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Ramifications of the Battalion Mentality

The Torah’s portrayal of the Jewish People leaving Egypt and traveling through the desert is descriptive and deliberate: Bnei Yisrael are the Tzevaos Hashem, God’s army. What message is this meant to convey?

 

Prepare to Fight

The first association that comes to mind is that of soldiers training for war. This is certainly part of the picture, but it goes beyond what you may have expected. “War” in this context is not just the purview of the Israeli army, protecting Israelis and Jews across the world. In addition to that most literal element, we approach the world and its challenges with a unique perspective that often flies in the face of contemporary morals or ideals. Our insistence regarding the existence of holiness, life as a response to a Divine “call” or “command” rather than about self-fulfillment or happiness, gender norms, the traditional family unit, and values such as privacy and humility are just some examples of ideas currently not in vogue. If we want to preserve them, we need to teach our children to appreciate them and train our students to fight for them. That is one level of the Battalion metaphor.

 

Commitment to the Cause

Another aspect of the army analogy is the commitment that it demands. Some examples come to mind from conversations with students who served in the Israeli army. One soldier was given a few days off — his parents were in, he had doctor’s appointments, and whatever else was going on. By Thursday morning, he had taken care of everything he needed to do, so he updated his commander and was told to return to base. He settled in for the five-hour bus ride, arriving at his base in late afternoon. A bit more than 12 hours later, he was already on the bus back to Yerushalayim — having done nothing besides sleep on base. He was understandably frustrated; what had been the point of returning to base? But that’s not a question you can ask; in the army, you follow orders.

Another soldier shared that they were sometimes instructed to make rock art — seven minutes to make the outline of Israel, then take it apart and make the unit’s official symbol. One time, a commander had the olim in his unit write on a sand dune, “Ani lo medaber ivrit — I don’t speak Hebrew.” Why? Because the commander said so. This training, while it seems juvenile and ridiculous, pays off in the fog of war, when soldiers must follow orders without a moment’s thought.

The same commitment should be expressed by our soldiers in the Great Battalion. Most immediately, this entails punctilious observance of the halachic system, as transmitted by the experts, our rabbanim. Strict observance does not mean wholesale stringency; as Rabbi Mordechai Willig likes to say, every chumrah is also a kulah. Rather, it means a wholehearted commitment to the system.

On top of this first meaning, commitment means that as much as it can be difficult to see the impact of my individual service among the larger whole, we must insist on a certain obstinacy that says, “This is my job, and I will do whatever I need to see it through.” When I was a youth director in Albany, New York, there were many times when I wondered about the impact of Shabbos morning groups or Saturday night parent-child learning programs, and how much I needed to invest in them. By now, as a parent and community member myself, I’ve come to realize how important those programs are to the spiritual vitality of a community.

 

Variety of Roles

One more feature of an army is the variety of roles that must be filled for it to function successfully. Vertically, there is a hierarchy of positions that facilitate smaller parts of the bigger machine working in tandem with each other, from the Commander in Chief on top to the foot soldier or “jobnik” on the bottom.

Horizontally, the army comprises several categories: Combat, Education, Intelligence, Medicine and Support. Each one has an array of divisions; just within Combat, for example, there are the Givati, Golani, Nachal and Kfir Brigades, each having their own specialty and way of contributing.

Rav Hirsch identifies this as one of the main features of the word “tzava.” He writes:

All things created in heaven or on earth constitute, together, one great tzava, one great host, whose center point is its Creator and Master, its Lord and Leader… All things are to perform their assigned task, each in its proper place, each with the powers given especially to it. The overall plan is in the mind of the Leader; each creature completely fulfills its mission, only if it carries out the part that was assigned to it. No one, great or small, stands in his station by his own authority or for himself alone… The greatest achievement of the individual is but a fraction of the whole, but even the smallest of his deeds is not lost or overlooked, provided that he faithfully carries out the order of the one great Commander… “Ha’lo tzava le’enosh alei aretz — In this world, we are all in army service (Iyov 7:1).”1

The same is true in the context of Bnei Yisrael as the tzevaos Hashem. No matter what role a person fills, he has a part to play in Hashem’s plan for the world. Together, the nation carries out that plan, each person doing his or her job in order to accomplish the ultimate objective.

Next time, drawing inspiration from… a Broadway musical?

Thank you to Akiva Rubin and Yonadav Rimberg for your contributions to this article.


Tzvi Goldstein graduated from Yeshiva University with semicha and a degree in psychology. After making aliyah, he taught in Yeshivat Hakotel for five years and now edits sefarim for a number of publishers. He recently published a sefer with Mosaica Press called Halachic Worldviews, exploring Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to developing hashkafa from Halacha, and writes at tgb613.substack.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

1 Commentary to the Torah, Bereishis 2:1.

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