We have all been reading with interest about the expiration of the Tal Law, which had afforded “Kollel Yungerleit” the opportunity to avoid military service in the State of Israel on account of their extended and continued full time study of Torah. We have also heard many Gedolim say that this is a situation of יהרג ועל יעבור … that people should give up their lives rather than join the army.
Parshas Shoftim describes the process whereby the Cohen, משוח מלחמה explains the procedures before warfare. First he encourages the troops and tells them that they only should fear Hashem and not the enemy, then he describes the categories of soldier (male soldiers, of course) who are exempt from battle (anyone is engaged but yet to marry a woman, anyone who has built a house but did not move in, anyone who has planted a vineyard but has yet to reap a harvest, and anyone who feels afraid). The Shotrim (policemen/miitary staff) then repeat this to groups of soldiers, according to Rashi.
There are two broad categories of war: the Milchemes Mitzvah (loosely described as a war where one defends the very existence/populace) and a Milchemes Reshus (a type of warfare which is waged for other reasons). A Milchemes Mitzvah is obviously a more serious, life threatening situation, and so we fine that the Mishne in Sotah (8:7) states that the aforementioned exemptions do not apply to a Milchemes Mitzvah. In other words, when it comes to defending the very existence of the people/State, it’s “all hands on the deck”.
Strangely, the Rambam at the beginning of the seventh chapter of Hilchos Melachim, states that the Cohen also announces these exemptions for a Milchemes Mitzvah. How can the Rambam contradict a clear Mishna? One explanation I read from Rav Schachter in the name of the Rav is that there is a dual obligation when anyone goes to war. One obligation is a national obligation. The person is part of the כלל and in the sense that the כלל is threatened in a Milchemes Mitzvah, the Torah does not provide an opportunity for exemption. There is also an individual obligation, the obligation of the פרט, the potential soldier who signs up for military service or considers doing so. In a Milchemes Reshus, the Cohen explains that someone who is in one of the aforementioned categories is strongly urged to stay home. They aren’t needed, and furthermore it could be argued that they may even damage morale by virtue of their preponderant thoughts.
According to the Rav, the Rambam is saying that even in a Milchemes Mitzvah, the Cohen explains the laws of the פרט being absolved from joining the armed forces before they defend the nation. It is necessary to explain the difference, and stress that this is only an exemption in as much as they are private individuals, however, since they are about to embark on a life and death battle for the defence of the people and the State, the aspect of the כלל affords them no exemption.
Of course, there are other explanations. Reflecting on this on Parshas Shoftim, I have great difficulty understanding how those who ostensibly don’t feel politically part of the State, give themselves the right to also not feel existentially part of the כלל.
Certainly, as I sit in Melbourne, Australia, I’m not exactly entitled to criticise the life and death decisions taken by those who live in Eretz HaKodesh. I am, however, entitled, I believe to ask for an explanation in light of the above.