SHOFTIM (Deuteronomy 15:18‑21:9) — “Advice for the Foxholes of Life”

They say that there are no atheists in the foxholes.  When the chips are down in time of need, and we have no other place to turn, we always remember G‑d and ask Him for His protection.  But will He answer our prayers?  Will He say, “Of course My child, I’ve been waiting for you to call upon Me”?  Or will He ask, “Now you call Me?!  Where were you all the time that you thought you didn’t need Me?!”

The Torah describes the scene:  The army of Israel is preparing for battle against their enemies.  There are, perhaps, among the troops, people who would rather be elsewhere.  They see themselves outnumbered by a well‑armed fighting force, and they are, to say the least, concerned.

It’s time for a pep talk.  A specially designated Kohain, one of the descendants of Aaron the High Priest, addresses the troops with words of encouragement:

SHEMA YISRAEL, listen Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies.  Do not be fainthearted, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not break ranks before them.  G‑d is the One who is going with you.  He will fight for you against your enemies.  And He will deliver you.” (Deuteronomy, 20:3‑4)

Shema Yisrael ‑‑ listen Israel.”   An interesting choice of words.  Anyone familiar with Jewish prayer would recognize these words as being identical with the beginning of the Shema ‑‑ a prayer that is recited daily.  Even people who are very removed from Jewish observance know of this simple prayer that acknowledges G‑d as our Master.

The Talmud (Sotah, 41B) wonders why the Kohain would use this particular phrase.  Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai answers that the Kohain was telling the military not to be nervous over their previous laxity in the service of G‑d.  “Even if the only Mitzvah you ever fulfilled was reciting the ‘Shema‘ evening and morning,” said the Kohain, “G‑d will not forsake you.”

This is rather curious.  One of the first prayers a small child learns to recite is the Shema. I used to sing it to my children at bedtime when they were too young to say it themselves.  What is so special and dynamic about Shema Yisrael that the merit of its recital will protect a soldier in time of war, EVEN IF THAT’S THE ONLY MITZVAH HE’S EVER DONE?!?  And why is this fundamental prayer linked with a soldier going to war?

The answer, I believe, is found in the soldier’s attitude toward waging war.  The Torah teaches us that when a soldier goes to war, although he may be aiming the gun and pulling the trigger, it is actually G‑d who is doing the fighting.  The Kohain tells the soldier that “G‑d is the One who is going with you.  He will fight for you against your enemies.  And He will deliver you.”  And what Mitzvah does a soldier need to do in order to deserve this miraculous protection?

Very simply ‑‑ say the Shema.  If you show your belief that it is G‑d who is in charge, then G‑d will TAKE charge and fight your battles for you.

In life, there are many wars that we are forced to wage.  We “fight” our competitors in business and struggle to make ends meet.  We try our best to defend our children (and ourselves!) from the onslaught of the culture war that modern society often wages against standards of decency and morality.  And sometimes, we have to battle our own negative natures of laziness, spitefulness, and the like.

Where does a Jew go to find the ammunition to get him through the struggles of life?

He recites Shema Yisrael. When a Jew says “Shema Yisrael“, he is confirming his belief that the Lord is our G‑d, that the Lord is One. (Ibid, 6:4)  The message of Rosh Hashanah, a mere month away, is that G‑d is in the Driver’s Seat.  We go to work, we do our exercises, and eat right, we engage in the battles of day to day living.  But we do so with the knowledge that it is our Creator to whom we must turn, and pray that He bless our efforts with success.

We have just begun the Jewish month of Elul.  The month of Elul is traditionally a time of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Our prayers get a little longer and become a little more sincere.  We use this time to get our spiritual act together in time for the New Year when G‑d will decide our fates for the coming year.

How should we prepare for Rosh Hashanah?  What can we do to shore up our relationship with the Master of the World?

Shema Yisrael.  Our Sages tell us that during the month of Elul, G‑d is especially receptive of our prayers and is hoping and waiting for us to realign our priorities.  What He really wants is for us to reestablish our relationship with Him.  He doesn’t expect us to be perfect.  He expects us to try our best and to recognize that Shema Yisrael ‑- it is our Creator, not we, who is in control of our destiny.

It has been observed that the days of Elul provide us with a month‑long opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashanah by “repairing” all of the days of the previous year.  Do a Mitzvah on the first of the month.  Any Mitzvah . . . Give some Tzedakah (charity).  Say a prayer.  (Shema Yisrael, for example.)  Refrain from Lashon Hara (gossip).  Be a better and kinder person on the first of Elul than you were on the first of any other month of the past year.  Do the same thing on the second of the month, and then again on the third.

