“Who is the man, fearful and faint-hearted . . .
And the officers shall continue” (Dt.20:5-8).
Why do [the officers] go into such detail
[regarding exemptions from war]?
So that the cities of Israel are not abandoned
[for lack of men to inhabit them].
In the words of Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai:
Come and see!
How the All-Present [is careful]
to spare the feelings of His creatures
who are fearful and faint-hearted!
When [the fearful soldier] is furloughed,
the other troops will wonder:
Perhaps he has built a new house?
Perhaps he has planted a vineyard?
Perhaps he has betrothed a woman?
Moreover, soldiers had to
supply proof [of their circumstances],
except for the fearful and faint-hearted,
whose proof is his nature.
At the sound of clashing shields—he recoils;
At the sound of horses neighing—he trembles;
At the sound of the trumpets—he panics;
he sees swords unsheathed,
and he wets himself! 2
“And he said to them: Listen Israel!
This day you are nearing the battle against your enemies” (Dt.20:3)—
but not against your brothers!
This is not like Judah fighting Shimon,
or like Shimon fighting Judah.
For if one fell into the hands of the other,
he would show him mercy,
in line with what is said
[regarding the tribe of Benjamin]:
“Why, HASHEM God of Israel, has it come to this in Israel?” (Jud.21:3)—
and they relented and returned the tribe
to its territory.
Now, such mercy was not the rule,
as it is stated [regarding the civil war
in the reign of King Ahaz]:
“And now, you aim to turn he people of Judah and natives of Jerusalem
into your slaves and slave-girls!” (2Chron.28:1).
Yet, further on, it is said:
“Then the men named above took the captives in hand,
and clothed their naked with the spoils.
They clothed them, shod them, fed them, gave them drink, anointed them,
and provided asses to carry all the crippled,
bringing them near to their brothers—
to Jericho, the city of date-palms.
And then they returned to Samaria” (2Chron.28:15).
But, now, you are going to battle
who will show you no mercy,
should you fall into their hands!3
“Do not grow faint-hearted ,do not fear, do not panic, and do not dread them” (Dt.20:3).
“Do not grow faint-hearted”—at the neighing of the horses;
“do not fear”—the clashing of the shields
or the stamping of their jack-boots;
“do not panic”—at the blast of the trumpet;
“and do not dread”—the roar of the battle cry.4
These correspond to the four strategies [of intimidation]
employed by the nations of the world:
clashing of shields; blasting of trumpets; battle cries; and stamping of boots.
“But HASHEM your God is marching with you” (Dt.20:4)—
they join the battle
trusting in the victory of flesh and blood,
but you join the battle
trusting in the victory of the All-Present. 5