When the Israelite army returned from their victorious war against Midian, the Torah specifies that the soldiers collected all of the spoils and handed them over to the leaders and the rest of the nation back home. Rashi (1040 – 1105) explains that this is highlighted to testify to and to praise the scrupulous honesty of the soldiers who could have easily taken at least some of the bounty for themselves. This war was unique, according to R. Moshe Feinstein’s (1895 – 1986) explanation of Rashi, in that the nation shared collective rights to all of the spoils and they were not just ownerless and free for the taking. Had the soldiers kept for themselves some of the property of the vanquished Midianites they would have been guilty of stealing. The fact that they did not do so, even though they could have easily justified taking something for themselves since they were the ones that actually fought the war, demonstrated their righteousness which we apparently wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Actually, even without the Torah’s mentioning the soldiers conduct vis-a-vis the spoils, we really should have known the soldiers’ righteousness. Elsewhere, the Torah forbids anyone with even the slightest sin from engaging in battle. As the army approaches the battlefield, one of the formal announcements that are made by the army officers instructs those that have committed even the most minor sins to turn around and go home (see Rashi, Devarim 20:8). That being the case, why did the Torah have to testify to their righteousness an additional time by emphasizing their avoidance of stealing any of the spoils?
R. Feinstein explains that there is a particular reason that even the normally exceptionally virtuous soldiers might lapse
into taking property that does not belong to them. Going to battle desensitizes its participants to taking human life and plundering their weapons and property. Even when the circumstances of war permit and even require killing and pillaging a dangerous enemy and his possessions, it is part of human nature to become somewhat apathetic to taking human life and prone to stealing as a result of war no matter how justified it may happen to be. Therefore in the case of the soldiers that fought Midian it would have made sense to think that although the soldiers were generally virtuous their just-concluded war may have had an adverse effect on them. That is why the Torah’s emphasis on the fact that they didn’t take any of the spoils for themselves is necessary to demonstrate their righteousness.
I once told a rabbi that was intimately familiar with the realities of religious life in smaller Jewish communities about a continuing-education class for rabbis on a topic in Halacha (Torah law) that I had recently participated in. He told me that he thought it was a fantastic idea, especially for a rabbi living in a relatively small Orthodox community. A smaller community, he said, must make certain concessions in various areas of Halacha to be able to maintain the fundamental infrastructure of Jewish life. Although these concessions are legitimate and justified, they are sometimes not in accordance with the traditionally standard practice. Therefore a rabbi that works with those concessions on a day-to-day basis must find a way to ensure that he stays connected to and aware of the ideal or standard practices that are part of our heritage and tradition.
In life, we all have an ideal we would like to live up to: how we want to spend our time, how we want to behave, and how we want our relationships to look. Due to the unpredictable nature of the world, we often have to cope with special circumstances and times in life that necessitate doing things differently than we would have liked – sometimes for extended periods of time. Making concessions that enable us to cope with the reality of life is healthy and necessary. Like the Israelite soldiers, we have to make sure our circumstances don’t dilute our goals and our values. Our task is to find a way to avoid “settling for less” and to keep in touch with our deep moral compass and our life’s mission and ideals while we work our way through the battlefield.