “ayeka” morphs into “eicha.” We do the asking of God: “How?” How can this be happening? At times, it will exceed our fantasies; hear the delighted Omniscient One in Bava Metzia 59b: “My children have surpassed me, my children have surpassed me!”

Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
The Chai Center
When I was 17 years old, my father, Schwartzie, pulled me aside and said, “Mendel, you’ll be graduating high school at the end of this year, and I want you to leave Los Angeles, away from home, and study in a yeshiva.” He suggested the yeshiva in Paris. The truth is, I was playing hooky throughout my high school years, dodging Talmud classes for matinees at the theaters. 

So I enrolled in the yeshiva. This place was a monastery. High gates, electricity that went off at 9:30 p.m., water valves that were closed at 10 p.m. (no more showers at this hour, no lights). All I was able to think of for the first eight weeks in this yeshiva is when can I get back to Venice Beach? Eventually, I adapted, and I spent two years there. My father was pleased. I am the person I am today — married with six kids, leading a congregation of 3,000 people — as a result of that critical move when I was 17. 

Now it is my son turning 17. He leaves this week to a Mechina IDF program in the Golan Heights to prepare for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). If Ari was fearful or fainthearted, the Bible forbids him to fight (Deuteronomy 20:8). The IDF needs strong and brave men and women. The boys and girls who want to study in a yeshiva or seminary, let them be “lest they melt the heart of others.” They serve in other ways. 

Israel, her army and the Torah continue to be the beacon of light, hope and driving force for the Jewish people.