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    Soldiers in the wilderness – B’midbar

    pinchas chaplain army warThe Book of B’midbar opens with a census of the Children of Israel.

    Since every word in the Torah needs to be considered carefully, we need to look at the key word, l’tzivotam – “Count them according to their armies” (Num.1:1-3).

    If we translate tzava as “hosts”, as the older versions do, there may be less of a problem. But not all the commentators do so.

    Rashbam sees it quite clearly in a military sense.

    The people would soon be entering the Land of Israel, he reminds us, and young men of twenty-plus would be needed to go into battle.

    Nachmanides also states that the entry to the Land would require military capacity, and the Israelites had to be prepared and not rely on miracles.

    The text itself uses the phrase, “From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war”.

    Further evidence arises from the fact that the Levites were explicitly excluded (Num. 1:49-50); their spiritual tasks excused them from military duty.

    Why did military service begin at 20?

    The answer which Pir’kei Avot gives us at the end of the fifth chapter is ben esrim lir’dof – “at twenty for pursuit” – which suggests that 20 is the age at which physical capacity is at its peak, though some render lir’dof as “seek a livelihood”.

    National service does require military preparedness; but pursuing an honest livelihood also requires training.

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