Shoftim: The land for peace travesty

The laws of warfare talk about enemies, and how to treat them.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

In the midst of Parashat Shoftim, which begins and ends with laws of social justice, the Torah infuses some of the laws of warfare: “When you got out to war against your enemies, and you will see horses and chariots [1], a nation greater than you – you shall not fear them, because Hashem your G-d, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1). Thus the Torah begins its instructions on how to wage war against our enemies.

The Midrash notes a seeming redundancy in the words “when you got out to war against your enemies...”. Isn’t it obvious that you go out to war against your enemies? Would you then go out to war against your friends?

“‘When you got out to war against your enemies’ – what is the inference of ‘against your enemies’? – G-d said: go out against them as enemies. Just as they have no mercy upon you, so too you shall have no mercy upon them. See what they say: ‘Come, let us cut them off from being a nation, and the name Israel will never again be remembered’ (Psalms 83:5) – the self-same [Israel, in whose] name [2] it is said ‘Blessed be Hashem, the G-d of Israel’ (Psalms 106:48). Therefore, go out against them as enemies” (Tanhuma, Shoftim 15).

The Midrash here cites Psalm 83, King David’s impassioned prayer that G-d grant us the power to defeat all our enemies – “the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and Hagrites; Geval and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the denizens of Tyre; also Assyria...” (Psalms 83:7-9).

How familiar this motley collection of Israel-haters sounds to every modern reader!

Edom – European civilisation.

Ishmaelites – the Arabs (Targum).

Moab – the area east of the Dead Sea (Hashemite-occupied Trans-Jordan, currently the Kingdom of Jordan).

Hagrites – descendants of Abraham’s concubine Hagar, from another husband, but who nevertheless claim descendancy from Abraham (Ibn Ezra and Metzudat David ad loc.). Intriguingly, however, the Targum renders Hagrites as הוּנְגְּרָאֵי – maybe Hungary? Maybe an oblique reference to eastern Europe? Or maybe a variant form of אַנְגַּרְיָא – “oppressor”, an oblique reference to all oppressive regimes?

Geval and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the denizens of Tyre – all residents of Israel and the immediate surroundings (Malbim ad loc.).

And both the Torah and King David tell us how to relate to enemies who come to destroy us. “When you got out to war against your shall not fear them, because Hashem your G-d, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you”.

“My G-d – make them as the whirling chaff, as straw before the wind, like a fire burning the forest, and like a flame igniting the mountains. Thus pursue them with Your tempest, and with Your storm terrify them!” (Psalms 83:14-16).

However else we relate to enemies who come to exterminate us, cowering in fear is emphatically not the Jewish way. Certainly not when fighting in the Land of Israel and for the Land of Israel. And giving enemies, who are sworn to our destruction, parts of the Land of Israel is equally emphatically not the Jewish way of relating to them.

This is why it is so distressing to hear leaders in Israel, ostensibly religious leaders, leaders who carry the honoured title “Rabbi”, preaching the “ideal” of giving “land for peace”.

No – this is not “land for peace”: it is contemptible cowardice, trembling in fear before every genocidal psychopath who trumpets: “Come, let us cut them off from being a nation, and the name Israel will never again be remembered!”.

In this context, it is particularly apposite to quote the Midrash Shocher Tov on Psalms 83:

“‘They said: Come, let us cut them off from being a nation’ – as long as Israel endures, He is called the G-d of Israel; and if Israel is uprooted – then whose G-d will He be called?!”.

As long as Israel is securely ensconced on its Land, G-d is recognised as the G-d of a strong nation. And when Israel is uprooted from its Land, dispersed in exile, G-d is perceived as weak, unable to protect His nation. And when Israel, as a nation, cowers before threats and attempts to appease Jew-hating enemies by bribing them with “land for peace” – then G-d Himself is perceived as feckless.

When Jewish religious leaders, Rabbis who ostensibly represent G-d’s will to the Jewish nation, talk about the “ideal” of giving away parts of the Land of Israel – then they inevitably delegitimize Israel’s entire national mission. If Jewish leaders, who ostensibly have the authority to adjudicate Judaism, have such little respect for our holiest sites – Hebron, Shechem, Jericho, Bethlehem, the very cradle of our history – then how can anyone take our claim to any of Israel seriously?

Let us view this from another angle:

Dozens of times, the Torah defines the Land of Israel as the Land which Hashem gives us as an inheritance:

– “Hashem said to Abram...: Raise your eyes now and see...because the entire Land which you see – to you I give it and to your seed forever” (Genesis 13:14-15);

– “I will take you to Me as a nation, and I will be your G-d...and I will bring you to the Land over which I have raised My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you as an inheritance” (Exodus 6:7-8);
– “You are crossing the Jordan to the Land of Canaan; will inherit the Land and you will dwell in it, because I have given you the Land to inherit” (Numbers 33:51-53);

– “Hear O Israel: You are crossing the Jordan this day, to come to inherit...great cities... You shall know this day that it is Hashem your G-d Who passes before you... He will destroy [your enemies] and He will subdue them before you, so you will inherit them and you will destroy them swiftly as Hashem has told you” (Deuteronomy 9:1-3);

– “...because you are crossing the Jordan to come to inherit the Land which Hashem your G-d gives you, and you will inherit it and you will dwell in it” (Deuteronomy 11:31);

– “You shall cross the Jordan, and you shall dwell in the Land which Hashem your G-d bequeaths to you” (Deuteronomy 12:10);

– “It will be, on the day that you cross the Jordan to the Land which Hashem your G-d gives you...” (Deuteronomy 27:2).

