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Parashat Shoftim 5775

As most of you know, in a couple of weeks, on Sunday September 6th we will be marking my official induction as rabbi of EMS and yes, it is strange to do this almost exactly a year after we arrived to our community. When I am asked about this I prefer to answer that we are celebrating that after a year you still want me as your rabbi…

Anyway, you will remember that actually we should be marking my first year in EMS now, or even a couple of weeks ago as the original plan was to come to England during the first half of August. The reason I could not arrive as planned was that I was call to duty during Operation Protective Edge as a reserve soldier of the IDF, I served 45 days, including the whole second month of life of Hallel.

Sadly, serving in the Army is a experience that most Israelis have. Israel was born and lives in a state of war. This last Thursday missiles fell again in the North of Israel and it was necessary to answer with fire towards Syria, the source of the attack. Parashat Shoftim speaks about war and forces us to ask ourselves again questions about war ethics. These are questions that all soldiers deal with, doesn’t matter your political ideas. We see in our Parashah that it is not a new question, but concerned our ancestors as well.

It is interesting to note, however, that these war laws in Parashat Shoftim are not what we could have expected. There are no instructions on strategy or logistics, instead the text deals with what seems like secondary elements of war and people affected by it: women that stay alone when their partners go to fight, orphans, flocks that are not taken care of, fruits not harvested. Which message did our Sages want to convey with this paragraph?

The first law explains who is exempt from military service: the man that built a new house and have not live in it, the one that planted a vineyard and have not harvested the grapes, the man that married a woman and have not been with her. The Torah shows understanding towards those that invested in the future and were not able yet to enjoy the fruit of their efforts. These laws are for the benefit of individuals and their families.

The next law is to exempt somebody that is afraid of going to war. Maybe we should say more afraid than normal, as I don’t know anyone that is not somehow afraid in a war. The Torah shows again understanding for the psychological wellbeing of these people, as well as the moral of the army in general. The Torah recognizes the truth that not everyone is capable of fighting in a war and forcing them damages the army as a whole.

Still there were conditions for this exemption. The Mishnah explains that all of the people exempted of going to war had to provide water and food, as well as repairing the roads. An exemption to fight did not mean permission to forget about it and continue life as usual, but requires a commitment to find another way to cooperate with the national effort, to support society and the fighters.

The Torah encourages dialogue as well, demanding to offer peace to a city first and only attacking if the offer is rejected. We are requested to try and find solutions to our conflicts in peaceful ways, through cooperation.

In English, the primary meaning of the word “peace” is an absence of hostilities. Peace itself has no positive or inherent content, but it’s the lack of a negative condition. In Hebrew, however, the connotation of Shalom is one of fullness, completion, and wholeness. Peace is not simply a lack of violence; peace is the ultimate condition of fulfillment, the purpose of creation and of human creativity.

The rabbis made emphasis on these ideas in the Midrash, in the Siddur and elsewhere. No metal was used in the Temple in Jerusalem, because “the altar was made to prolong life and iron is used to shorten it”. The Central Jewish institutions: the Torah, the Shabbat, the Temple, the High Priest Aaron, all were transformed into living symbols of peace to demonstrate the centrality of that value at the core of Jewish teaching.

We are commanded to defend ourselves if there is no alternative, we must do war to defend our lives and our families, but we must not forget that Peace should be our natural state, we must grab any opportunity we have to strive for it, the World itself is based on Peace. “Hashem oz le Amo Iten, Hashem Iebarech et amo Bashalaom”, G’d will give strength to His people, He will bless it with Peace”.

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