The beginning of the eighth perek describes the speech presented to the soldiers as they readied for war. It taught that some soldiers, due to various personal circumstances, were sent home prior to the battle and instead provided support for the soldiers on the battle field. There was another person that was also asked to leave; the pasuk describes him as “a person who is scared (yareh) and of soft heart (rach levav)”. The Mishnah (8:5) records a debate regarding to whom this description refers.
R’ Akiva explains that the description is meant to be interpreted in the literal sense. In other words anyone who “could not stand in the heat of the battle or see the flash of the swords” was sent home. The Ibn Ezra elaborates on this opinion explaining that the terms yareh and rach levav refer to two different people each with distinct fears. The rach levav is simply understood as one who is scared of getting hurt. Yet there is another fear that appears to be an equally threatening force of the battle. That is of the yareh, who the Ibn Ezra explains, is the one that is unable to stomach inflicting pain on another. The Tosefta (Sotah 7) writes that even the greatest of heroes, if he is merciful, was sent home.
The Ramban provides a different distinction between the yareh and the rach levav. He interprets the rach levav in the same way as we have explained – one that is unable to bare the brutality of the battle field. However he explains that the yareh does not fear the reality of war, but rather lacks bitachon in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This ‘fear’ is far more detrimental in a battle where “Hashem... walks with you and fights for you”.
The second opinion in the Mishnah, provided by R’ Yosi Ha’Glili, is that “ha’yareh ve’rach levav” refers to a person that is fearful “of a sin that he has in his hand”. The Maharsha explains that these battles operated in a miraculous manner in which Hashem fought the war for them. In the times of Yehoshua, for example, when “only” thirty-six people were killed in the battle at Ai, it was considered a tragic defeat. Consequently the soldiers would need to be of exceptional status in order to merit such miracles. The presence of sin therefore was a very real fear.
The Gemara explains that R’ Yosi Ha’Glili also agrees with R’ Akiva that a person that is literally scared returns from battle – this is learnt from a separate pasuk. “Ha’yareh ve’rach levav” simply refers to someone else. This can lead one to ask why ‘fear’, specifically, is used in context with sin. Furthermore, one would think that the less than righteous would have a reduced sensitivity or fear of their sins.
The Or Ha’Chaim therefore explains that one that has a sin would be struck with an unexplainable fear whether or not he was aware of his sins. The soldiers required miracles to protect them during the battles. This fear (as generated by the person’s mazal - see Megillah 3a) would be an indication that he has a sin making him unworthy of miracles and placing him in clear and present danger.
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