Know Thy Enemy by Benjy Koslowe


Parashat Shofetim is a very rich Parashah, filled with 41 Mitzvot, according to the Sefer HaChinuch. These include classics such as the commandment to appoint a king for Israel, the commandment to designate Arei Miklat (refuge cities), and the commandment to not steal someone’s property by sneakily moving land boundaries. Many of the Mitzvot in Shofetim are simple to understand, and many are more difficult and complex in nature. We shall focus on the Mitzvot regarding war, found near the end of the Parashah, and a specific Halachah near the beginning of the section that can easily be overlooked.

There are essentially five Mitzvot in this Perek concerning war: To not panic or retreat during battle (Devarim 20:3); to appoint officers to speak with the soldiers during war (20:5); to offer peace (20:10); to not let anyone from the seven Kena’ani nations live (20:16); and to not destroy fruit trees, even during a siege (20:19). However, the first Pasuk of this Perek hides an important Halachah. The Pasuk states, “Ki Teitzei LaMilchamah Al Oyevecha VeRa’ita Sus VaRechev Am Rav MiMecha Lo Tira MeiHem Ki Hashem Elokecha Imach HaMa’alcha MeiEretz Mitzrayim,” “When you go out to battle against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot – a people more numerous than you – you shall not fear them; for Hashem, your God, is with you, [He] who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (20:1). This Pasuk is very reassuring, and quickly leads into the first Mitzvah of this section, namely, to not panic or retreat during battle. The question is, though, why does the Torah bother telling us “Al Oyevecha,” “Against your enemy”? Isn’t it obvious that if we are going to war, it will be against an enemy of ours?

Not many Rishonim comment on this, but thankfully, Rashi does. Rashi (ad loc. s.v. “Al Oyevecha”) explains that when we are fighting in a war, the opponents should be like enemies in our eyes. We shouldn’t have mercy on them, because they will not have mercy on us. At first glance, Rashi’s answer might not seem to add so much to what we already know. In wars we fight enemies, and it is obvious that they won’t have mercy on us. Even with Rashi’s explanation, is it really necessary for the Torah to tell this to us?

Perhaps, though, Rashi (as well as the Midrash that he quotes) is teaching us an extremely important lesson. In certain wars, keeping in mind that the enemy won’t have mercy on Bnei Yisrael is easy. For example, when the Jews are pursued by the Mitzrim at the Yam Suf, it is clear that Par’oh and his men are intent on killing the Jewish people. However, this is not as obvious in other Milchemot Hashem, wars that we fight for Hashem. In Shmuel Alef (Perek 15), Sha’ul is the king of Israel, and Hashem commands him to completely wipe out the nation of Amaleik. Sha’ul mostly follows God’s command, killing the people, but he spares the king Agag and many of the animals (Shmuel I 15:9). Shmuel the Navi quickly fixes Sha’ul’s terrible mistake and kills Agag, but this was ultimately too late, and Agag ends up continuing the Amaleiki line, allowing for Resha’im such as Haman to be born. Because of Sha’ul’s overlooking the fact that Amaleik was a powerful enemy, he not only spares one man, but allows the evil nation to rebuild and continue tormenting the Jewish people.

Many centuries later, the Jewish people were challenged with this Halachah in a very extreme way. Unlike the blatant enemies of Mitzrayim and Amaleik, the European Jews of the 1930’s were faced by the Germans. While the Nazis eventually became clear and unparalleled tormentors of the Jewish people, during their early years it was not so obvious that they were enemies. Jews in Germany led very normal lives, and it was hard to believe that the Germans would so quickly transform from friends – at least good neighbors – to absolute adversaries. In this war, the Jews were so unprepared that by the time they saw the Nazis as enemies, it was too late, and millions of Jews were killed, unable to effectively resist.

The Torah warns us to see our enemies for who they are, and time and again this has been crucial for the Jewish people. From the time of the Mitzrim, we have had many enemies, and none of them have had a much mercy upon us. We must stay strong and fight for what we believe in, and while we hope that these situations will never arise, we must be ready to identify our enemies as soon as they do, and eliminate them before they can eliminate us. By staying on guard, the Jewish people will continue to prosper and not only win the wars of Hashem, but keep all of His incredible Mitzvot in their entirety.

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