This week’s Parashah, Parashat Shofetim, devotes a full Perek (Devarim 20:1-20) to describing the preparations that the Jewish army must undergo prior to making battle. To begin preparing for war, a Kohein entreats the people to not be afraid, reminding them that they have Divine aid on their side. The Torah then lists three types of people exempted from fighting: one who has built a house but has not yet lived in it, one who has planted a vineyard but has not yet partaken of its produce, and one who is engaged but not yet married. Why are these people exempt from fighting with the rest of Bnei Yisrael on the battlefield?
Rashi (20:5 s.v. VeIsh Acheir Yachnechenu) believes that the aim of the exemptions is to prevent the particularly tragic outcome that such a person might die without ever having lived in his new house, enjoyed the fruit of his vineyard or lived a married life. Ibn Ezra and Rashbam present a more pragmatic rationale. They believe that a person in one of these situations will not fight wholeheartedly but rather will be thinking of what he left behind. As such, he will be quick to flee, which will lower the overall morale of the army. Each approach can find support in different parts of the text. Rashi's approach seems to be the most straightforward reading of the Pesukim describing the three exemptions (20:5-7), as the reasoning given for each one is “lest they die and not.…” However, the context in which these Pesukim are found favors the approach of Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. The preceding Pesukim (20:3-5) have the Kohein telling the people to not be afraid, and the subsequent Pasuk (20:8) informs us that anyone afraid of battle is also urged to leave and not undermine the war effort. If the rationale for the exemption of those who are afraid is that they might flee the battlefield and thereby “undermine the war effort,” then it would follow that the three special exemptions address the same issue.
The allowance of those who are scared of battle to return home is itself subject to debate. Rashi (20:8) quotes a Machloket from the Gemara (Sotah 44a) as to whom the Torah refers when exempting those who are afraid. Rabi Akiva takes the Pesukim at face value, reasoning that it is not helpful to have members of the army who cannot stomach fighting. However, Rabi Yossi HaGelili understands the fear to be that of the sins that the individuals had previously committed. Interestingly, he further believes that the three aforementioned exemptions are merely meant as a cover for those who have sinned, so that it will not be obvious as to why they are returning from the war. This would seem to be a third approach in explaining the necessity of the three exemptions, namely that they are necessary as a means to prevent embarrassment. Ramban quotes a fascinating Yerushalmi which contends that anyone exempted must prove that he is deserving of being released, except for Rabi Akiva's opinion of those who are afraid, since their fear is self-evident.
The Chizkuni argues that the three categories – one who has built a house, planted a vineyard, or became engaged – serve an additional purpose. Since all three appear as part of Moshe's Tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo, namely that Hashem will punish us by having others live in the houses that we have built, eat from vineyards that we have planted and marry the engaged women (Devarim 28:30), hearing those three images will serve as an impetus to repent before battle.
The various approaches to the exemptions are quite relevant to modern applications of when it is necessary to use force to address a national need, or even a more local or personal need. On the one hand, Ibn Ezra’s and Rashbam's concern for what will pragmatically help one accomplish whatever it is that needs to be done via force has to be a primary consideration. At the same time, we must not sacrifice our religious beliefs and values to accomplish those goals, à la Rabi Yossi HaGelili's concern for the sinner. Lastly, Rashi’s approach reminds us to always be sensitive to the needs of the individual and to the harm that can be inflicted on him. While that concern may not always be feasible as the primary consideration, we should never allow ourselves to become so hardened that we stop taking the suffering of the individual into account. May we be Zocheh to be able to achieve all of our needs and goals in a peaceful manner.