Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Shoftim - 5778
NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF
In the second half of Pareshat Shoftim, the Torah addresses several aspects of the nation's conduct when going to war. We are told that a designated Kohen addressed the army before going to battle to encourage the warriors to be brave and not fear the war. The verse continues by noting that an officer added to the words of the Kohen and declared, “Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers' hearts melt like his heart.”
The Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yossi Hagellili regarding the fearful individual referred to in the verse. Rabbi Akiva understood the fear literally, a person who is afraid of war. For Rabbi Yossi Hagellili, on the other hand, the anxiety was not the traditional fear of battle; rather, it is addressing a person who was a sinner, and thus was cognizant of the fact that he was unworthy of the protection of Hashem.
It is very possible that the dispute between these rabbis came about as a result of different viewpoints on a contemporary issue of the second century. When Bar Kochva rebelled against the oppressing Roman Empire, and mobilized a military force, he was backed by very strong support from Rabbi Akiva. For Rabbi Akiva, a Jewish army was not a theoretical concept, but rather an issue that was quite relevant. For Rabbi Akiva, fear of battle was "Halacha L'Maase" (a contemporary halachic issue). Therefore, the verse was understood by its literal meaning, that when a person is afraid, he cannot be present in the battlefield. Rabbi Yossi Hagellili, on the other hand, was not a supporter of the uprising, and therefore viewed a Jewish army as a concept that belongs to the Utopian Messianic era, when only the righteous go to battle, and the victory will be supernatural. Thus, the fear for Rabbi Yossi Hagellili relates to a spiritual condition and not to conventional battlefield anxiety.