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Parshas Terumah (5773)

The Torah Army

By Rabbi David Zauderer

One of the big stories that everyone in Israel is talking (fighting?) about these days is the issue of drafting chareidi (so-called “ultra-orthodox”) Yeshiva (rabbinical) students into the army. Whereas most Israelis are conscripted into the army at 18 years of age, it has been the “status quo” since the establishment of the state in 1948 for those who are studying Torah full-time in Yeshivos to receive an exemption from serving in the army.

Over the years – and especially after the most recent Israeli elections in which some of the candidates ran on a platform to get rid of this exemption once and for all and to force Yeshiva students into the army – the controversy around the Yeshiva students’ deferral from army service has been brewing and causing lots of tension between religious and secular Israelis in an already tension-filled society. [Click here to read an in-depth treatment of this issue from a Halachic perspective]

I would like to share with you one idea that relates to this week’s Torah portion and that will hopefully give you a better understanding as to why some “religious” Jews would allow their fellow Jews to go into the army and endanger their lives while they sit safely and comfortably in their Yeshivos studying Talmud all day.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Terumah, the Jewish people are commanded to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, for G-d’s Divine presence to dwell in. The most important vessel that they built was the Aron, the Holy Ark, in which were placed the Two Tablets of Testimony (upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments) and a Torah scroll. The Aron represented the Torah and G-d’s absolute values that the Jewish people are meant to live by and which is to be the focal point of their lives.

The Aron was placed into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber in the Tabernacle, and there it remained all through the Jewish people’s 40-year journey through the desert until they reached the Land of Israel. Many years later, the Holy Temple was built by King Solomon on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Aron was again placed inside the Holy of Holies, there to remain as a focal point for the Jewish people. The First Temple stood for 410 years and then, due to the Jews’ many sins and their turning away from the Torah, Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylonia, destroyed the Temple and exiled all the Jews to Babylon.

We find a fascinating passage in the Talmud in Yoma 69b which discusses the Anshei Kenesses HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly” - a group of great Jewish prophets and Torah scholars who led the Jewish people in the period following the destruction of the First Temple – and how they got their name:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why were they called the Men of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the Divine attributes to its ancient glory. [They restored to the Shemoneh Esrei, the Silent Prayer, the Divine attributes of ‘might’ and ‘awesomeness’ that Jeremiah and Daniel had omitted.] For Moses had come and said, “He is the great, mighty and awesome G-d” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Then Jeremiah came and demurred, saying: Heathens are carousing in His Sanctuary! So where are His ‘awesome’ deeds? Thus Jeremiah left out the attribute “the Awesome” [he prayed, “O great and mighty G-d” (Jeremiah 32:17).] Daniel came and objected, saying: Heathens are enslaving His children! So where are His ‘mighty’ deeds? Thus Daniel omitted the attribute of “Mighty”. [He prayed: “O L-ord, great and awesome G-d” (Daniel 9:4).] But the Men of the Great Assembly came and said: On the contrary! These are the very things that demonstrate His might and His awesomeness. They demonstrate his ‘might’ in that he suppresses His wrath [for the many years that the nations oppressed the Jewish people], and He is slow to show His anger toward the wicked [who are persecuting the Jews]. They demonstrate His ‘awesomeness’ for if it had not been for the nations’ awe of G-d, how could one small people survive among so many nations [who seek to destroy them]?

The mystics teach that the source of the awe that the nations have which protects Israel from them emanates from the Aron, the Holy Ark which is in the Holy of Holies. In fact, the Hebrew word for ‘awe’ is Nora, which has the exact same letters as Aron, but in reverse.

Now this awe can be felt when the Jewish people have an Aron and a Holy Temple among them. When the Second Temple was built, however, the Aron had already been hidden and all that there was in the Holy of Holies was the Even Shesiyah, the Foundation Stone. And all the years since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and exiled the Jewish people from our homeland we have not had an Aron among us to protect us. So what, you might ask, is protecting Israel today from all the mighty nations that surround it and who seek its destruction?

The answer is that it is not the physical Aron itself that protects the Jewish people from the nations around it, but rather it is the study of the Torah and the Halachah (Jewish Law) that the Aron represents that shields us from all harm. As the Talmud teaches in Makkos 10a: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of the passage, “Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalms 122:2)? It means: How were we able to withstand our enemies in war? Because within the gates of Jerusalem the scholars were engaged in Torah study.

We find an additional Talmudic passage which teaches that the greatest way to protect the Jewish people from its many enemies is through the study of Torah. The Talmud in Megillah 16b teaches that after Mordechai (and Esther) saved the Jewish people from total annihilation at the hands of the wicked Haman, many great members of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish High Court) distanced themselves from him. Rabbi Yosef said that [we learn from the Sanhedrin’s actions that] “learning Torah is greater than saving lives.” And the commentators explain that even though Mordechai had an obligation and a mitzvah to close his book of Talmud and to go and save the Jewish people, had he been greater, someone else would have gone to save them in his place and he would have been able to continue learning Torah and saving the Jewish people in the greatest way possible, through the study of G-d’s Torah, which instills an awe and a fear in the nations around us like no gun or missile can.

So it turns out that a young man studying Torah in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem is actually part of a “Torah Army” which is protecting his fellow Jews out there on the front with the most potent shield and armor– the power of our Holy Torah – and the awe that it generates.

Of course, we need an army to protect us as well, since we are not allowed to rely on miracles. But let’s not forget that just as there are many different jobs in the army, some of which are very dangerous, like being out there on the front lines, and some of which are not dangerous at all like the guys manning the radar in some building in Tel Aviv – but all of which are necessary and vital in maintaining national security – so, too, do we need to have constant Torah study if we hope to be fully protected at all times.

It is likely that many people reading this may get angry – and even vehemently disagree with this whole idea that “Torah protect us more than the army does” – but at least we can hear out the other side – which is a good first step.

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