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Parashat Ki Tetze 5775 — 08/26/2015

Parashat Ki Tetze 5775 — 08/26/2015

Deut. 21:10 – 25:18

When you go out to war against your enemies and Gd gives you victory over them… (21:10)
War is hell. (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman)

The Torah is timeless for it comes from Gd Who transcends time and space. Therefore, I generally try to avoid timely issues in these essays, unless they can be used to elucidate a general theme or principle. Sometimes, however, life and death issues do arise that I feel I must address, hopefully from a perspective of Torah and not my own strongly-held opinions. The current debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran is one such time.

Peace is a fundamental Jewish value. Shalom is the way we say hello and goodbye – indeed it is one of Gd’s Names. The root of the word is wholeness – shalom means not just an absence of conflict, but a state of integrated wholeness where all parts are in balance and harmony. Why, then, were many of our great spiritual leaders warriors? Rav Kook wrote in 1904 (before being stranded in Europe by the outbreak of WW I):

It would have been totally impossible, at a time when all of the surrounding nations were truly wolves of the night, that only the Jewish people would refrain from waging war. The nations would have joined together and destroyed the remnant of  the people, Gd forbid….

R. Morrison continues:

In his book Orot [Lights], Rav Kook sought to uncover Gd’s purpose even in war. Great wars, he explained, have an important function in the world: they awaken yearnings for the Messianic Era…
But what about the many innocent lives lost in the destructive surge of violence? This phenomenon contains a measure of … a lofty atonement that comes from the death of the righteous. These souls elevate to the Source of life, and bring universal good and blessing to the world.
With the conclusion of a war, the world is renewed with a new spirit, and the footsteps of the Messianic Era can be heard.

In Jewish law there are two kinds of wars: An obligatory war (milchemet mitzvah) is a war that we are commanded to fight.  All defensive wars are obligatory. An optional war may only be embarked upon by a king of Israel with the approval of the Sanhedrin, for the purpose of expanding the territory of the nation. I believe that only King David ever engaged in an optional war – all the rest were defensive. We’ve been back on our heels for most of our history, and Israel has been fighting a defensive war against our enemies from before the State was created.

Rav Kook’s explanations of the purpose of war echo a very fundamental dispute that has been raging since Talmudic times. We believe both that individual human beings have free will – we are able to make moral choices. We also believe that Gd is watching over the course of history, guiding it according to a Divine Plan to bring about an age of perfection. The Talmud states that one does not so much as stub his toe on earth without that having been ordained by heaven. The question then arises, is it possible for one person, using his free will, to kill another person if the second were not destined to die at that time? The answer generally given is that if B needs to die at a particular time, he will, but it doesn’t have to be A who brings it about. If A chooses to murder B, he is responsible for that choice.

Just as nations have a collective consciousness that is made up of the individual consciousness of all the members of that nation and their interactions, so wars between nations grow out of the moral decisions made by the members of the society.  (Example: You don’t think it’s right for large, profitable corporations to pay no tax? How many times have you or your friends and associates taken questionable tax deductions?!) When we are constantly making wrong decisions, the stress and impurity in the atmosphere grows and grows, until, like the stress building up along a tectonic fault, a catastrophic release of stress takes place. Afterwards there is indeed a freshness and clarity, as Rav Kook expresses poetically. The trouble is, that clarity is rarely enough actually to start people thinking in a new direction. Unless there has been a fundamental change in the way we think and perceive, we are doomed to repeat the same cycle over and over again.

Rav Kook addresses the suffering and loss of innocent life during a war. As we have mentioned, we believe that nothing happens to anyone without Gd’s knowledge and approval. In Pirke Avot (4:19) we read that it is not given to us to explain either the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous, but we are also assured (1:7) that we should never despair of retribution. Certainly, from our side we do not wish to visit suffering on anyone. But we need to recognize that there are times when not acting now, even if it causes suffering, can cause much worse suffering down the road. A surgeon may wound a person in the course of excising a cancerous tumor, but who would argue that it would be better to desist.  Chamberlain might have thought he was avoiding the suffering of war, but had Hitler been stopped any time before 1939, the amount of suffering that he wreaked on Europe (and elsewhere) would have been greatly minimized.

