“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.”  -David Ben-Gurion

Within the genre of today’s Hollywood war movies, there is a common motif of the soldier coming to terms with his/her fear of going to war. Inevitably, this fearful soldier receives a heartfelt pep talk from a commanding officer or more experienced companion. Perhaps the first such pep-talk script can be found in Deuteronomy 20:1: “When you go to battle against your enemies, and see horses, chariots, and a people more than you, you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you…”

The Torah commands that the officers should go through the Israelite troops to find those soldiers who have recently built a home but have not dedicated it, planted a vineyard but have not eaten of its fruit, or betrothed a wife but have not wed her. These men are to be sent home. 

At the same time, the officers are to announce, “Any man who is fearful and faint-hearted, let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers’ hearts melt as his heart” (Deuteronomy 20:8).

Fear is a natural emotion, as is embarrassment at being afraid. The reprieve from service for the new homeowner, field owner and bridegroom serve an additional purpose of providing anonymity to those who choose to go home out of fear, for all four categories are called out together. 

According to the sages, two types of men are thus saved from embarrassment, those who are afraid of war and those who are sinful: 

“Rabbi Akiva declares that: ‘fearful and fainthearted’ is to be understood literally as meaning [a soldier] who is unable to stand in the battle-ranks and see a drawn sword. Rabbi Jose the Galilean says: ‘fearful and fainthearted’ alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed” (Sotah 44a).

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