Being the President of the United States, and the perceived leader of the free world is no small task. Making critical decisions for oneself or one's family is hard enough; to make such decisions, when the fate of a country, or the fate of the free world hangs in the balance is another. We will never know what truly went through Abraham Lincoln's mind after the attack on Fort Sumter, or Franklin Roosevelt's mind on December 7, 1941. And we cannot understand what must be going through our President's mind, as he navigates not only Syria and Russia, but also a tenuous cease fire in Israel and Gaza, and closer to home, misery in Ferguson, Missouri, and the images of a nine-year-old girl whose accident on a firing range this week led to the most unfortunate death of her instructor.
For those of us who sit on the sidelines, it is easy to "armchair quarterback" in a conversation, to tell others how we would act, or what others should or should not do. It is much harder to acknowledge and confront the seeming decay and disintegration of the world we know. War may not rage around us directly, yet, but the images, the articles, the push notifications on our iPhones from news sources, and posts that we read on Facebook and Twitter, leave an indelible mark. It is impossible to remain unaffected by what we see and what we hear. It is so difficult to make sense of and navigate the tragedies to which we are exposed.
Judaism offers us a possible avenue for comfort and strength. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, prepares the ancient Israelite troops for battle. Deuteronomy 20:1-4 reads:
When you go forth to battle against your enemy and see horses and chariots, a body of men more numerous than yourself, do not be afraid of them; for God, your God, is with you, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And it shall be when you will draw nearer to the battle that the priest will approach and speak to the people and shall say to them, "Hear O Israel, today you are drawing near to war against your enemies; let not your heart be weak, and do not be afraid, and do not run away, and do not be terrified because of them, because it is God, your God, Who is going with you to fight for you against your enemies -- to grant you victory."
It is easy to read this verse on a literal level, appreciating that the Israelites have nothing to fear because God will guide them and support them in their endeavors. Would that such a philosophy were easier to believe in. These days, we've seen so much fighting "in and for the name of God," that we might more immediately rebuff the sentiment from Deuteronomy than accept it as spiritual truth.
But this is still a passage that can bring us comfort and strength. The beauty of this passage rests first, in the role of the priest and second, in the concept of victory. Where we might think that the commanding officer would deliver a stirring and rousing oration to his troops, rallying them for the task ahead, Deuteronomy assigns that responsibility to the priest, whom later Jewish tradition calls meshuach milchama - the anointed for war. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the role of the priest was of paramount importance. "...[The priest] is a servant of the Sanctuary of Jewish Law, representing the nation's highest moral ideal...In times of war, Israel's confidence in victory should derive not from its military efficiency or from its knowledge of the arts of war, but from that same Law toward which the arts of peace are oriented."
In addition to the defining role of the priest, is Jewish tradition's definition of "victory." The Hebrew of the text, "to grant you victory," reads l'hoshia etchem. But these words can mean far more than "to grant you victory." The Hebrew word l'hoshia refers as well to deliverance, rescue, salvation, safety, and welfare. When we start tossing around words like "deliverance" and "salvation," it forces us to consider that what is at stake here is far more than a military operation. "True victory" comes, it would seem, in the words of the Prophet Zechariah, "Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit."
What might benefit us now, what draws us here on Shabbat, what will draw us here in the weeks to come as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a need for spiritual strength, a desire for greater spiritual fortitude to assist us in dealing with the pain, the heartbreak, that we encounter in the world around us. If we think that the crises in the world can be solved merely with military action, with brute force and weapons, what must it mean, according to our Torah portion, that a King must write himself a Torah scroll when he is seated on the throne of his people? Even leaders need a place to turn for spiritual and moral guidance. So too do we.
As we approach our celebration of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish tradition invites us to reflect on the words of Psalm 27, a Psalm attributed to David. How fitting it is, at this time where the world seems so broken, that we prepare for our High Holy Days, our season of introspection, by reading words attributed to a broken man - a man whose life was characterized, on one hand by episodes of war and conquest, and on the other hand, with the poignant and reflective words of Psalms. In times of crisis, "victory" for David came from knowing that God was close to him. He begins, "The LORD is my light and my help. Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I dread?" And later in the psalm he writes, "You have always been my help; do not forsake me; do not abandon me, my God, my deliverer....Show me Your way, LORD, and lead me on a straight path despite those arrayed against me." He concludes "Be strong, take courage, and place your hope in God." As we struggle to navigate the perilous world around us, let us remember the spiritual truths that have been entrusted to our care, that are available for us to access and consider, and that faith in something greater than ourselves, will ultimately enable us to live with greater strength, greater security, and greater comfort.
 Deuteronomy 20:1-4.
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim u'Milch'moteihem 7:3.
 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Chumash, pp. 740-741.
 Zechariah 4:6.
 Deuteronomy 17:18.
 Psalms 27:1.