And countless more times throughout the Torah.

The Talmud (Berachot 5a) and the Midrash (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Va-et’chanan 32 and Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro, Massechta de-Bachodesh 10) cite Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay: “G-d gave three precious gifts to Israel...the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come”.

Consider the inference of all this. G-d Himself has given us the Land of Israel as an inheritance, as a precious gift. Now imagine that you had given a precious gift to a dearly-beloved only son as his inheritance. And imagine that your son would then casually give away that precious gift, showing with what contempt he treats your precious gift and rejects the inheritance which you had bequeathed to him.

How would you feel? Hurt? Slighted? Betrayed? Humiliated?

How do you think G-d feels when His beloved first-born son Israel [3] spurns His precious gift which He has given him as an inheritance?

How can any Jew – particularly a Jew who claims to believe in the Torah – dare to give away what G-d has given to us?! How can any Jew who claims the title “Rabbi” dare to claim that nations whose sole identity is the extermination of Israel have more of a right to the Land of Israel than the Children of Israel do?! How can any Jew, with the slightest shred of Jewish identity, dare to show such heinous contempt for the G-d Who decreed that this Land belongs to His children?!

Even as the Torah commands us to fight for the Land of Israel, even as it gives us the rules of warfare, it recognizes that not everyone is cut out to fight as a front-line combat soldier, which is why it exempts certain men from combat:

“Upon your approach to war, the Kohen [Priest] will come and address the nation, and he will say to them: Hear O Israel! You are coming close to war not fear...because it is Hashem your G-d Who goes with you to fight your enemies for you to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:2-3).

But then, after this pep-talk, the officers offer every potential soldier a way out:

“Who is the man who has built a new house and not consecrated it? – Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man consecrate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? – Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? – Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man marry her” (vs. 5-7).

And then the final dispensation: “Who is the man who is afraid and faint-hearted? – Let him go and return to his house, so he does not demoralize his brothers, like his heart” (v. 8).

Who is “the man who is afraid and faint-hearted”? – According to  Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, this is “one who is afraid of the sins he has committed, which is why the Torah made him contingent upon all the others, so he can return because of them” (Mishnah, Sotah 8:5). That is to say, instead of admitting that he is afraid (either afraid of war or afraid of being killed because of his sins), he can leave honourably together with the other soldiers who built a new house and did not yet inaugurate it, or planted a new vineyard and did not yet redeem it, or betrothed a woman and did not yet marry her.

This is sound psychology: after all, a man who is afraid of war might well also be afraid of admitting in public that he is afraid or that he is a sinner, and might out of cowardice remain with the ranks, only to lose nerve once the battle begins and thereby demoralise the other troops. So the Torah allows him this way out without embarrassing himself.

This is sound battle tactic: one coward or defeatist can demoralize an entire unit. Better – far better – exempt such a man from battle. He can do far more good for the nation far from the front lines by supplying food and water to the troops, and by building the roads – which tasks are given to those who leave the battlefield (Rambam, Laws of Kings 7:9).

Yes, the Torah fully takes into account human weakness, both physical and spiritual. The Torah exempts both the physical and the spiritual coward from war.

And just as the army is better off, stronger, has higher morale, without cowards and poltroons in its ranks, so too the nation as a whole would be far better off, far stronger, with far higher morale, if those among us who don’t dare believe in our claims and our right to the entire Land of Israel would exploit the honourable way out which the Torah offers.

No, not everyone dares to be faithful to the Land of Israel. Even the greatest of Jewish leaders can quail when they confront the wrath and fury of international diplomacy, the world’s media moguls, and the like.

Any leader – Rabbi, political, any other – who does not dare proclaim our right to the entire Land of Israel; any leader who has insufficient faith in Hashem our G-d Who goes with us to fight our enemies for us – “Let him go and return to his house, so he does not demoralize his brothers, like his heart”.

Better – far, far better – that those who quail before our enemies and preach “land for peace”, the travesty of a heresy born out of fear of our enemies, would rather abandon the field to those who have the courage and the faith in G-d to proclaim these great Torah-truths:

That G-d gave us this Land; that it is not ours to give away; that giving away this precious gift that G-d gave us means spurning G-d Himself; that just as we cannot give away the Torah or the World to Come, neither can we give away the Land of Israel.

[1] Literally “horse and chariot”, in the singular. Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan both translate into Aramaic “horses and chariots”. Though standard Hebrew idiom allows for the singular form to do duty for plural, Rashi derives an important lesson here: “In My eyes, they are as though merely one single horse”.

[2] This translation follows the Etz Yosef.

[3] “My son, My first-born son, is Israel” (Exodus 4:22).