In the 20th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Torah instructs how a Jewish army is to prepare for battle:

When you come near to the battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people. And he should say to them: “Hear, O Israel! You draw near today to wage war upon your enemies; let not your hearts soften, fear not, and do not panic nor break ranks before them. For it is G-d your G-d who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to deliver you.”

And the officers shall address the people, saying: “Is there a man [among you] who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his home, lest he die in battle and another man inaugurate it.

“Is there a man who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed[1] its first crop? Let him go and return to his home, lest he die in battle and another man redeem it.

“Is there a man who has betrothed a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his home, lest he die in battle and another man marry her.”

And the officers shall further address the people, and say: “Is there a man who is afraid and faint of heart? Let him go and return to his home, so that he not melt the hearts of his brothers as his own.”[2]

Righteous Warriors Only

The Talmud cites a disagreement between two sages as to the definition of “a man who is afraid and faint of heart.” According to Rabbi Akiva, “the meaning is as the simple reading of the verse implies: one who cannot stand firm in the joint ranks in battle and see a drawn sword.” Rabbi Yossi of Galilee maintains that the verse is referring to “one who fears because of his sins.”  “Thus,” adds Rabbi Yossi, “the Torah added him on to those who return on account of a [new] home, vineyard or wife—to cover up for he who returns because of his sins.”[3]

Rabbi Yossi’s concluding words also explain the reasoning behind his interpretation. Rabbi Yossi is bothered by the fact that the announcement calling for the fainthearted to go home comes after those regarding a new home, vineyard or wife. Earlier, we read how the priest addressed the troops, enjoining them, “let not your hearts soften, fear not, and do not panic nor break ranks before them”; this would seem the natural place to announce that those who fear battle should go home. Why precede its mention with three completely unrelated subjects? Furthermore, a coward in the ranks presents a far greater problem than the possibility that a solider might fail to return to inaugurate his home, redeem his vineyard or marry his betrothed: the former places many lives, and perhaps the very outcome of the battle, in jeopardy, while the latter only concerns the dimensions of an individual tragedy. For both these reasons, one would expect that the first announcement would concern those who are “afraid and faint of heart,” followed then by the other announcements.

This leads Rabbi Yossi to conclude that the meaning of the verse is other than what a simple reading would imply, namely, that the priest’s assurance that “G-d goes with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to deliver you” surely suffices to allay the fears of any anxious soldier—except for the soldier who fears that he is undeserving of divine protection because of his sins. This is why the announcement regarding the fearful is appended to those regarding a new home, etc.—to cover-up for those who depart because of their sins.

An Oxymoron

Rabbi Akiva, however,  does not accept Rabbi Yossi’s interpretation. Despite the said difficulties, he maintains that the verse should be understood in its most literal sense—as regarding one who fears the roar of battle and the sight of a drawn sword—and rejects the notion that it might be addressed to “one who fears because of his sins.”

Rabbi Akiva’s reasoning can be understood in light of a remarkable law cited in the Talmudic tractate of Kiddushin, which deals with the laws of marriage.

“One who marries a woman on the condition that he is a perfectly righteous man,” rules the Talmud,  “the marriage may be valid even if he is utterly wicked, since it is possible that he had a thought of teshuvah in his mind.”[4]

Such is the power of teshuvah (repentance; lit., “return”). Teshuvah is the ultimate transformation that a human being can undergo—the transformation from a state of rebellion against G-d and disconnection from one’s source of life and the very purpose of one’s existence, to a state of unblemished perfection and union with G-d. Teshuvah consists of three basic elements: a) the cessation of sin; b) the acknowledgment that one has done wrong; and c) the resolve never to repeat it. All three stages, however, are present in a single dynamic: regret. Thus teshuvah can be achieved instantaneously—in a single moment of profound regret.[5]

Rabbi Akiva, who was known for his tendency to focus on what is positive and meritorious in the soul of man,[6] insists that there is no such thing as “one who fears because of his sins,” thus lacking the protection that G-d confers on an army that does battle with the enemies of His people. For if he fears because of his sins, this means that he recognizes that he has done wrong and regrets his deed. Hence, he is no longer a sinner, but a perfectly righteous individual!

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Parshat Shoftim[7] 5727 (1967) and 5729 (1969)[8]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. See Leviticus 19:24.

[2]. Deuteronomy 20:2-8.

[3]. Talmud, Sotah 44a; Rashi on Deuteronomy 20:8.

[4]. Talmud, Kiddushin 49b.

[5]. See stories related in the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 10b, 17a and 18a.

[6]. See Rashi on Talmud, Sanhedrin 110b (section beginning “Shavkei”)

[7]. It is noteworthy that the Torah section of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16-21, which includes the above cited verses) is always read on the first Shabbat in Elul, the month of teshuvah.

[8]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IX, pp. 121-129.


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