“A troop will troop forth from Gad, and he will troop back on his tracks.” (Bereishit 49:19, translation according to Rashi’s commentary)

This is the brief blessing that Yaakov gave his son, Gad, when he blessed all of his sons moments before his passing. In Hebrew, the blessing is somewhat of a tongue-twister and a wonderful example of onomatopoeia, where most of the phrase is a play on the word “Gad”: Gad g’dud y’gudenu v’hu yagud akeiv. Rashi, citing the great grammarian, Menachem ibn Sarouk (Spain, 10th century), notes that the root of the words in the blessing is g’dud, which means a troop of soldiers. This is reference to the military prowess of Gad and to the commitment they made to Moshe at the end of the book of Bamidbar. There (chapter 32), the Torah relates that the tribes of Reuben and Gad came to Moshe with a request: they wanted to take the conquered land east of the Jordan, formerly inhabited by the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, as their ancestral homeland. Moshe was scandalised by their request, saying to them (verses 6-9), “Will your brethren go to the war, and you will sit here? And why will you dishearten the children of Israel from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them? So did your fathers when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land.”  Moshe feared a repeat of the episode of the spies who, some 38 years earlier, had returned from their reconnaissance of Canaan with a negative report, demoralising the Israelites and convincing them they were unable to conquer the land.  If it became known that two tribes were unwilling to join the Jewish army in its conquest of Canaan, the entire nation could lose heart.    

It soon became clear, however, that this had never been the intention of Reuben and Gad. On the contrary, they were prepared to go at the head of the army (ibid, verses 16-19), “They approached him [Moshe] and said:  We will build sheep enclosures for our livestock here [east of the Jordan] and cities for our children.  And we will swiftly set out as a vanguard before the children of Israel, until we have taken them to their place, our children shall live in the fortified cities due to the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has inherited his inheritance as we will not inherit with them across the Jordan and beyond, as our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan.” A deal was struck with the two tribes and Moshe communicated the terms to Joshua, his successor; Elazar, the Cohen Gadol, and the heads of the tribes so that they would enforce the deal when the time came. Reuben and Gad made good on their word, as it states in the book of Joshua regarding the siege of Jericho (6:13), “And the armed troop went before them…” In fact, the two tribes went beyond the call of duty. Moshe demanded only that they stay until Canaan was conquered, yet they remained in the county until the land was divided among the tribes (Rashi on Bamidbar 32:24).

The soldiers of Gad were fierce warriors as is evident from the blessing Moshe gave them before his passing (Devarim 33:20-21), “And of Gad he said: Blessed is He who expands Gad. Like a lion he rests and mauls the arm, even the top of the head. He saw the first for himself, as there the plot of the lawgiver is hidden. He brings the heads of the people. He performed the righteousness of the Lord and His ordinances with Israel.”   Rashi explains this cryptic passage: “Blessed is He who expands Gad”: The territory of Gad extended far to the east; “Like a lion he rests”: because they dwelt close to the border, they are compared to lions as whoever lives on the border must be a fierce warrior; “He mauls the arm, even the top of the head”: the corpses that were slain by Gad were easily recognisable because they would sever the head and arm of their enemy in a single stroke; “He saw the first for himself”: they desired to take their portion in the former lands of Sichon and Og, the first territory conquered by the Israelites; “as there the plot of the lawgiver is hidden”: they knew that in that territory Moshe would be buried in a grave that is hidden from everyone; “He brings the head of the people”: they went out in the vanguard in the conquest of the land because they were powerful warriors; “He performed the righteousness of the Lord”: they made good on their word and kept their promise to cross the Jordan until the land was conquered and divided.

There are people, both Jewish and gentile, who struggle with the concept of Jewish soldiers and warriors.  Their perception of a Jew is of a studious pacifist, harking back to the verse (Bereishit 26:27), “The lads grew.  Esau was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field. And Yaakov was a guileless man, living in tents.” Esau carries a bow and arrow and Yaakov, a large book. This impression of the dovish Jew is a result of almost two millennia of exile. For close to two thousand years, Jews did not have a sovereign state or any of the trappings of such a state, including an army. They were subjects of foreign powers and were often confined to certain areas of ghettos. In many places, they were forbidden to bear arms, but this was not the case in the Biblical era or the era of the Second Temple. The Tanach is full of mighty warriors: Moshe, Pinchas, Joshua, Yiptach, Gideon, Samson, Barak, Ehud,  Saul, David, Yoav and many others. Even Avraham, who is always associated with benevolence, was a brave fighter who led a small army of 318 soldiers into battle against the four eastern kings to rescue his nephew, Lot. In the Second Temple period and soon after its destruction, the Jewish people saw the rise of the Maccabees, who fought against Greece and Shimon Bar Chochba (2nd century CE) who took on the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The book of Devarim has many passages relating to the laws of war and the Mishna discusses war in detail, including the question of whether weapons may be worn on Shabbat.

With the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish people found themselves in a new reality, one that had not existed for centuries. They now had a sovereign state they needed to protect. Hence, the Israeli Defence Force was created from the remnants of former groups such as the Hagana and the Irgun. War raises hundreds of questions of Jewish Law in many areas including Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, ethics, medical issues etc. For the chaplains of the fledgling army, it was no easy task to provide halachic guidance because, unlike other areas of Jewish Law, there was little precedent literature on the subject for the reasons stated above.  The Shulchan Aruch is almost completely silent on the topic. Only Rambam, who codified all of Jewish law, has a section on war in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah. Rabbi Goren, the first Chief Rabbi of the IDF (1948-1968), wrote extensively on the topic and even composed a special version of the siddur for the army that could be used by Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. I have, in my library, a small volume called Hilchot Tzvah (published 1986), the Laws of the Army by Rabbi Zechariah Ben-Shlomo. It covers topics as diverse as an eruv in a military camp; handling a weapon on Shabbat; dealing with looted property and how to read the Megillah on Purim in the middle of the war. More recently, the celebrated scholar Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon published a two-volume work on the laws of war in which he traces every Halacha back to its source.

The Jew is no longer the frightened, puny “yid” cowering in the shtetl. Israel possesses a strong army that is extraordinary not just for its bravery, but for its morality. The fighters of the IDF are living proof that one can be a warrior and an observant, principled Jew at the same time. May Hashem bless all of their endeavours!

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

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