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Judaism: Defending a Nation of Justice and Peace

When a harsh response is the most moral response.
Published: Thursday, August 28, 2014 8:27 AM


My family and I made aliyah July 2nd.

The same day the three teenagers were buried.

Since then, we have been staying in various parts of Israel: from Talmon to Alon Shvut and from Modiin to Kiryat Shmuel. We have experienced an Israeli war; sons sent off to fight, shelters in apartments, buses on schedule and the sweet smells of Shabbat (Sabbath) cooking wafting through intensely peaceful neighborhoods. We have experienced a nation dedicated to a feeling of peace – even in the midst of battle.

The war was not far off. On the way to the park today, one of my five-year-olds (I have three) asked me what the procedure is if a siren goes off and we’re more than 100 meters from our home. I was proud of him, using meters after less than two months in the country. I told him the procedure and then I told him that, given the newest ceasefire, he probably didn’t need to worry.

He does need to worry; just maybe not today. We all know the threat hasn’t gone away. And as people and politicians second guess each other, the truth remains – within what we consider acceptable moral bounds, there is no immediate solution to the conflict. As covered in other articles I’ve contributed to both Arutz7 and the Jewish Press, I do believe there is a long-term solution – but nothing we can carry out now.

This is the world we live in.

We have ideals – ideals of peace and harmony. It was the Torah which introduced the idea of a peaceful messianic era to the world. We aspire to it – and yet it is beyond our reach. We have conceptions of a repaired world. My conception is of a world in which we act in the image of G-d; with our creative and spiritual potentials being realized and feeding upon one another as we reach ever greater heights of accomplishment and connection.

My conception is of a world in which we don’t need destruction to drive us to improve.

But my conception isn’t the world we live in.

This disconnection is the focus of this week’s Torah portion.

The harshest part of this portion involves the destruction of enemy cities that fail to surrender. When the children of Israel conquer a resisting city, outside their own borders, they are commanded to put every male to the sword. It is such an incredibly violent command that it seems nearly impossible to reconcile with the commandments to release recently married soldiers or treat fruit trees well. How can the Jewish people – a people dedicated to actualizing creative and spiritual potential - be involved in such slaughter?

The answer comes near the beginning of the reading, with the discussion of kingship. The Torah describes an appropriate king – a brother, and a countryman and a man who does not pursue horses, women or money. But the written Torah doesn’t describe the powers of a king. In a portion that dedicates significant text to witnesses, judges, priests and prophets, this omission seems odd.

What does a king do?

Kingship seems like a distant concept today. It is critical to understanding both this portion and the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashana. I learned what Kingship was on my wedding day. My jacket was across the room. I was going to get up and get it when I had a revelation. It would be better to ask somebody else to get it for me. It would be their honor and delight to serve me in that way – on a day when I was king. It is this distinction that separates even powerless royalty from the strongest of rulers. People delight in the service of the royal.

And that is the power of a king of Israel. The people delight in his service. And so he is powerful.

But the people shouldn’t extend this delight to a king who fails one of several tests. The three key tests involve horses, women and money. Of these, the prohibition on horses is most revealing. Horses were widely available. And yet there is a reference to returning to Egypt to acquire them. What is wrong with trading with Egypt in horses if we were already trading with Egypt for grain? And why couldn’t we buy them from Greece, Babylon or the Ishmaelite tribes?

In the ancient world, horses represented military might. In this light, when the Torah is speaking of a return to Egypt, I believe it is describing a king who takes on the self-importance of a Pharaoh or Sihon. He pursues power so aggressively that it goes to his head – he becomes another Pharaoh, and the people are symbolically returned to the land of their captivity. More importantly, our connection to G-d as our ruler is severed.

An appropriate king is one who does not pursue military power, pleasure or money. Likewise, the people who love to serve him do not serve those ends.

When we combine this idea with this portion’s commandments not to move borders and to resolve disputes through procedure, what we end up describing is a fundamentally peaceful nation. If internal and external boundaries are respected, if internal and external conflicts are resolved procedurally and if the government isn’t pursuing power, pleasure or money, then there will be no need or desire for war with one’s neighbors.

The nation will have a divine and productive character in an imperfect world.

When that most destructive of human activities – war – comes, it will be started by the enemy.

With this kind of war, the priest can always make the same speech – he can reassure the soldiers that it is a holy war and a justified war. He can reassure them of their victory – even if our nation is outnumbered. And the officers in charge can dismiss those soldiers whose personal fulfillment would be cut short by direct engagement in battle. Even in war, we strive to maximize human fulfillment.

When we fight an enemy in these circumstances, human potential might be maximized by a short, sharp and brutal conflict.  It eliminates an aggressive threat, and it dissuades other attackers who are bent on destruction. It leads to peace.

We saw this attitude on display with the massive allied bombing campaigns against civilians in World War II (e.g. Dresden and Hiroshima). Massive numbers of civilians were killed – in order to break the will of an enemy who had clearly chosen war against peaceful nations.

The justice of that approach – given that it clearly violated all modern norms of behavior – will be debated for centuries to come.

But it worked.

To me, this Torah portion reads like a list of pre-requisites for a nation enabled and commanded to launch such total war. If we are a nation of law and procedure; if we are a nation that supports our government and whose government does not seek its own power, pleasure or money; if we are a nation that connects to timeless justice; if we are a nation that listens to the word of G-d; if we are a nation that respects borders and procedures; if all of this is true, then we will be a nation of peace.

And when we are attacked, a harsh response will be the best response. Your response must not be needlessly destructive –terms of submission must be offered and G-d’s bounty, represented by fruit trees, may not be destroyed. But within those constraints, incredible violence should be deployed. It is better than continual war which encourages the creation of new and opportunistic enemies.

This is not advice for our conflict with Hamas. The advice is for any society seeking to maximize human potential. Start with oneself: constrain the human powers you support and develop a nation of justice and peace.

Once you have achieved that, then you are permitted to defend it in incredibly violent ways.

The world is not perfect – but we fundamentally believe that it can be trained.

And when it is, our children will no longer need to worry.