When I graduated from my Boston area high school about 25 years ago, I chose to spend a year and a half in Israel, where I studied the Bible and Jewish wisdom at a yeshiva (a school for Jewish studies). As I came to the end of my studies, I had to make a decision: would I return to the United States and go to college, or volunteer to serve in the Israel Defence Forces for a year?
Not particularly brave or athletic, I didn’t dwell very long on the decision – I would go back to the United States to earn my college degree. But over the last twenty-five years, I’ve often looked back at my decision to forgo the army with uncertainty and more than a little guilt. Young men and women in Israel put their lives at risk and dedicate three years of their lives to serving their country, and I chose not to serve for one? As an American citizen, I was certainly not required to serve in Israel’s army, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had shirked my obligation.
This year, as I studied the book of Judges in-depth, it all became clear to me.
After Deborah and her trusted general Barak led the people of Israel to victory over the evil Sisera and his army, Deborah and Barak sang a song of thanks to God. But the song is more than just a song of thanks; it also contains a powerful rebuke of several of the tribes of Israel:
“Why then did you stay among the sheepfolds and listen as they pipe for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben were great searchings of heart! Gilad tarried beyond the Jordan River; and Dan – why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained at the seacoast and tarried at his landings” (Judges 5:16-17).
Though Deborah had succeeded in inspiring many of the Israelite tribes to come to the defense of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, several tribes refused to join the fight. The tribe of Reuben waited nearby to see which way the battle would go, while the men of Gilad of the tribe of Manasseh remained on the other side of the river. The tribes of Dan and Asher, fearing the wrath of the powerful Sisera, remained at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, ready to sail away and save their own skins.
Though their fears were real and warranted, Deborah aimed her prophetic anger toward the tribes who refused to help their brothers during a time of crisis. While the people of Israel achieved a great miraculous victory, there were certainly many Israelite soldiers who died defending their nation – even as other tribes sat out the war and saved themselves! Deborah’s anger was justified. Why should some mothers bear sleepless nights as their sons battle the enemy, while others sleep soundly because their sons shirk their duty to serve?
As I studied her song, Deborah’s anger hit me like a ton of bricks. Technically, as an American citizen, I did not have a legal obligation to serve in Israel’s army. But as a Jew, as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how could I have shirked my duty to defend my people?
Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, a leading American rabbi who moved to Israel many years ago, forcefully restates Deborah’s point for the people of our generation:
“Army service is the touchstone issue [in Israel today]. According to Jewish law, no Jew in the world, no one living in New Jersey or Florida or anywhere else in the world, is exempt from the army; every Jew must come and fight. It’s a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory, defensive war in which every Jew is obligated to fight to defend our people.”
For the last 75 years, Israel has been subjected to a constant state of war, surrounded by enemy nations and terrorists who seek nothing less than its destruction. Though I am now too old to serve as a soldier, it is incumbent upon me, and every one of us who identifies with God’s chosen people, to serve the nation of Israel in any way that we can. As Nadia Matar, one of Israel’s modern heroines, recently wrote: “We can choose to be players on the soccer field, or spectators who watch the game from the stands. Come and be part of those who are playing on the field; don’t just be a spectator!”
During these difficult days before our final redemption, may each of us find our own way to strengthen the State of Israel. And may there soon be peace in the Holy Land, so that everyone may “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”; may it be a time when “nation shall not take up sword against nation and they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).