"To everything there is a
season, and a time for every
purpose under heaven.... A
time to love and a time to
hate, a time for war and a
time for peace...(Ecclesiastes :1-8)
Leo Tolstoy's epic novel, War and Peace" , considered by some his finest literary achievement, delineates in graphic detail events surrounding the French invasion of Russia in the Napoleonic era. As seen through the eyes of Russian aristocrats - most of whose names I cannot remember - is mostly a philosophical discourse on the nature of war, history, power and a large cast of characters.
Watching the news these days, I think we can concur that war is ugly. Syria. Iraq. Ukraine. Israel. Gaza. War is the scourge of humanity from time immemorial and it continues to plague us today.
War entails fighting and killing enemies. It entails a vast commitment of resources to mobilize and arm one's forces and to strengthen one's defenses. It involves heavy financial, social and psychological costs. It entails strategic objectives, sometimes terrible miscalculations. It entails casualties and loss of life.
Peace...is so much better.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught: "We must see life in two dimensions, as it is, and as it should be. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are. The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey."
How things should be: "Nation should not lift up sword against nation".
How things are: enmity, hatred, vengeance and violence.
Our tradition offers a mixed attitude to war. Using biblical accounts of battles fought by the Israelites, they divided war into two broad categories: mandatory and optional. Mandatory wars are wars of self-defense or of clear-cut moral necessity. Optional wars are wars fought for expansion or preventively , to stop an enemy who is preparing for attack.
We are to maintain our commitment to absolute righteousness, peace, a world of love and harmony. At the same time, we must deal with harsh realities with strength and courage. Even while engaging in warfare, our dreams need to be squarely focused on peace.
This week's Torah portion tells of the war between the Israelites and the Midianites. Moses calls upon the Israelites to gather men to go to battle. Rashi comments that the men to be chosen as warriors must be "tzaddikkim", righteous people. A strange comment? One would think that the men would be selected on the basis of their physical prowess, their courage, their skills with weaponry.
What does righteousness have to do with warfare?
Those who go to battle must not only be capable warriors but the must keep the ideals of peace, compassion, and morality always upper most in mind. Each soldier operates on two dimensions: how things should be and how they actually are.
As Shabbat approaches, Israel is engaged in an ugly war. Hamas terrorists have indiscriminately launched more than 1500 missiles at Israel's citizens. Their hatred of Israel knows no bounds. They are willing to even place their own citizens as "human shields" in the face of retaliatory strikes.
After ten days, when more than 2/3rds of Israel's population has been under attack, the IDF has entered Gaza on the ground with the objective of striking at the terrorist tunnels that run from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. It was through such a tunnel that 13 Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory in order to perpetrate a mass casualty attack.
Hamas is playing a dangerous game with their own citizens' lives. I am proud to say that the IDF is trying to behave in the most righteous way an army can: Gazans are telephoned or leafletted or emailed to notify them they are in a danger zone and they should leave the area. To the degree possible, the air force has tried to avoid casualties. Flairs are fired from a drone when a building or house is about the be attacked and people have 60 seconds to leave. Israel has continued to provide electricity and water during this period and a 5 hour cease fire so that innocent people would be able to find food supplies and fuel. Perfect, no. Regrettably, there have been children and families injured and killed. This is war, folks.
The greatness of Israel and its Defense Forces is not only in their incredible courage, power, intelligence, technology and resilience. Thank God for that. The greatness is precisely in striving, even during battle, to be righteous.
When I spoke with my daughter and her family today in Ranaana, they had just exited from the shelter in their home. It was the first time they had ever used it in the 10 years they have been living in Israel since they made aliya. Already, they were busied getting ready for Shabbat. Getting ready to sing "Shalom Aleichem", to bless the children, to sing songs of peace.
War is surely a messy and ugly affair. Peace is to be prayed for, to strive for, to work towards. But sometimes we must view life in two dimensions: as it is, and as it should be. As it is: we must fight in order to maintain ourselves and the nation. As it should be: we are fighting for a righteous, loving and peaceful world.
Great is peace, for even the angels in heaven need peace... May He who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and all Israel.