TO WAR, TO WAR
Rabbi David Walk
In October 1987, I was inducted into the Israel Defense Force, not their finest hour. At my tekes hashba'a (swearing in ceremony, even though we religious soldiers didn't 'swear', we just 'declared' our loyalty to the State), I was moved by the thought that I was privileged to live in the first generation since the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132-135 CE) to serve in a truly Jewish army. We were ordered to keep kosher and respect Shabbat. I'll never forget the tears streaming down my cheeks as I sang Hatikva with my M16 firmly held at 'present arms'. So, as I mentioned last week about judges and police, the rabbis over the centuries have taken many verses dealing with affairs of state as metaphors for our own lives rather than literal references to government policies or relations with other nations. But that's not p'shat! The mitzvoth which Moshe catalogues here towards the end of Deuteronomy were meant to guide the Jews in their task of nation building upon their arrival in the Holy Land, and we've been privileged to do that as well. However, the rare rabbinic voice in the Middle Ages which spoke to these issues was that of Maimonides. So, we'll begin this week by looking at some of his comments on this, once again, relevant topic to the Jewish nation.
There are two categories of war in Judaism; Milchemet Mitzvah (Obligatory War) and Milchemet Reshut (Discretionary War). In chapter 6 of his Laws of Kings, Maimonides explains that there are three types of Obligatory War; against the Seven Canaanite Nations, against Amalek and self-defense. The first two aren't applicable because those gene pools have disappeared as a result of the population transfers by the Assyrian Empire (8th century BCE), which, of course, included the Ten Northern tribes of Israel. So, that leaves us with self-defense. It's a mitzvah to fight when Jewish lives are threatened. I strongly believe that's what the Israeli government tries to do. I may not always agree with every government's policy, but I'm firmly behind their ultimate goal, security for the State of Israel.
That brings us to Milchemet Reshut (Discretionary War). When may these be initiated? Well, here's what Maimonides says: a war fought with other nations in order to expand the borders of Israel or magnify its greatness and reputation (Laws of Kings, 5:1). I must be honest, that sounds bad to me. I don't think we like countries which go to war for a matter of bragging rights. However, Maimonides softens the impact by informing us: In contrast, he may not lead the nation out to wage a milchemat hareshut unless the court of seventy one judges approves (law 2). Of course, others add that the Kohen Gadol's breastplate (orim v'tumim) must be asked as well. Based on all of these requirements, most authorities conclude that these discretionary wars are not allowed to us in the modern world.
Maimonides said that discretionary wars can be fought for expanding boundaries and national pride. Sounds like a certain political slogan I've heard (Make America Great Again, I loved an email I got which said, 'Ban shredded cheese. Make America grate, again). But would the Great Sanhedrin of 71 scholars and communication with God allow such self-aggrandizing adventures? I'd like to think not. So, what circumstance would permit a discretionary war? I think that the answer to that question is contained within the Hebrew word for war, milchama. The root of that word is lechem, which means 'bread'. Wars should only be fought for a matter of survival, literally, the struggle to put bread on the table. The powers ruling Israel would allow a war to feed a starving population, because that life and death situation is similar to the self-preservation associated with wars of self-defense. The ancient world was pragmatic. The world's first walled city was Jericho, and they weren't interested in wealth or civic pride. The walls protected the water of the oasis from the desert nomads who craved that life giving resource. It's only modern humanity who fights frivolous feuds.
But throughout the last two millennia our scholars have applied these lessons of war to our private lives. What do these laws teach? The Kli Yakar points the way by noting that the language in our verse (and a similar verse last week) is not what we would have expected. Here's the verse: When you go out (tetze) to war over (al) your enemies (Deuteronomy 21:10). He explains that it would have made more sense to say 'when you go (teilech) to fight against (k'neged) your enemy.' So, why the anomalous language? The Kli Yakar teaches us a little history. The Jews lost the war against Rome in 70 CE, because we were fighting ourselves within the walls rather the Romans outside the walls. We also made the mistake of fighting 'against' the Bad Guys on their level. We have to listen to the verse and fight 'over' them. We have to stand for something, and rise above worldly concerns of power and might to represent right over wrong, and good over bad.
In our personal lives, as well, we have to bring the war to the bad guys, not fight against ourselves. We have to identify the exact personality issue which we must combat as part of our teshuva process. Remember our verse talks about capturing captives, which in Hebrew is: v'shavita shivyo (and you take his captive, 21:10). The word shavita can mean capture or return, so that it could just as easily refer to our own battle to repent. But notice everyone has to repent from their own personal captivity or spiritual dilemma. Make your war a surgical strike, leaving the least collateral damage to your psyche behind.
Todah l'El (Thank God), today, we have a Jewish State, and many of these laws can be applied in their original sense. But that doesn't diminish the amazing, original ideas generated by centuries of rabbis to make these verses relevant to their times of Jewish exile. Getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, therefore, is like preparing for war.