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Parashat Shoftim 5778: On war and peace

Now that we are going back to Israel, it is very possible I will be called again to serve in the IDF in reserve duty. Sadly, serving in the army is an experience that most Israelis go through. Israel was born and lives in a state of war. This last week missiles and fire kites fell again in the South of Israel, and now once again we are trying some kind of agreement to give us at least a temporary calm.

Parashat Shoftim speaks about war and forces us to ask ourselves questions about war ethics. These are questions that all soldiers deal with, doesn’t matter your political ideas. We see in our Parashah that these are not new questions, but rather 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, but instead the text deals with what seems like secondary elements of war and people affected by it: women who 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 these rules?

The first law explains who is exempt from military service: the man who built a new house and have not lived in it, the one who planted a vineyard and have not harvested the grapes, the man who 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 were for the benefit of individuals and their families.

The next law is to exempt somebody who is afraid of going to war. Maybe we should say more afraid than normal, as I don’t know anyone who is not somehow afraid in a war. The Torah shows again understanding of 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 to do so damages the army as a whole.

There were, however, conditions for those exempted. The Mishnah explains that all 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 rather required 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, and regard violence as a last resort.

In English and other languages, 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: war. 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 emphasized 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, 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”, God will give strength to His people, He will bless it with Peace”.

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