פרשת מטות – Parashat Matot
הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה- Shall your brothers go to war, and shall you sit here?
Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman
The call for military service equality was first heard more than 3,000 years ago, and originated in our nation's leader, Moshe Rabeinu: הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה- Shall your brothers go to war, and shall you sit here?
The background, as well as the story itself, is told in the Sedra of Matot, which we will be reading this Shabbat. The tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe had a lot of cattle and managed to accumulate wealth quickly and in great quantities. When they approach the River Jordan, they see that the area is good for cattle and ask Moshe to refrain from crossing the river together with the rest of the Bnei Israel, on their way to the Promised Land, and instead to remain on the other side of it. A dialogue then emerges between these tribes and Moshe, during which the great prophet reprimands them and says: הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה- Shall your brothers go to war, and shall you sit here?
In response, the tribes both have a request and make a promise. They ask to have fences built for their cattle and cities for their children, and they promise וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל- but we ourselves will go ready armed before the Bnei Israel: we will take part in the campaign to conquer the land. They understood that the act of refraining from contributing to the war efforts and sharing the burden is both immoral and unfair, "Jewishly" speaking.
One of Judaism's key principles is mutual responsibility: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze – we are all responsible for one another. Their request to remain east of the River Jordan constitutes not sharing the burden of equality and running away from responsibility. The tribes cared only for themselves, for their own needs, they saw no one but themselves. Moreover, they only looked after their materialistic interests, their money. Their top priority was to accumulate wealth and possessions, and become wealthier. Even their own children's education was negligent, as can be seen from the request presented to Moshe: גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ- we will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones. They were more concerned with their cattle than with their children's education.
They approached Moshe with their request very politely and respectably: אִם מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ– If it be your will, however, Moshe's response to their request is very harsh. He did not fear that their absence would jeopardize the war efforts, since Hashem had promised they would conquer the land utterly and completely, regardless of the number of troops taking part in the battle. Rather, Moshe feared the moral ramification of an unequal sharing of the burden. It is a reflection of a certain culture – תַּרְבּוּת אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים– a culture of sinful men. This culture focuses on taking care of the individual's needs, of man seeing no one but himself and ignoring the general public. It contradicts one of the most basic Jewish principles – mutual responsibility.
One of the most basic principles of any society, especially under a democratic regime, is equality. Under Israel's geopolitical and security constraints, inequality is not only anti-moral and shows a lack of mutual responsibility, but also creates a situation whereby one carries the burden more than the other. Therefore the call and demand for equal sharing of the burden is extremely justified.
On a more personal note, more than 40 years ago I had the honor of being one of the first to attend Yeshivat Hesder Yeshivat Hakotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. Yeshivot Hesder had only just begun to emerge, and Yeshivat Hakotel was the third one established. The network now has dozens of Yeshivot Hesder and pre-military programs, sending thousands to the army each recruiting round. They prove de facto that סִפְרָא וְסַייפָא יָרְדוּ כרוּכִים מִן הַֹשָּמַיִם– the book and the sword came down from heaven intertwined, supporting the words of King David:
הַמְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַקְרָב אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי לַמִּלְחָמָה - who teaches my hands to war and my fingers to fight. I had the honor and privilege of being part of a tank team in the armored corps, and, among other battles, fought in the Yom Kippur War, and was severely injured.
Let me underscore that the Torah is the highest of values for the Jewish People, it is the foundation of our very existence and the origin of all authority, and all agree that a limited number of Yeshiva learners should be allowed to devote themselves to Torah study and be a "Torah elite unit". But the rest must do their share and take part in the efforts to restore security. They must echo the words of Moshe Rabeinu. For Israel has both moments of glory and hardships, and the security burden is unbearable. But the process is a gradual one, both on the public diplomacy front and in practice, and we must be very careful when changing the status quo that has been maintained for more than 60 years. Nothing can be achieved forcefully, and coercion is futile, for though the process and change are essential, they must be carried out through open, respectable discourse, as the Book of proverbs says: דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם– its ways are ways of pleasantness.
Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman is a member of the World Zionist Organization and head of its Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora.