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TMOT Podcast, Two Minutes of Torah

Two Minutes of Torah: Shoftim – Motivating the Troops

I am a big fan of motivational speeches in movies. I am sure that many of you have that favorite speech that either inspires you to action or possibly even brings a tear to the eye. I am thinking about Bill Pullman as the President in Independence Day rallying the pilots before they embark on what seems to be a hopeless mission against the alien spaceships. Or maybe Al Pacino giving his halftime team talk in Any Given Sunday, as he rallies his players to find the extra inches on the football field. My favorite is probably Denzel Washington as Coach Boone in Remember the Titans, having led his players to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg he rallies them to see beyond their differences and to unite as a team.

When approaching a battle in sports or in war, the rallying cry of a leader can motivate people to action. In this week’s Torah portion we are told that the Priests are the ones to give the rallying cry. Telling the troops: “Hear O Israel! Today you are moving forward to do battle with your enemies. Do not be fainthearted. Do not fear and tremble or be terrified because of them, for Adonai your God goes with you to fight on your behalf against your enemies to give you victory” (Deuteronomy 29:3-4). It may appear strange that the Priests, rather than the Officers, were the ones to rally the troops. And yet, in a society which sought God’s intervention in the battle, the Priests were probably the most appropriate people to rally, motivate and reassure the troops before the fighting.

What is striking is that the Officers were not silent. Following the Priests they were to step forward and “say to the troops, ‘Who among you has built a new house and not dedicated it? He may go home, lest he die in battle and someone else dedicate it'” (Deuteronomy 20:5). This offer to avoid the fighting is then extended to those who have planted a vineyard and not benefitted from it, and those who are engaged, but not yet married. Finally the Officers asked: “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own” (Deuteronomy 20:8).

Rather than motivating the troops in a traditional sense, the Officers gave people an opportunity to avoid the battle. They offered a variety of chances for people to step back, so that fear of the battle was a sufficient reason not to fight.

We may assume that the Officers were those who had already experienced the horrors of war, and so wanted to make sure that only those who were ready and able approached the battle field. While this was not a rallying cry, it must have demonstrated to the assembled soldiers that their leaders recognized what they were approaching and the seriousness of going to war. They motivated the troops by demonstrating their empathy for the situation they faced, by offering them a chance to step back and by showing them that they were concerned for their individual well being.

This is not the traditional motivational speech of the movies, but with the Priests assuming that role, the Officers were free to model a different type of leadership. A leadership concerned for each individual being led, aware of the burden being asked and demonstrating an empathy for each person’s concerns. It may not be very Hollywood, but it is very Jewish.

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