Haredim Should Serve in the Army – Lessons from Parshat Bamidbar
By Yaakov Gorr
This week’s parsha, Bamidbar, reveals the missing 614th commandment, particularly relevant as Israeli lawmakers debate drafting Haredi youth to the army. Twenty-year old Jews are told to enlist in the army.
From the first portion we read: Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel… a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel….
And from the second: Bring forth the tribe of Levi and present them before Aaron the kohen, that they may serve him. They shall keep his charge and the charge of the entire community ….You shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall keep their kehunah; you shall kill any outsider who approaches.
What has this ancient history got to do with us in 2011?
A few months ago, a Knesset committee released a report saying that the Tal Law regarding Haredi IDF enlistment has failed, and Israel should focus instead on making military or other national service compulsory for Haredim The IDF will recruit 2,400 Haredim in 2011. The number of Haredi draftees will increase by 600 each year until it reaches 4,800 in 2015.
Today, 14% of eligible 18-year-old Jewish men evade military service by studying at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, more than double the rate 15 years ago. By 2020 the number of exemptions is expected to reach 25%
Now some Haredi youth do enlist, but clearly many do not. As I understand the parsha, it’s a clear refusal to obey a divine decree: to put your name into the draft and partake in the call-up.
In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, we are told that the purpose of creation is to allow the Jewish people to connect with the Almighty. The task is great, and can only be achieved through a collective effort.
In this case, the “collective effort” is Medinat Yisrael, and through its strength the ingathering of the exiles. Exiles are unlikely to be gathered into a state which is at risk. Not to take part in the collective effort is to betray it and the Jewish people.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote that the land of Israel was “the essence, the foundation, the source of the holy faith – There is the root of the holiness of Your people Israel…” His writings inspired HaRav Abraham Isaac Kook, unquestionably one of the most profound of all Zionist thinkers, who saw the rise of modern day Zionism as the onset of the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people from exile, in expectation of the arrival of the “final redemption” of the Messiah.
Rav Kook was a messianist and had a very clear notion of the redemption of the Jewish People in Medinat Yisrael, a redemption that was part of the divine plan for the whole world. World redemption depended on our redemption and vice versa.
It was clear to Rav Kook: the Jewish people needed a Jewish state. Judaism itself needed to reflect every area of that national life. The true glory of G-d’s name could not be expressed when it was confined to study houses and synagogues and limited to the world of the spirit.
Religious Zionists see the establishment of Medinat Yisrael as a sign from G-d, part of G-d’s plan. The need for the exile has finished. The time for the beginning of redemption is at hand.
G-d has given we Jews the task of guiding the rest of the world towards righteousness. Despite our tribulations, we are the only democracy in the triangle formed between Morocco, Tajikistan and Pakistan – truly a light unto the nations.
And it has to be defended. Parshat Bamidbar is authority for the proposition that each of us is called and that only a limited number get exempted on the basis of religious activity. If you leave your post in the Army and attempt temple service, you’ll die.
And the Haftorah is right on point. The second pasuk says that we shall appoint one head over us – so, a legitimate government, as we have. There is one command, and uniquely it’s one we appoint ourselves. If the temporal command says “enlist”, then enlist bli aval u’bli chaval (“without ifs and without buts”) . That’s what the parsha tells us.
Those who tell us to have a more perfect observance of every mitzvah should remember the story of the Exodus from Egypt: in every generation someone rises against us, as we saw only two weeks ago on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. Those Haredim who are forever telling us to have better observances, or a higher level of kashrut, or more restrictions on Shabbat, in this matter too, should do beyond the letter of the law. If the law says serve three years, the perfection of the mitzvah is to serve four years.
The author, Yaakov Gorr, has been studying Bamidbar to both leyn and deliver a drasha this Shabbat.