Courageous Women

“The best protection any woman can have…is courage.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In discussing the laws of going to war, parshat Shoftim provides a model for coping with fears and anxieties as well as insight into what courage and commitment look like in serving one’s nation.

When the people approach a battlefield, the kohen is instructed to address them. His speech encourages the people to overcome their fear and to rely on their belief in Hashem as a source of strength. True courage is when one takes action despite one’s fears. In a voluntary war, the Torah lists several groups of exemptions due to circumstance. Surprisingly — given the kohen’s previous exhortations to overcome fear — the list of exempted people culminates with a person who is “afraid and disheartened.” Rabbi Akiva understands this to be literal: the Torah recognizes that some may be unable to overcome their anxiety, and ensures that they are encouraged to leave so they do not spread panic.

However, in a biblically mandated war (milchemet mitzvah) such as a war of self-defense, everyone is required to participate, even those who are fearful. Necessity and duty outweigh fear. According to the Mishna, even women are included in a milchemet mitzvah. The Radbaz says this is only a suggestion, and states that women served in support roles but not in combat. This is the halakhic basis for women who choose to serve in non-combat units in the IDF.

Stepping up (and leaning in) takes courage. This week marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. The right to contribute to society — to vote, to pursue education, to choose to serve in the IDF — may seem natural for women today, but it took courage and vision. Drawing on the strength and courage of the women and men who fought to make the world better, there is much more we can do. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov

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