May 19, 2024
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Sourcing the Great Battalion

Last week, I proposed a model for a comprehensive hashkafa, a worldview: that of an army, a Great Battalion. Where does such an idea come from?

A number of powerful sources indicate that this is not, in fact, as contrived a perspective as it might sound.

 

God’s Battalions

The most explicit source presents itself throughout one of our most formative narratives. After giving us the background of Moshe’s return to Egypt, his initial (failed) audience with Pharoah, and his subsequent reassurance by Hashem, the Torah breaks to inform us of Moshe’s and Aharon’s lineage. Right before returning to the narrative, about to plunge into the meeting that will eventually lead to the Exodus, the Torah summarizes Moshe and Aharon’s roles for us:

“They are Aharon and Moshe, to whom Hashem said, ‘Take Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim — al tzivosam, according to their troops.’”

The same phrase recurs a few pesukim later:

“Pharoah will not listen to you, and I will extend my arm against Egypt; and I will take out ‘es tzivosai — my troops,’ my people, Bnei Yisrael, from Egypt with great judgments.”

This is a surprising description of Klal Yisrael, especially considering that they are the farthest thing from a war-ready nation of fighters, but that is how Hashem describes them leading up to the Exodus.

The story continues; plagues ensue. Finally, surrounded by piles of dead firstborn children, Pharoah frantically demands that Moshe and Aharon lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. The Torah jubilantly records:

“And it was on that very day, Hashem took out Bnei Yisrael from the land of Egypt al tzivosam.”

Tzivos Hashem,” the tzava — “army” or “hosts” — of Hashem, were taken out of Egypt. To whom does this title refer? Each time, Onkelos translates this phrase as “al cheileihon,” the same language he uses in Bamidbar 1:3 when Bnei Yisrael count “from the age of twenty and up, kol yotzei tzava b’Yisrael — all those who can go out for the Jewish army.”

The meaning is clear: The Jewish People, as they took their first steps away from their status as avdei (servants of) Pharoah and towards their new title of avdei Hashem, were for the first time termed “tzivaos Hashem — Hashem’s battalions.”

Once we reach Sefer Bamidbar, the word tzevaos starts showing up all over the place. The formation of the degalim (flags of the tribes), the arrangements underwhich the Jewish People camped and traveled, is marked by various forms of the word. The Midrash movingly portrays this degalim/tzevaos arrangement as an expression of Hashem’s love and affection, even paralleling Hashem’s designation of us as His children.

 

One of the Seven Names

The importance of this concept, Bnei Yisrael as Hashem’s tzevaos, has halachic significance as well. The Gemara in Shavuos 35a lists seven names of Hashem that one is forbidden to erase, one of which is the name Tzevaos. This is contrasted with descriptions of Hashem’s attributes, such as “Gadol, Gibor and Norah,”(Great, Mighty and Awesome) which one is allowed to erase. Clearly, part of Hashem’s essence, rather than an aspect of His behavior, is the fact that He leads multiple tzevaos, multiple battalions: the angels on high, and Klal Yisrael below.

Drawing even more attention to this relationship between Hashem as the Commander in Chief and Bnei Yisrael as his army, Rabbi Yosi removes Tzevaos from the list of Divine names, positing that it describes not Hashem, but the Jewish People:

Rabbi Yosi says, Tzevaos can be erased, for Hashem is only referred to as Tzevaos in the context of Bnei Yisrael, as it says: “And I will take out my troops, my people — Bnei Yisrael — from the land of Mitzrayim.”

Rabbi Yosi highlights the ambiguity in the name tzevaos: Does it refer to the soldiers or to the Commander? The Chachamim, who disagree with Rabbi Yosi, must accept that tzevaos is a reference to Bnei Yisrael; the pasuk that Rabbi Yosi adduces is incontrovertible. Instead, they must argue that Hashem’s role as the Commander, and by extension us as His soldiers, is such an intrinsic part of who He is that it qualifies as a full-fledged name rather than a description of one of His traits or qualities.

 

Internalizing and Expressing God’s Guidance

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook adds that the unique meaning of this Divine name relates to exactly this point. Tzevaos indicates an overarching guidance and leadership that is internalized and expressed by those being led. In an army, the king, through his commander in chief, decides how the army should be trained, arranged and deployed. At the same time, the functioning of the army depends on every individual accepting that structure and working independently to actualize it. Later in this series, when we explore the ultimate goal Hashem wants the Jewish People (as well as the rest of humanity) to work towards and the role of Torah in the hashkafa of the Great Battalion, we will see just how suited such an explanation is to our point.

These are just some of the sources indicating that we, the Jewish People, are meant to see ourselves as the tzevaos Hashem, the army of God. Next week, we’ll explore three ramifications of this metaphor.


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 facilitates the publication of independent seforim in English. 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].

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