What is true agony?

Parshas Shoftim describes those who are exempt from fighting in the Jewish army. They include: one who has built a house but has not yet enjoyed its comfort; one who has planted a vineyard but has still not harvested its fruits; and one who has engaged a woman but has not yet taken her to be his wife (D’varim 20:5-7).

Soldiers in any of the aforementioned situations are sent home from the battlefield, as their deaths would be a tragedy. While any loss of life is devastating, the fact that these men might die with unfinished business back home truly tugs at the heartstrings. Moreover, such fighters are likely to be burdened with worry and regret, and their preoccupation puts themselves, their comrades, and the mission at risk. With their homes, businesses, or life partners on the line, they must return home – for the sake of the army and morality itself.

Interestingly, when describing the agony that these deaths would elicit, the Torah does not simply say that these men may never get to enjoy the houses, fields, or love they worked so hard to establish. The verses emphasize that if these soldiers die, then others may come and reap the rewards of their endeavors. When a man is at war, and has to consider that someone else might end up with his home, vineyard, or soulmate – that is the ultimate agmas nefesh, emotional torment (Rashi, v. 5). This is the true tragedy we are desperate to preempt.

This is an astounding insight into human nature. Even more troubling than the thought of loss is the fear that a competitor may profit from our misfortune. We are not bothered by suffering as much as we are the prospect of being inferior to the success of those around us. We may even be willing to tolerate pain, as long as it is not as bad as what others have to undergo.

The Orchos Tzadikim (ch. 14) illustrates this latter point with an apocryphal story of a king who promised to give a poor man anything he desired. The catch was, however, that whatever he got, his friend would receive twice as much. The man, clearly lacking basic necessities and desirous of riches, agonized over his decision, which would doubly enrich his buddy. Eventually, the man made his decision: “Poke out one of my eyes.” He knew he could never enjoy any luxury of which his friend had more, but he could tolerate any suffering of which he had less.

From our parshah, we see what people tend to consider true agony. Soldiers at war pose a danger to themselves and others when they are obsessed with not their own losses, but with the gains of others. With proper introspection and awareness of this phenomenon, we can strive to appreciate the blessings that Hashem has given us – and keep our eyes to ourselves.

Rabbi Yaakov Abramovitz is Assistant Rabbi at the Young Israel of West Hempstead, while also pursuing a PsyD in School and Clinical Child Psychology at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.