In this week’s parsha, there are many laws about what we must do and how we should behave during a war. One of the procedures is that an appointed Cohen would address the army before battle. In his speech, he announces exemptions from battle for certain groups of people, that if they fall under these categories, they can go home:
If you have built a house, but haven’t inaugurated it
If you have planted a vineyard, but haven’t redeemed it in its 4th year
If you have engaged a woman, but haven’t married her
Or if you are fearful
The Gemara discusses a dispute as to what the soldier would be afraid of. Rabbi Akiva says that it refers to the simple understanding, fear of war. Someone who would be afraid when they see the enemy unsheathe their swords, scared of the possibility of injury or death, as well as fear for having to attack and injure the enemy themselves. Whereas Rabbi Yossi Hagelili says that it refers to fear of sin. Someone who has committed a sin, and therefore won’t receive Hashem’s special protection He places over Am Yisrael’s army, and will perish in battle. Hence the Cohen must order these fearful people to go home, otherwise if their fear spreads throughout the army, they will create chaos amongst the troops.
If we analyse the categories of exemption, they seem to fall into two main groups. The first category is tasks that you have put in hard work in order to complete but haven’t benefited from them yet, and the second one is someone who is afraid. This seems very strange because the pesukim mention the reason that we send away the fearful, so they don’t make others scared too. But they don’t present a reason for the other categories’ exemption.
Rashi comments on this and says the only reason they are exempt is to provide a pretext for the fearful to leave, so that when everyone is leaving, no one can determine who is leaving due to having built a house, planted a vineyard, or betrothed a woman, and who is leaving because they are afraid.
This teaches us a tremendous lesson about not embarrassing others. HaShem is trying to tell us that we must go to great lengths not to embarrass others. We must create laws and systems where we always take into account situations that may embarrass people. Even if it will weaken our army by letting troops who could have fought, we must exempt them from war in order to save someone from embarrassment.
The sages teach us in the Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b:
“A Teacher taught: Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said to him: You have spoken well, as we see that after the humiliated person blushes, the red leaves his face and pallor comes in its place, which is tantamount to spilling his blood.”
The sages also teach us from the story of Yehuda and Tamar, that one must be willing to be put to death by fire rather than publicly embarrass his fellow, just like Tamar. (Bava Metziah 59a) We see from this just how serious a sin it is to embarrass someone and how far we must go in order not to embarrass someone.
If we further inspect the Cohen’s message to the troops, we see that he starts off by giving a pep talk, trying to rid the people of any fear they have.
“He shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the LORD your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.’” (Deuteronomy 20: 3-4)
The Cohen’s comfort for the fearful is to trust in HaShem that He will protect you in battle. But if your fear stems from the fact that you have committed a sin and you might not receive Hashem’s protection during the war, then seemingly this won’t ease your concerns.
Rashi comments on the Cohen’s words “Shema Israel”. This refers to the Mitzvah of saying the Shema every day, that as long as you have done this mitzvah, and have accepted HaShem as your G-d and the G-d of the universe, then he will protect you in battle, even if you have done other sins.
As we go through the month of Elul and Rosh HaShanah approaches, we need to introspect our actions. Making sure we are fulfilling the mitzvot between man and man properly can be even harder than fulfilling the mitzvot between man and G-d. We learn from the message of the Cohen that we should make sure that we are careful not to embarrass other people. We should think about how others will feel when planning events and making sure there is a system in place that protects everyone from being embarrassed. But we also need to reach out to other people and make sure they are ok. We shouldn’t wait until someone may become embarrassed and then try to minimise their embarrassment. Rather we should endeavor to make sure everyone feels comfortable in the community and prevent any potential embarrassment from ever occurring. We shouldn’t wait until someone in our community asks for charity, or needs a place to eat or sleep, rather we should try to make sure everyone in the community has everything they need and is doing ok before they ask. If we seek out how we can help the people around us in a kind, friendly manner, hopefully we can make sure everyone’s needs are provided for before they have to ask for help, saving them from this potential embarrassment.
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