You don’t have to become a Moses or an Abraham.  G‑d was prepared to do miracles for soldiers whose only Mitzvah was saying the Shema.  Let us make the pre‑High Holiday gesture to become better people; we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the miracles that we ourselves can do.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives 

“Improve Your Vision” (2009) 

…Not every “rich” man is rich, and not every “wise” man is wise.   It depends upon your mode of reference…

… when I was approaching the end of first grade, I was a bit nervous because I saw what hard work those second graders had!  The kids in second grade seemed a lot more advanced than I was.  But that was only because I was a first grader!

If, however, King Solomon, the wisest of men, referred to someone as being wise, it is safe to assume that this is a truly wise person.  All the more so, says the Chofetz Chaim, if G-d Himself refers to someone as wise.

…a bribe will blind the eye of the wise… 

Read more.


“War, Torah-Style” (2006)

… CNN et al go to great lengths to catalog the wanton destruction the Israelis have unleashed upon the “innocent civilians” of  Lebanon.  (Who, by the way, overwhelmingly supported the Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers and refusal to return them.)  Yet, the merciless raining down of rockets on non-military, non-threatening targets throughout     Northern Israelis largely ignored.

Yes, the Israelis are terrible people.  That’s why they risk their own lives by not firing upon terrorists using human shields until AFTER they have begun to fire their deadly rockets…

One of my earliest memories as a child is that of my mother selling Trees for Israel.  We don’t destroy things for no reason, and we certainly don’t attack people for no reason.  (By the way, speaking of trees, where is the liberal, Greenpeace, tree-hugging, spotted-owl-protecting, ANWR-blocking outrage over the million-plus trees in Northern Israel that were destroyed by Hezbollah rockets?!)…

Read more.


“Fuhgettaboutit!”  (2005)

…The Torah recognizes that sometimes there will be a lack of clarity as to matters of Law.  That is why G-d established the Sanhedrin…

The Torah gives the Sanhedrin the right to interpret Torah Law…

But what if the Sanhedrin makes a mistake?  What if this council of the 71 greatest sages of Israel vote on how to apply Torah Law, and their interpretation is not in concert with what Moses handed down to Joshua from Sinai?…

Read more.


“Royal Pain” (2004)

… Rabbi Chaim of Sanz was one of the great Chassidic leaders.  His followers treated him like royalty.  As is the case with many Chassidic Rebbes, he dressed opulently.  Among other things, he wore gold shoes.  (I imagine they were probably leather shoes, overlaid with gold leaf.)

One winter day, his followers noticed blood stains in the Rebbe’s footprints in the snow.  When they investigated, they discovered that the Rebbe’s shoes had no bottoms! …

Read more.


“Candles, Kings, and Impeachment” (2003)

… The Rabbis saw a potential for “sloppy Kashruth.”  If I can put a slice of cheese on my salami sandwich, why can’t I cook a cheeseburger?  …

When I was about ten years old, I joined a Little League team. …  I knew next to nothing about baseball.  I was learning how to throw and catch in the outfield, while the coach was hitting balls to be fielded.

“Seplowitz!” yelled the coach.  “Go into left field!”

Facing the coach at home plate, I turned to my left and walked straight into right field.

“No!” screamed the coach in frustration. “LEFT Field!  LEFT Field!  On MY left, not YOURS!” …

Read more.


“Clean Hands and Clear Conscience” (2002)

The elders … will wash their hands … and say, “Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see….

Isn’t it strange that the elders would make such a statement?  Do we really suspect the elders of spilling innocent blood?  Do the rabbinic leaders have to publicly state that they are not murderers?!  Would anyone actually think to accuse the LEADERS of committing this heinous crime? …

Read more.


“Onward Jewish Soldiers” (2001)

When you go into battle against your enemies . . . The officers will address the people, and say, “Is there anyone among you who has built a new house and has not begun to live in it?  Let him go home, so that he will not die in war and have another man live in it.” (Deuteronomy 20:1,5)

How’s that for a draft deferment?  The Torah continues: “Is there anyone among you who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed its first crop?  . . . Is there anyone among you who has betrothed a woman and not married her? . . . Go home . . . Is there anyone among you who is afraid or faint hearted? . . .Go home.” (Verses 6-8)

What a way to run an army!  The Torah almost seems to be providing a plan for anyone looking to avoid the draft without having to run to  Canada! …

Read more.


“Advice for the Foxholes of Life” (2000)

They say that there are no atheists in the foxholes.  When the chips are down in time of need, and we have no other place to turn, we always remember G d and ask Him for His protection.  But will He answer our prayers?  Will He say, “Of course My child, I’ve been waiting for you to call upon Me”?  Or will He ask, “Now you call Me?!  Where were you all the time that you thought you didn’t need Me?!” …

Read more.


This is the weekly message at Copyright © 2000-2010 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel ( and chaplain in  Monsey,  New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on September 1, 2000 at 12:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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