For over three decades, I have held the hands of people suffering with horrendous diseases, and offered prayers and support for those who struggle daily with chronic illness or depression. I have been in the trenches of battles with God waged by victims of abuse, neglect, or crime. I have seen courage in the face of adversity in the actions of parents with sick, disabled, or troubled children. I have been inspired by the faith of the survivors of war and disease who teach me about God every day as they use their Judaism to overcome the adversity that life has placed on their path. As a rabbi serving many military families who send loved ones into harm’s way, I have prayed with members of our armed services and their families to ask God to watch over them as they travel to a war zone on behalf of a grateful nation. Day after day, I call upon God to go into battle for those I love and care for. I am not alone in this effort. So many of you call upon God to go into battle with you, and your loved ones, colleagues, neighbors, or friends, even if you don’t use those exact words.
What are the weapons in our Jewish arsenal as we wage war against pain and suffering, fear and tragedy? For some it is prayer. Others count on the strength that comes from friends and relatives, medical professionals, caring communities, and clergy who offer love and support in an hour of need. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, reminds us that the words of Torah can also be a source of strength and insight in adversity. One of my favorite lines of this week’s portion is Deuteronomy 20:4: “For it is the Eternal your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.” Literally and figuratively, the idea of God haholeich imachem, “walking with you,” is very appealing. No one wants to face adversity alone.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of offering a blessing to one of our young people before he went off to Marine boot camp. I wrote a prayer asking God to watch over him as he began this courageous moment of his life. Although I have done this many times before, I wasn’t prepared for his response. The shy, little blond boy from his bar mitzvah had turned into a tall, strong man preparing to go off to war. He stood on the bimah, in front of the entire congregation, and wept big tears and then hugged me, not letting go. There wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary. Going to boot camp with God made a difference for that young man. As the World War II aphorism goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and those of us who serve Jews in the military know how important Judaism is when you are far from home with your life on the line. On more than one occasion, I have planned a funeral with a member of our military before a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. It is in those situations that the verses from our text about finishing unfinished business—from dedicating a new house (20:5) to yard work (20:6) to marriage (20:7) to addressing one’s fears (20:8)—seem so very real.
While most of my congregants are not going off to war in a literal sense, they wage war on the battlefield of life, nonetheless. For so many of us, life’s challenges can besiege our lives, and the constant fight to survive and overcome adversity can make us weary. As some wars never seem to end, the battles of life can seem endless, as our victories may be few or nonexistent. Having the Torah teach us that God is with us at the most trying and frightening of times can make a difference.
This section of Deuteronomy is concerned with the waging of holy war, a war for the greater good, rather than one that is undertaken to take from others. When Jews go to battle “with God” it is in an effort to make all of our battles holy, even the personal ones. Rashi talks about the fact that we come to the battle relying on the strength of God. He compares our struggle to that of David against Goliath: “They come to war relying on the conquering strength of human beings (literally, “flesh and blood”), but you come relying on the strength of the Omnipresent God! The Philistines once came to war relying on the strength of Goliath—what was his end? He fell and they fell with him.” I would expand Rashi’s perspective to say that we do rely on ourselves to overcome adversity, but we are bolstered in our strength and resolve when we add God to the equation.
I remember placing a Torah in the arms of a woman with cancer. I moved my bimah chair in front of the ark, so she could receive the Torah while seated. She had been given a dreadful prognosis. As she sat quietly with the Torah safely in her arms, she radiated a calm I had not seen before. When I took the Torah back from her and returned it to the Ark, she expressed her resolve to “fight this battle with God.” Instead of weeks, she blessed our world for three more years of life. Going into battle with God may not give everyone the “victory” they desire. Yet, the Hebrew phrase in 20:4, l’hoshia etchem, shown as “to bring you victory” in our Torah commentary1, can also be translated as “to save you.” Sometimes, being saved from aloneness, despair, or fear is victory enough.