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Exploring the Depths of Soldiers Fear in War

הרב שי טחןיז אדר א, תשפד26/02/2024

Since there are indeed many things to be afraid of, if the soldiers were to start thinking about all those things, they would become frightened and wouldn't be able to fight

צילום: יניב חניא
During times of war, soldiers often experience a unique and profound sense of fear that is difficult to comprehend for those who have not been in similar situations. There are several reasons why soldiers may experience such intense fear:

1. Existential Threat: Soldiers are often faced with the reality of life-threatening situations where their lives are at risk on a daily basis. The constant exposure to danger and the uncertainty of survival can evoke a deep existential fear.
2. Combat Stress: The stress of combat, including the
צילום: יניב חניא
sights, sounds, and chaos of battle, can overwhelm the senses and trigger fear responses. The fear of injury or death, as well as witnessing the suffering of comrades, can contribute to intense emotional distress.
3. Traumatic Experiences: Soldiers may witness or experience traumatic events during war, such as loss of friends, civilians, or innocent lives, which can leave lasting psychological scars. These experiences can exacerbate feelings of fear and anxiety.
4. Uncertainty and Powerlessness: Soldiers often face situations where they have little control over their circumstances, such as being outnumbered, outgunned, or unable to predict enemy movements. This sense of powerlessness and uncertainty can heighten feelings of fear and vulnerability.
5. Moral and Ethical Dilemmas: Soldiers may be confronted with difficult moral and ethical decisions during war, such as following orders that conflict with their personal values or witnessing atrocities committed by their own or enemy forces. These moral dilemmas can induce feelings of guilt, shame, and existential dread.
6. Fear of the Unknown: War zones are unpredictable environments where danger lurks around every corner. The fear of the unknown, including ambushes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and enemy tactics, can create a pervasive sense of anxiety and fear.
7. Post-Traumatic Stress: For many soldiers, the fear experienced during war can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating condition characterized by intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. PTSD can further amplify feelings of fear and contribute to long-term psychological distress.

Although overcoming feelings of fear is extremely challenging, it remains a Torah obligation to do so, as the Torah states: "כִּי תֵּצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה וְגו’... לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם" (דברים כ,א).
Despite all the warnings, one might ask if it's possible to overcome fear when a soldier is in battle, experiencing extreme conditions and scenes. The answer to this dilemma is found in the Torah, where one must strengthen their belief in Hashem at that moment. This belief and trust will pave the way for victory through Hashem's assistance.
Rabbenu Yona (שערי תשובה פ״ג אות לג) further elaborates on this concept :”This pasuk instructs us not to fear even when encountering formidable adversaries. It serves as a reminder that when facing adversity, one must internalize the belief in divine salvation and place trust in it. As it says in Tehilim (פט, י): "His salvation is near those who fear Him," emphasizing the proximity of divine deliverance to those who hold reverence for Him. Similarly, Yeshayahu (נא, יב) poses the question, "What scares you that you fear man who must die," challenging the notion of fearing mortal beings rather than placing trust in the eternal power of Hashem.”
The obligation to not fear is emphasized to the soldiers before going to war by the priest called Meshuach Milchama. He gathers the people and declares to those with soft hearts to leave the battlefield, as the verse states: "The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, 'Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest his fear infect his comrades, causing their courage to falter like his".
The Rambam(הלכות מלכים פרק ז’ הלכה ג’) says: When the armies assume battle positions and will shortly join in war, the Meshuach Milchamah stands in an elevated place before the array of the entire army. He addresses them in Hebrew:
"Listen, Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not break ranks before them. Hashem, your God, is the One accompanying you to do battle for you against your enemies to deliver you" (דברים כ, ג-ד).
Afterwards, another priest of a lower rank proclaims them to the people in a loud voice. The officer announces on his own initiative: 'Is there a man who is afraid or faint-hearted? Let him go home...'
Those announcements are meant to separate the brave soldiers from those who are weak at heart and aren't able to face a sword without fear. Those who are naturally fearful cannot join the force, as they would not benefit the battle but rather cause defeat. If these individuals decide to stay and fight, they aren't allowed on the battlefield to retreat, because this will cause others to feel scared as well, leading to a downfall for the entire army.
The Rambam states(הלכות מלכים פרק ז’ הלכה ד’) : "After these individuals (the weak) depart from the battlefront, the army is arrayed again and commanding officers are appointed at the head of the nation. Powerful officers with iron axes in their hands are placed in the rear of each array of troops. If a person wants to leave the battle, they have permission to chop off his legs, for flight is the beginning of defeat."
Also, Rashi emphasizes that very point(דברים כ, ט) .

Since there are indeed many things to be afraid of, if the soldiers were to start thinking about all those things, they would become frightened and wouldn't be able to fight the war and emerge victorious. Therefore, they are commanded to remove all personal thoughts from their minds and concentrate solely on the battlefield.
The Rambam(שופטים סימן ז’ הלכה טז) writes:
"Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he should rely on the Savior of Israel in times of need. He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of Hashem's Name. Therefore, he should place his soul in his hand and not show fright or fear.
He should not worry about his wife or children. On the contrary, he should wipe their memory from his heart, removing all thoughts from his mind except the war.
Anyone who begins to feel anxious and worry in the midst of battle to the point where he frightens himself violates a negative commandment, as it is written (דברים כ, ג) : 'Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not break ranks before them.'
Furthermore, he is responsible for the blood of the entire Jewish nation. If he is not valiant, if he does not wage war with all his heart and soul, it is considered as if he shed the blood of the entire people…
In contrast, anyone who fights with his entire heart, without fear, with the intention of sanctifying Hashem's name alone, can be assured that he will find no harm, nor will bad overtake him. He will be granted a proper family and gather merit for himself and his children forever. He will also merit eternal life in the world to come”.

Another concept that the Torah reveals to us is that often the enemy, in reality, is weak but employs various methods to instill fear in us. These tactics include the use of loud sounds, displays of strength, threats, and warnings. Thus, the Torah advises us not to be alarmed by these empty threat methods.
The Torah states: "Let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, and do not be terrified of them" (דברים כ, ג). Rashi explains that the enemy employs four forms of psychological warfare, and the verse offers reassurance not to succumb to fear:
- "Let not your heart faint" in response to the neighing of horses and the sharpening of the enemy's swords.
- "Fear not" in reaction to the clashing of shields and the noise of their boots.
- "Nor be alarmed" by the sound of trumpets.
- "Do not be terrified" in the face of the enemy's shouts.
Since much of that fear is not genuine but rather a tactic to intimidate us, knowing that fear and retreat are the pathways to defeat. Once we understand that much of what the enemy does is empty threats meant to instill fear in us, we can overcome it much easier since we'll understand their tactics.
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