In times like these, our Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, would call out stridently for public responsibility. He was unwilling to hear any cowardly and defeatist talk about the need for retreat, or the injustice of our cause, and he would respond harshly against all such exclamations, especially if they were spoken by Torah scholars.

Guarding One’s Speech in Times of Trouble

By HaRav Tzvi Yisrael Tau, head of the Har HaMor Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

[This five-part essay is a loose and edited translation of Rabbi Tau’s classes, which can be found, in the original Hebrew, in his book, “Ozar Yisrael B’Givorah.” It is a continuation of the essay  “The Meaning of Israel’s Wars.” Any mistakes in the understandings are of the translator’s, Tzvi Fishman, and not those of HaRav Tau.]


During a time of war, we have to guard our speech meticulously and make a great effort that our words are uttered in a lofty spirit, confident that we will witness G-d’s salvation crystallize before our eyes. When the Nation is busy fighting a difficult battle against the enemy, we are forbidden to speak on a defeatist, small-minded, and dispirited level, since this is liable to lessen the exalted greatness of Israel’s valor and weaken the maserut nefesh of the Nation. We must not let any pettiness enter our ranks.

We must remember that we are all one camp, one army and one fighting force. The same spirit of maserut nefesh of the soldier willing to sacrifice himself on the battlefield, in order to raise Israel’s honor and advance its revival, must accompany us here, in the beit hamidrash as we study Torah, at every moment, with every thought and prayer.

At a time like this, the entire Nation lives in a heightened state of suspense, graced with spiritual elevation, faith, confidence in our victory, and great joy over G-d’s salvation. Personal considerations are put aside, and everyone identifies with the welfare of the Nation as a whole. This national identification is so complete that the thoughts, prayers, and hopes of every individual have a vital influence on all the Nation, just as one organ of the body influences the entire body metabolism. We are all engaged together in a struggle to sanctify G-d’s Name. Our holy thoughts have the power to decide the outcome of the war in our favor. They have a tangible influence on the thoughts of our national leaders and soldiers in the field. Therefore, we must stand strong and confident in our Torah learning, in understanding the depths of halacha, in our yearnings and prayers for salvation. “The L-rd desires that they be righteous” – the righteousness of Am Yisrael“so He magnifies and glorifies His Torah” (Yeshiahu, 42:21).

The righteousness of the Nation is manifested through the increase in Torah learning and by spreading its teachings to the Nation at large.

There is paramount importance to using proper speech at a time when we are fighting our enemies. All expressions of fear and despair, all depression and weakness of heart are as forbidden as non-kosher meat. The public itself isn’t interested in or desirous of such insidious talk, which only serves to weaken the backbone of the Nation and break its morale. During a time of war, when Am Yisrael joins together as one, we rise up to an exalted plane of life and long for words of greatness, idealism, and truth. In the Torah’s description of the Kohen anointed for battle, we learn how we are supposed to talk in times of self-sacrifice:

“And it shall be, when you come near to the battle, that the Kohen shall approach and speak to the people, and say to them, Hear, O Yisrael, you draw near today to do battle against your enemies; let not your hearts faint, fear not and do not tremble, nor be terrified because of them; for the L-rd your G-d is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Devarim, 20:2-4).

In times of war, our Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, would call out stridently for public responsibility. He was unwilling to hear any cowardly and defeatist talk about the need for retreat, or the injustice of our cause, and he would respond harshly against all such exclamations, especially if they were spoken by Torah scholars.

We can learn from the Netziv’s explanation of the Yoav’s war against Edom just how far public responsibility extends to every individual during times of war:

In the tractate Bava Batra (21A-B), there is an argument between the Sages regarding which kind of instructor of children is preferable – one who teaches a lot of material but isn’t so exacting in his explanations; or the one who covers less ground, but who explains matters deeply? Rabbi Dimi of Naharda ruled (and this is the halacha), “We employ the one who teaches more precisely, even if he teaches less material, for once a mistake is learned, it sinks in.” The precision of the learning is the deciding factor, because once a mistake enters a student’s heart it isn’t easily uprooted.

Rabbi Dimi supports this with a proof from Yoav, the commander of King David’s army: “It is written, ‘For Yoav and all Israel remained there six months until he had cut off every male in Edom’ (Melachim 1,11:16). When Yoav appeared before David, he asked, ‘Why did you only kill the men?’ Yoav answered, ‘Because it says, ‘Wipe out the males (zachar) of Amalek’ (Devarim, 25:19). David said, “But we read that word as the‘zecher of Amalek’ (remembrance of Amalek). Yoav retorted, ‘I was taught to read the word as zachar.’”

