Parashat Shoftim: What does a calf have to do with the laws of war?

The conquest and settlement of the land involved many challenges, and the Torah prepared the people of Israel accordingly. We aspire to uphold our morality and holiness even when at war.

Rabbi David Brofsky is a ra’m in Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program

Parshat Shoftim deals with many challenges that the nation of Israel would face as they entered the land. They would need to settle it, set up a judiciary and law enforcement system (with judges and officers), establish their spiritual leadership (priests and Levites), and, some time later, perhaps even crown a king. The Torah describes different types of transgressions, both spiritual and civil in nature, with which these systems would need to contend. One of the main challenges facing the nation was the conquest of the land, so the Torah discusses how soldiers were recruited (and who was granted an exemption from participating in combat), how wars are to be waged, and how the enemy is to be treated.

Toward the end of the parsha and in the following parsha, Ki Tetzei, we encounter several other war-related commandments. A verse at the end of chapter 20 states as follows: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees…” (Deuteronomy 20, 19).  The Torah forbids us from chopping down trees during a war. At the beginning of the next parsha, the commandment of eshet yefat to’ar (ibid. 21, 10-14) appears, and this provides us with the legal framework for the taking of enemy women as hostages.

The Torah is aware of the spiritual danger inherent in going to war, even if it is a justified and necessary war. Soldiers can forget about the world outside of the battlefield, and its moral and Torah values. They can become desensitized to the importance of the land, “…for is the tree of the field a man?” (ibid. 20, 19). Soldiers can also forget that the use of force is only meant against enemies in battle, and not to satisfy their sexual urges.

Another episode appears between these two: the decapitated calf. The Torah tells us about a case when a dead person’s body is found between two towns, and how the elders of both towns must participate in a ceremony in which they declare:

Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done… and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel and they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of Hashem.

(Deuteronomy 20, 7-8)

The commentators grappled to understand what this ceremony is meant to achieve. Equally puzzling is the decision to discuss this law in the middle of a discussion on the laws of war, between the prohibition of destroying trees in the battlefield and the laws regarding female captives.

In fact, the Torah is expressing another concern – that the experience of fighting in a war could cause soldiers and the general public to undervalue human life, and perhaps even cause them to admire forceful and violent conduct. The laws of the decapitated calf, which illustrate the importance of the life of a single and perhaps anonymous individual, who may have come from afar, and may not even have been Jewish, are designed to stress the value of every human life, and of life in general. They also serve as a warning, cautioning us that wars can harm the nation’s soul (for more on this, please read the late Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky’s introduction to his famous book, Gesher Hachaim – “The Bridge of Life”, as well as the writings of my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory).

In the next parsha, the Torah raises the bar, demanding that “our camp should be holy” (ibid. 23, 15). The need to conquer and fight is justified, it’s the right thing to do, and it doesn’t contradict the Jewish people’s basic purpose: to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19,6), a nation that behaves ethically and in a holy way, and constantly aspires to do so.


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