Devarim: Which Wars Are Holy? Which Wars Are Not?

Why did God sanction some wars and not others?
Why did the Children of Israel go to war without God’s approval?

Table for Five: Devarim

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And the Lord said to me, “Say to them: Neither go up nor fight, for I am not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies.”

– Deut. 1:42

Rivkah Slonim, Education Director at the Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University

Our parasha contains Moshe’s subtle rebuke of the Jews for their various missteps in the desert, including their lack of faith in God’s ability to bring them into the Promised Land. Moshe recalls how the Jews allowed themselves to be convinced by the spies and spurn the Land, only to reverse course and attempt its conquest. At that point, God tells them to desist and makes clear that if they do go up they would be smitten.

Earlier, God had charged them with conquering the land and promised them success. What changed? A story is told about the saintly chasid, Rabbi Meir of Premishlan. Every day, Reb Meir immersed in a mikvah that stood atop a steep hill. Even when the weather turned icy and most others could not safely navigate the elevation, Reb Meir walked in sure footed manner. One winter day two young men decided to disabuse the townsfolk of their belief that Reb Meir was somehow possessed of extraordinary spiritual powers. They proceeded to negotiate the same treacherous walk up to the Mikvah only to fall and hurt themselves. Bemused, they decided to ask the tzadik how he did it. Reb Meir famously replied: “When you are bound above, you don’t fall below.”

Had the Jews hearkened unto God’s original command they could indeed have successfully overtaken all of the mighty nations who inhabited the land. But not being “bound above” God taught them—and their descendants for all time—will only lead to a fall.

Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Councilor, Beit-Hatzayar, school for at-risk youth

This verse seems to challenge modern Zionism – but as a Zionist I don’t believe it does. When the Jews who created the State of Israel decided to settle the land, it, too, seemed they were going against the “word of G-d.” But despite the cries from much of the Orthodox camp that they “rebelled against G-d,” the early 20th century Zionists saved millions of Jewish lives. What is the difference? Why did only the modern decision to settle the land fulfill G-d’s wish — as evidenced by its success? Because the intentions behind the actions differed.

In this week’s story, the decision to settle the land doesn’t come from a pure love of the Land of Israel but from a desire to run away from responsibility. Believing the Spies, the Israelites had just rejected the Land. But instead of taking responsibility for their sin, they immediately try to fix it.

The first lesson you learn in the Army is that “timing is holy.” If you are told to be somewhere at 8:01, you get there at 8:01. No lateness is tolerated.

The Jewish people had to learn that lesson too. In Deuteronomy, it wasn’t yet the right time to go to Israel. Their failure to understand that shows they still had not learned to read the situation and make educated decisions. Hence, the decree to spend 40 years in the desert.

Fortunately, Zionists got the timing right – although many Jews waited too long before coming to that realization.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

I just visited Highland Park, stopping at ground zero of the July 4th massacre. I was born and raised there and lived an idyllic suburban childhood. It seems that the populace is traumatized. I asked my good friend of 37 years, Highland Park Chabad Director Rabbi Yosef Schanowitz, what can the H.P. Jews do to overcome this event and begin to lead normal lives again? He said in his characteristic soft spoken, self-effacing way, “I hear learning Torah is a good thing.”

Sometimes God is like the sun on an overcast day. We can’t detect Him, but He is there. If I can give my children only one piece of advice it would be, “Follow the directives of the Torah”. For today might seem gloomy, but the sun will eventually shine.

The generation that left Egypt, were duped by the Spies and made to believe they would be slaughtered trying to settle in the Land of Israel. Sound familiar? In their refusal to enter Israel, God gave them a 40-year sentence till the men of that generation died out. The day after that verdict, a horde defiantly broke for Israel and God warned them to desist. God said, “I am not among you”, meaning the Ark, and the Torah within, wouldn’t be traveling with them. They were defeated.

As we travel in life, do bring the Torah along. Like the Jews in the desert, we will be directed from Above as to when and where we are supposed to go!

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Chaplain at Kaiser Medical Center, Panorama City

Moshe reframes accounts from Bamidbar in which Israel impetuously challenges God’s plan. Apparently to forestall sacred wrath, they prepare to make war against the Amorites. God admonishes the people not to embark upon a fool’s mission, apprising The People that their military campaign will be doomed.

From this verse alone, one might conclude that God opposes making war altogether. However, given Israel’s enumerated and multiple victories with God veritably at the tip of their swords, this would be a false conclusion. Indeed, holy wars are God’s determinate means for clearing a path to the promised land. But in this telling, the People Israel are impudent, so God has an important lesson.

The People take it upon themselves to strike under a false assumption. Do they believe that war has the power to annul misdeeds, to somehow purify their sins of murmuring against Moshe and God, and thereby assuage God’s fury? Israel seems to neglect the implicit element; they are sanctioned for battles, but ONLY those which God certifies. Imagine Am Yisrael being so taken with their favored status before God, so self-possessed in their march to battle, so overwhelmed in their bloodlust, that they are blinded into believing that war has become their own proprietary instrument, even that it empowers them to supplant holy fortune!

Israel is so hot-blooded by shameful guilt, they become deafened to the unambiguous will of God. Woe to sinister deities who are appeased by crimson sops—Hashem cannot be corrupted through bribes of gratuitous bloodshed.

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, Rabbi of Fountainview at Gonda Westside

I struggle to imagine the new generation of Israelites paying unwavering attention to Moshe’s long valediction; their new leader, Joshua, has already been selected and confirmed. The people must have been impatient to get on with their lives in the Land, imagining the future.

So I like to think even the most inattentive suddenly woke up when Moshe spoke of an idea so terrifying that we cannot imagine it: Divine withdrawal. The prospect of the absence of Presence is fearsome. But this is not imaginal: the warning comes from the Holy One.

How could the loss of the Divine center lead to anything but catastrophe? If there is a void where Oneness was, what would happen when the force that animates us, guides us, loves us and calls us to account is no longer available?

We would awaken to a sense of shattering helplessness. There would be no possibility of prevailing against any force, inner or outer. Surely, we would not survive.

Without holiness in our midst and at our core, without the Presence to cling to and build our lives around, how could either individual or communal coherence be achievable?

The warning of the consequence of the lack of Presence in our midst and at our center is not a lesson for our ancestors only. We moderns might more easily relate to WB Yeats’ interpretation: when the center is lost, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It is a condition, many fear, to which we edge ever-closer.

With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Yoni Troy, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, and Rabbi Janet Madden

Image: Benjamin West, Joshua passing the Jordan River with the Ark of the Covenant, 1800

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