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by Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi
Assistant Rabbi, Beth Israel Synagogue
A hot topic in Israeli politics is the issue of the Tal Law, concerning the draft of Yeshiva students into the army. A cartoon printed in the July 20th edition of the press depicted the “then and now” of Torah students entitled to defer their draft. In the early days of the State of Israel there were not too many young men who dedicated their days to the study of Torah. Now the number is well into the tens of thousands and this has long rankled the sensibilities of other segments of society who themselves served in the military and whose kids continue to risk their lives to protect their fellow countrymen. It just doesn’t seem fair that the burden of the country’s security falls upon the shoulders of the secular, traditional, religious Zionists – everyone except for those hareidim, the ultra-Orthodox who deem Torah study a supreme value and insist that their young men devote the prime years of their lives to immerse in its study. We have been hearing the protests of the Israeli left about this for decades now, and finally the Supreme Court has ruled that the Tal Law is not legal.
I don’t speak for anybody, on any side of this issue. However, no one can claim entitlement to an opinion or a judgment about another person (and certainly a whole group of people) without being well educated on the issue as well as knowing the people involved. Has anybody asked these people why they feel justified in leaving the security of the country to others? Is this another case like that of George Zimmerman, where everyone pounces upon the defendant, rushing to conclusions without waiting to hear the facts? Will the defendant please stand up?
In Parshat Matot, read recently in Synagogues on Saturday, July 21st, Moses is charged with waging a battle against Midian. Moses orders the tribes to send troops: “A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the legion.” (Numbers 31:4)
The following verse tallies the number of troops sent, which, as expected, amounts to 12,000. However, numerous commentaries, notably the Baal Haturim, submit that there were actually 24,000 troops – two thousand per tribe. When the verse states, “a thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe,” this indicates that each tribe sent a thousand and another thousand troops. How then, do they explain the following verse, which clearly states the total number of troops to be 12,000?
According to these commentaries, only half of the troops actually went to battle. The other half stayed behind the front lines and devoted their energies to praying and studying Torah for the spiritual merit of the troops in battle. Their contribution to the war effort was equal, although in a different capacity.
Israel, in its short lifetime, has fought many wars, and has never had the advantage of numbers or strength. Israel is currently undefeated (militarily). After the Six Day War of 1967 no one dared venture to suggest that the victory was due to military prowess alone. Clearly there were other forces at play. That the Jewish people are around today at all is the greatest *mystery* of the world.
It is undeniable that the State of Israel is the greatest supporter of Torah study in the world. Like it or not, the government is required to allocated funds to schools and institutions that teach Torah, alongside other institutions of education. Funds are funneled through the Ministry of Religious Affairs to provide salaries for institutions that provide religious services, including the teaching of Torah. Is there a possible link between this and Israel’s uncanny military success and existential survival? One must concede that such a possibility exists, even if one disagrees.
Critics have noted that the ultra-Orthodox do not explain their positions sufficiently. I share that criticism. However, that does not give us license to create even more divisiveness by being quick to accuse and blame. We tend to fear that which we don’t understand, and there is a whole lot about the ultra-Orthodox that we don’t understand. Israelis don’t understand them either – it’s not just us.
Omaha is a community that excels in communication and inclusiveness. Even different religions come together in Omaha. (Tri-Faith!) It behooves us to give the benefit of the doubt to others, whose positions and actions we may not understand, especially when they are of our own flesh and blood, our own people.