2 Elul 5780

August 21, 2020

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), records that before going out to battle, the Israelite troops would gather together to hear from their leaders. The generals would give the orders, and then a cultic priest would step forward and bless the assembled soldiers. He would say to them:

“Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your heart falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Adonai your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory” (20:3-4).

For all of recorded human history, one of the functions of religious leaders has been to give sacred sanction to warfare. Clergy of all varieties have inspired people to fight, and often to die, on behalf of their nation or their God. Sermons like the one presented in Deuteronomy were meant to stiffen spines and harden hearts, to inspire bravery in battle and reassure the troops that victory is inevitable because they fight “with God on their side.”

A unique 19th century Torah commentator, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), also known as the Netziv, wrote his commentary to the Torah,  Haemek ha-Dvar (“The Depths of the Word”).  He was known for his alternative re-readings of the text. Writing on this passage, the Netziv adds his incredible spin on the line, “Do not let your heart falter” (20:3). He says: “Do not let your heart falter… to cause you to do wrong to your enemies, after they fall into your hands.”

In an instant, the priest’s role is transformed from exhorting the troops to be fearless in battle, to warning them of the moral pitfalls of unchecked aggression. Warfare, even in the most justified of circumstances, is always an ethically fraught undertaking. Religion’s proper role in it, the Netziv says, is to teach responsibility and restraint rather than inspire brutality. We all have battles to be fought, some literal and some metaphorical, and in all cases, it is incumbent upon us not to lose our humanity in the process, lest we become exactly what we are fighting against.

Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days, during which this portion is read, is a period of deep self-reflection. In it, we are invited to examine our actions, our motivations, and our shortcomings. We are cautioned to check in with ourselves to ensure that we are listening to the better angels of our nature.

The Netziv’s re-reading of this portion is a powerful example of the inner work that we are called to do during this time. He teaches us that even when it appears that right thing to do is to harden our heart, we are to remember that that is the way of Pharaoh, not the way of holiness. Our job is to keep our hearts open and flexible, to fight our battles but not lose our compassion, to do what the moment demands without succumbing to the temptation to abandon our values. That’s how we enter into this time of transformation. That’s what it means to keep our heart from faltering.