June 20, 2024
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There May Be an Atheist in the Foxhole

Not everyone can go to war. Our parsha lists several people who are to “go back home”: 1) One who built a new house but hasn’t yet lived in it. 2) One who planted a vineyard but didn’t yet redeem it. 3) One who betrothed a woman but hasn’t yet completed the marriage. 4) One who is fearful and fainthearted.

For the first three categories, the Torah gives one same reason as to why he returns home: lest he die in war, and another man will either live in the house he never got a chance to live in, redeem the vineyard he never got a chance to redeem, or marry the woman he never got a chance to marry. And Rashi explains that in such a potential situation the person who never got a chance to benefit from that which he was soon to benefit from will experience “agmat nefesh”—a deep feeling of grief.

We can ask, if this person makes it out alive, then great—he will end up benefiting from that which he left off with, and if he ends up falling in battle, he won’t be alive anymore to feel grief! So what’s the concern about agmat nefesh? [One might say that the concern is that if he is in such a mental state, this will negatively impact his fellow soldiers. However, if this were the reason then Rashi should perhaps tell us that the reasoning here is similar to that of the fourth category of one who is fearful, in which Torah itself basically states that reasoning—“lest he cause his brothers’ hearts to melt”—meaning he will negatively impact the performance of his fellow soldiers.]

R’ Yaakov Galinsky explains Rashi in how he understands the Torah’s concern for someone in these first three categories: When a person is about to pass on, his final thoughts are to be about teshuva. Yet, if a person (such as that soldier) at his last moments were to instead think about that house he never lived in, or that vineyard he never got a chance to redeem, or that woman he never got a chance to marry—that’s unfortunate, and the Torah is concerned about this happening. In other words, it’s normal to experience agmat nefesh, feelings of grief and regret before one’s passing, and if these emotions propel a personal teshuva movement, then it can accomplish incredible amounts for one’s benefit. However, if this opportune time and feeling is instead focused on matters that don’t benefit his affairs in the next world, such as regretting never living in his newly built house, etc., then indeed it would be a tremendous loss of a “once-in-a-lifetime” moment where so much could have been gained. Thus, for their own sake the Torah says to these people, go back home.

Regarding the fourth category of one who is fearful, R’ Yosi Haglili understands this to be a reference to someone who is fearful of his transgressions. The Ohr Hachaim (20:8) explains that transgressions—even those unbeknownst to one—cause fear, and thus transgression and fear are directly interrelated. Based on this, it would seem that according to R’ Yosi, a criteria to be able to fight was to have a clean slate, free of transgressions. If so, would someone this pure, at his last moments, really think about and grieve over his vineyard or house instead of grieving over a misspent life and thus doing teshuva? Apparently, to some degree, it may be possible. Perhaps we can explain that since these entities (a new house, vineyard, new marriage) are big accomplishments and experiences in a person’s life, his heart is naturally drawn to them and to a great degree fixated on achieving them, and he may therefore yearn for it even as he is passing on to the next world. We see that even a righteous person who is free from transgression may nevertheless experience last-moment grief toward something non-spiritual if his heart is fixated on it.

We see the extreme of this by Pharoah. When the Mitzriyim chased after Bnei Yisrael and ended up drowning in the sea, Pharoah felt his end coming near. At his last moments he also had “remorse,” as the Midrash relates that at that moment Pharaoh said, “Oh, if only I never let the Jews out, then people would have said about me, ‘Here is a man who died without giving in.’” Why would Pharoah care about looking good in people’s eyes if he would no longer even be alive to appreciate that experience? Furthermore, as R’ Henoch Leibowitz points out, amidst a massive miracle such as the splitting of the sea, wouldn’t at least something like this change around Pharoah’s evil ways and cause him to repent? Perhaps it can be explained that since Pharoah’s heart was driven towards honor, and this is what his life ideals were [as he even considered himself to be a God], therefore, despite seeing blatant miracles, these were nevertheless his regrets, even at his last moments.

There’s a famous saying that “there’s no atheist in a foxhole,” for it could be thought that when such a person’s end is near, he will, in fact, feel a sincere remorse, acknowledge his wrong ways, and do teshuva. However, we see from here that if one’s heart is set in a given way, with ideals that were set in stone for him, then such a person may stick to his guns till the very end. And even sincere people, like those exempted soldiers, whose hearts strongly pull in a certain way may experience a phenomenon like this to some degree.

The month of Elul marks the particularly auspicious time of teshuva in recognition that we will soon be passing through a great moment of judgment where our very lives—both quality and quantity—are going to be determined. Such a reality, when truly pondered upon, can offer a different outlook during this time, in that this time can also perhaps serve as some sort of a microcosm for what it means to be close to one’s end, thus opening one up to see one’s true ideals, aspirations, and desires in life. Much like a person’s experience of being close to his passing can bring forth the rawest realities that reside in his conscience and heart, so too this time beginning in Elul can serve as a personal barometer for us and where we may be holding in life.


Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected].

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