More pointedly, Ralbag explained the verse as praising Avraham for taking with him into battle “chanichav yelidei beito,” those raised in his home and educated by him, saying it is appropriate to take into battle only those “who were trained in Avraham’s ways and values since their youth.”
In a similar context, Radak (Yehoshua 5:14) rejected the criticism of Yehoshua for abandoning his Torah study on the eve of battle as a “far-fetched exposition, for wartime is not a time for Torah study.” Further, Chazal underscored that King David’s fighters – Benayahu ben Yehoyada, Adino HaEtzni, and others – were the Sanhedrin, they were the Torah Sages of the generation.
What happened to us, to the concept of the scholar-warrior, to the notion of the man of Torah leading the Jewish nation into battle? In short, the exile robbed us of that, and over the centuries we made a virtue out of passivity, pacifism, and even surrender. We artificially created a division of labor in Jewish life between students and soldiers.
Who better to teach us this point than Yehoshua, depicted in the Torah (Shemot 33:11) as one “who never left Moshe’s tent,” the tent of study. Really? What about Moshe’s command to Yehoshua (Shemot 17:9), “choose men for us and go out to battle with Amalek”? The answer is that the battle itself is part of Torah.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote that “the Torah personality is the fighter who conquers the land of Israel.” Only the greatest in Torah study can fully conquer the land of Israel. Indeed, there are two defining statements about Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua” (Avot 1:1), and the prophecy of Eldad and Medad in the wilderness, “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the land” (Sanhedrin 17a).
The two statements are inseparable; that was Yehoshua. That was the essence of his Divine service, and completely normal. His dedication to Torah and divine service was comprehensive and not bifurcated. Such a personality, and such an endeavor, is not bitul Torah (the nullification of Torah) but rather kiyum haTorah, the very fulfillment of the Torah. Who is more suited to conquering the land of Israel and investing it with holiness than people who love Torah, Divine service and the Jewish people?
The exile took such a toll on us that we have had a hard time re-acclimating ourselves to the normalcy of Torah, with many still idealizing the division of responsibilities and incapable of merging the book and the sword.
Many persist in conforming all the aforementioned giants of Jewish life to match their pre-conceptions or agendas, to render them one-dimensional figures that ultimately diminish their greatness. They denude them of their military exploits and ensconce them in the House of Study, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They once might have been – during the exile – but today, the halls of the Hesder yeshivot are populated with roshei yeshiva who were captains, majors and colonels in the military – and who better to guide the Torah Jew through the maze of modern life than the contemporary scholar-warrior?
Rav Shlomo Aviner once identified three cardinal mitzvot that are fulfilled through IDF service: saving Jewish lives, conquest of the land of Israel, and Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name that is engendered when the nations of the world see that Jewish blood is not cheap.
There is another Kiddush Hashem as well – when all Jews see that the Torah can be the foundation of a modern state and that the Torah Jew can serve God in every sphere of life. Those mitzvot are certainly vital to an individual Jew’s self-definition as they are to the existence of a Jewish state.
For sure, a free society can willingly choose to exempt certain Torah scholars from military service as it exempts others for frivolous reasons. But the ideal of the scholar-warrior should be nurtured and cherished as the one best capable of ensuring Israel’s defense and its sacred standing. And it forever deprives the secular Israeli of his persistent complaint, whether sincere or contrived, that “ultra-Orthodox” Jews are parasites who contribute nothing to society and live off the blood and sweat of others. We can hold the book and sword together and achieve greatness in both; can they?