Yoav then went to his former teacher and asked, “How did you teach me to read this word?” The teacher answered, “zachar.” Thereupon, Yoav drew out his sword and stood poised to kill him, for having been misled. “Why do you want to kill me?” the teacher asked. Yoav answered, “Because it says, ‘Cursed be he who does the work of G-d in falsehood.’ (Yermiahu, 48:10). The teacher begged for his life, ‘May it be sufficient that I am cursed.’ Yoav said to him, ‘It is also written, ‘Cursed be he who keeps his sword back from blood’ (Ibid). According to one report, Yoav killed him. According to another, he let him live.

In his book, “HaEmek She’ela,” Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, writes:

“I tried to understand how Yoav could possibly have killed him? Is it permissible to kill someone for transgressing a curse? G-d forbid. Is the curse mentioned here worse than those mentioned in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo? The main punishment for violating those curses is only excommunication or banishment. This same question applies to the case of King Shaul’s order to execute Yonatan for violating his father’s curse” (see, Shmuel 1, 14:24).

In his discussion, the Netziv presents a novel understanding regarding the laws which pertain to the community:

“It is stated in Tanchuma, Parshat Vayeshev, and in Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, 38, that King Shaul saw that the Philistines were defeating Israel in battle, and he reasoned that the Israelites must have violated his ban (against eating before the battle). Behold, it didn’t occur to him that perhaps they committed some other wrongdoing because nothing else causes the Shechinah to so immediately flee from Israel as transgressing a ban… This made Yonatan a ‘rodef,’ someone who pursues another Jew to kill him.”

How are we to understand that Yonatan’s death sentence for having violated his father’s ban on eating before battle comes from his being a rodef?! The answer is that, during a time of war, someone who brings about a weakness in the Nation, in causing the Divine Presence to flee the Israelite camp by violating a ban, or through some other transgression, he is considered a rodef who is endangering the entire Nation, and this makes him liable to death.

The Netziv states that this was also the case with Achan:

“And the men of Ai slew of them thirty-six men… and the hearts of the people melted and became like water” (Yehoshua, 7:4-6).

“Achan was killed because he violated a ban during wartime, causing Hashem to remove His Presence from the military camp, as we learn from what happened at Ai where thirty-six Israelites were killed.”

The Netziv supports his assertion by citing a Mishna regarding those who are allowed to leave the army and not enter into battle (Sota, 8:6). On the verse, “And it shall be when the officers have made an end to speaking unto the people, that captains of the hosts shall be appointed at the head of the troops” (Devarim, 20:9), the Mishna states: “And at the rear, they placed guards in front of them and others behind them, and they held axes of iron in their hands, and if anyone sought to retreat, he (the armed guard) had authority to strike him in the legs, for the beginning of flight marks defeat.”

The Netziv explains the reason: “Here as well, there is no greater rodef than he who causes the Nation of Israel to lose in battle.” A soldier, who didn’t have a special dispensation to return home from the battleground, was forcibly prevented from deserting so that it wouldn’t weaken the morale and spirit of the troops.

Certainly, the words of the Rambam at the end of the “Laws of Kings” also concur with this:

“When he enters the heat of battle, he should rely on the Hope of Israel and its Deliverer in times of trouble. And he should know that he is fighting for the sake of G-d’s Oneness. He should take his life in his hands, and not fear and not be afraid, and not think about his wife or his children, but rather erase them from his memory and his heart, and make himself free of all matters, and focus all of his attention on the battle. And anyone who begins to think about these other concerns during the battle and frightens himself, he transgresses a negative precept, ‘Do not let your courage falter. Do not fear, or panic, or be in dread of them’ (Devarim, 20:3). Not only this – he should know that the blood of all Israel hangs from his throat.”

This is because, in weakening his resolve, he causes weakness in the hearts of many of his comrades, and , in doing so, he becomes a rodef who endangers Clal Yisrael.

The Rambam continues: “And if he didn’t win the battle, and didn’t fight with all of his heart and spirit, behold, he is like one who spilled the blood of everyone, as it says, ‘And not melt the heart of his comrades like his heart’ (Devarim, 20:10). As we have been taught, ‘Cursed be he who withholds his sword from blood,’” (Yermiahu, 48:10. Laws of Kings, 7:15).

