Parshat Shoftim is in the middle of Moshe Rabbeinu’s main speech to Bnei Yisrael. In this speech, Moshe discusses many of the laws of how to govern the people. He also talks about punishments and rules regarding war. These rules include who is exempt from war and how enemies should be treated. The Torah says that if we are at war and capture a city, everything in that city may be plundered, and the women and children may even be taken captive and enslaved.
The Parsha goes on to mention three very interesting things. First, when Bnei Yisrael are at war they are not permitted to cut down fruit trees, because fruit trees provide food for them. Second, if a man dies in a middle of a field, the Sanhedrin is supposed to investigate the matter. Third, the Torah exempts a man from army service if he has a new wife, vineyard, house, or even if they are scared. How can the Torah have so much compassion over a tree, one dead man, and men’s feelings and at the same time allow us to go into a city and capture and enslave women and children?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that really we can not take just any woman and child. The Torah is teaching us that only when the women and children take an active role in attempting to harm Jews we need not have pity on them. Peace loving, gentle women and children must be left alone.
This teaches us an important lesson in kindness. It is essential to know where compassion is appropriate and where it is misplaced. Chazal (see Yoma 22b) tell us that anyone who takes pity on the cruel ends up being cruel to the merciful. We must evaluate each situation carefully so that we do not allow those who seek our harm to remain free.