When the U.S. government announces that it has intercepted terror threats and puts us on higher security alert, do you feel more safe, or less so? Are you concerned that the threats may be over-hyped, and calculated to cause the public to be more afraid than we need to be? Or do you feel that our security agencies are doing all they can to protect us?
Fear is a powerful contagion. That’s clearly the Torah’s concern in a military context, as we read in this week’s parasha, Shoftim. In preparation for the war of conquest, the troops are to be addressed about their mental state. Distracted soldiers are likely to become dead soldiers, and are to be weeded out. But the army’s greatest liability is the fearful soldier. Such a soldier must be discharged, says the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:8). But the reason for this discharge policy is debated by our commentators, and even translators.
Let’s look at three modern translations of this verse and consider the implications of the differences.
“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”(JPS)
“Who is the man, the one afraid and soft of heart? Let him go and return to his house, so that he does not melt the heart of his brothers, like his heart!” (Everett Fox)
“Whatever man is afraid and faint of heart, let him go and return to his house, that he not shake the heart of his brothers like his own heart.” (Robert Alter)
As you read these translations carefully, think about the role that fear plays in matters of national security, whether it is about suitability of soldiers or the communication of terror alerts. We’ll discuss this further on Shabbat morning.
Rabbi David Wise