The Netziv continues:

“Yoav’s reason (for killing his teacher) was because his teacher hadn’t been careful in a matter that pertained to the wars of Israel, and all matters connected with the conduct of the battle are including in the category of Pekuach Nefesh (saving Jewish life), for who knows what tomorrow will bring? Therefore, this matter resulted in a sentence of death (for the negligent teacher) since he brought about a shortcoming in the welfare of Clal Yisrael.”

The concept of pekuach nefesh concerning the affairs of the general community is much broader than the laws of pekuach nefesh for the individual, including the public responsibility that falls on every person during times of war. The responsibility of the public, and the cautiousness that it must maintain in order not to weaken the national war effort, are multiplied many times over. Accordingly, Yoav’s teacher was sentenced as a rodef, even though he previously taught the same verse for decades, and even if it was very unlikely that one of his students would become commander in chief of the army, who, because of a childhood misunderstanding, would fail to destroy the enemy as required. Who could predict this chain of events? But even so, see what the teacher’s negligence led to, as the Netziv notes, “Who knows what tomorrow will bring?” Thus, the teacher is considered as someone who endangered the masses. How cautious we must be! This is similar to a case of Chillul Hashem, which, because of its severity, doesn’t adhere to conventional definitions, but rather, “In the matter of Chillul Hashem, whether it be committed accidentally or intentionally, it is all the same” (Avot, 4:4).

In this same light, the Netziv explains the words of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to Yehoshua: “Anyone who disobeys your command and does not follow every order you give will be put to death. Only be strong and courageous!” (Yehoshua, 1:18). Seemingly, Yehoshua was only a judge, and disobeying his orders shouldn’t be considered as one who rebels against the king. Rather, as the Netziv explains, “All this had to do with war, since Yehoshua was the one who called the Nation to battle, and the commander of the army during a war can be compared to a ruling king…. If someone had disobeyed Yehoshua’s orders, it would have weakened his command, and there could be no more glaring failure in Israel’s war against the Canaanites than this. Such a person would have been a rodef deserving of death. That is why the two tribes ended their speech with the words, ‘Only be strong and courageous.’ That was reason enough to kill a person who disobeyed, in order to fortify Yehoshua’s standing. And since the two tribes were the advance guard in the war, leading the battle, it was fitting and necessary for them to say this” – so that not the slightest trace of weakness enter the ranks of the commander and his forces as the Nation went off to war.

Needless to say, these matters are not to be considered practical halachic rulings for individual cases of this sort. The message we derive comes to enlighten our understanding regarding the gravity of collective responsibility surrounding Clal Yisrael during times of war, when we need all of our strengths to be united in the singular goal of Sanctifying the Name of G-d and vanquishing the enemy who seeks our harm. We are obligated to uproot every weakness of heart and weakness of spirit. Every single person must be responsible for his actions, words, and thoughts, to the very greatest degree, owing to their influence on the general Nation. Each and every person must recognize that “all the blood of Israel is hanging on his neck” – that his weakness will spread weakness. In knowing that we are fighting for Yichud Hashem (the Unification of G-d’s Name), his valor will add courage and bravery to sanctify the great and holy Name, which is revealed through our victory in war.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts


A concise and easy-reading guide to the laws of the Seder and its underlying concepts and themes.

The Sanctification of Hashem – HaRav Shlomo Aviner

Just as the first part of Yechezkel’s prophecy is coming true before our eyes, i.e. the return of the Nation of Israel to its Land, so too is a new, idealistic, ethical, and spiritual spirit manifesting itself in our time.  We must not despair that the process is a slow one. It will be perfected in later stages of our Salvation, and it will lead us to complete and supreme unity with Hashem and His Torah.

TZAV – Haftorah

The intrinsic value of the State of Israel is not dependent on the number of observant Jews who live here. Of course, our aspiration is that all of our people will embrace the Torah and the mitzvot. Nonetheless, the State of Israel is a mitzvah of the Torah, whatever religious level it has.

Purim on One Leg – HaRav Eliezer Melamed

We usually feel happy about the good things in life, but because life also includes evil and pain, this joy is not complete. However, when we understand that even the bad is ultimately transformed into good, this can make us feel especially joyful.