Furthermore, it is a given in Jewish thought that our physical world is merely a thin crust on the surface of a great spiritual ocean, and our bodies are simply the garments our soul wears for a time so that it can interact with this world.  When someone dies, it is only their body that is sloughed off. The soul, the essential nature of every person, is immortal, and will take on a new body until it completes its allotted tasks. (Yes, this is normative Jewish thought, not Eastern mysticism.) War presents each of us with stark moral challenges; it can, paradoxically, catalyze tremendous growth. As a friend of mine, who fought in Israel’s War of Independence, once said, “Those were heroic times.” Heros are made, not born. They often arise out of the intense challenges of wartime.

I think it should be obvious where I am going with this as it relates to the Iran nuclear deal. The deal, even by the Administration’s admission, will only possibly delay Iran’s becoming a nuclear state, even if Iran doesn’t cheat. The inspections regime is weak and there is no reason to assume that Iran won’t cheat. The deal puts over a hundred billion dollars in Iran’s pocket. Iran has a solid track record of sowing discord, dissension and instability across the mideast and wherever else in the world it can suborn governments (e.g. Argentina, Venezuela). It has vowed to eliminate the state of Israel, and we have learned the hard way to take our enemies’ threats at face value. It has vowed eternal war against the US, and is acquiring ballistic missile technology to make good on that threat, but in truth, there are other ways of delivering nuclear weaponry that don’t involve missiles and are much harder to stop. Assuming that Iran will moderate its
behavior is a pipe dream. Hitler moderated his behavior when he committed suicide in his bunker. The Soviet Union moderated its behavior when it collapsed, or when it was presented with a credible show of force. The Administration’s plaint that the alternative to this deal is war is completely disingenuous – we were not at war all these years without the deal after all, and in any event, any threat of force by the current US Administration is, at this point, not credible at all. The Israeli political class is opposed to the deal wall-to-wall, and the Arab states closest to Iran are too, to the point that they are publicly making common cause with Israel over it, albeit in a quieter way. The OU and the AJC, and presumably AIPAC have publicly come out against it. JStreet is for it. For the sake of the United States, as well as that of Israel, I suggest doing whatever you can to give Congress the backbone to oppose and scuttle this deal.

An addendum for our Fairfield community:
Presumably at least some of you disagree with me. Let me take the opportunity to remind everyone that this newsletter is not my private soapbox, even in the vast majority of cases when the discussion is completely apolitical. Please feel free to submit responses to be published! Write on the weekly Parashah. Write on any contemporary issue. Join the discussion – this is the way Judaism grows!

Pirke Avot, Chapters 1&2

Chapter 1, Mishnah 4
Yose ben Yoezer of Tsereda would say: Let your house be a meeting place for the wise, cover yourself with the dust of their feet and drink their words thirstily.

In Rabbinic parlance, studying with a teacher is referred to as serving the Master. There is a famous Chasidic story about a Chasid who visits his Rebbe over one of the holidays. Upon his return a friend asks him, “What did the Rebbe say?” He replied, “I didn’t go to hear what the Rebbe said. I went to see how the Rebbe ties his shoelaces.” Don’t we learn by hearing and reading and studying? I think the answer is that these two vignettes are describing a master-disciple relationship, a relationship that is not very prevalent in the West. Certainly the master speaks, the disciple hears and learns. But perhaps more important, by serving the master, the disciple learns to attune his mind to the master’s mind, that is, an enlightened mind. When you serve someone, naturally you enliven that person’s love for you, but, perhaps more important, you also enliven your love for the one you serve, as I found out to my great delight in serving my friend Marie A”H for many years. And it is this bond of love between the master and the disciple that transcends any barriers between them, and lets the process of attunement of minds and hearts proceed unimpeded.