In this week’s parasha the Torah teaches us the rules of the battlefield. The Torah states (Devarim 20:8) וְיָסְפוּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים לְדַבֵּר אֶל הָעָם וְאָמְרוּ מִי הָאִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ וְלֹא יִמַּס אֶת לְבַב אֶחָיו כִּלְבָבוֹ, and the officers shall continue to speak to the people and say, “What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart.” The Gemara states that this refers to הירא מעבירות שבידו, one who fears the sins in his possession. In the simple sense this means that one who is fearful of his sins is liable to dishearten his fellow soldiers, and for this reason the Torah instructs him to return from the battlefield. The Yerushalmi, however, states that the sin referred to here is that of one who interrupts with speech between placing the Tefillin Shel Yad and Tefillin Shel Rosh. What is the nature of this sin that is cause for a soldier you return from the battlefield?
I believe I once saw a commentator on the Torah write that the words עבירות שבידו alludes to the sin of talking between the placement of the Tefillin Shel Yad and the placement of the Tefillin Shel Rosh. Perhaps we can suggest an alternative explanation. The Gemara (Brachos 30b) states that various Amoraim allowed themselves a light moment with the justification of אנא תפילין מנחנא, I am wearing Tefillin. Apparently, the mitzvah of Tefillin tempers one’s nature and even if one has a lighter moment, he can depend on the counterbalance of the Tefillin to keep him in line. Interrupting between the placement of the Tefillin Shel Yad and the placement of the Tefillin Shel Rosh reflects a lack of fearing heaven. The Torah states, and the Gemara interprets this to be referring to Tefillin Shel Rosh. Until one places the Tefillin Shel Rosh, he has not achieved true fear of heaven, and he cannot conduct himself in a lighter manner. This explains the Yerushalmi cited previously regarding the sin of talking between the placement of the Tefillin Shel Yad and the Tefillin Shel Rosh. Furthermore, the Gemara refers to this sin as ירא מן העבירות שבידו, because he has embarked on a journey to achieving fear of HaShem but he has not yet arrived.
With this interpretation we can understand why the Gemara states that one who is afraid of his sins returns from the battlefield under cover of not having married his betrothed, dedicating his house, or redeeming his vineyard. All these situations describe one who is in the process of performing a noble act but not having completed it. This is akin to one who interrupts between the placement of the Tefillin Shel Yad and the Tefillin Shel Rosh. Such a person is not suitable for the battlefield, where one is required to start the task of fighting the enemy and destroying him.
As we have begun the special days of Elul, we should bear in mind that we have commenced the battle against our Evil Inclination and HaShem should allow us to fight the Evil Inclination until the finish.
Have a Victorious Shabbos!