Matot: A Time for War

With the Jewish world focused upon “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, and much of Israel under constant threat of rocket attacks, our thoughts this week inevitably, painfully, turn to war.  

We recoil (a verb with ironic double-meaning) at war – any war.  Yet, according to our “Wisdom Literature,” there is a time for war.  Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) does not specify when this time is, but we have certainly experienced a great deal of it in our history. Sometimes at G-d’s initiative, sometimes at ours, and most often by others against us.  

Thank G-d we now have a powerful state both dedicated and able – albeit imperfectly – to defend Jews (and all other Israelis) when under attack, as well as having powerful allies.   

This week’s Torah portion provides an early example of a war commanded by G-d.  G-d commands Moses to wreak the Lord’s vengeance upon Midian, as a consequence of the immorality and idolatry that the Midianites fostered among the Israelites.  The Israelites proceed to slay every male, the five kings of Midian, and Balaam.  They take women and children as slaves, and all the animals and wealth as booty, and burn their towns.  Presumably, unlike today, no warnings were given and no attacks aborted.  

Indeed, when the troops returned, Moses was angry that the females had been spared, they being the ones who enticed the Israelite men and caused a plague.  Moses therefore ordered that all male children and women who had “known a man” also be slain.

There are other examples in Torah in which vengeance is permitted or even mandated, such as the revenge pursuit and killing by the family of a murder victim.    

We even pray, thrice daily in the weekday Amidah, that all G-d’s enemies be “speedily cut down” and that “willful sinners be uprooted, smashed, cast down and humbled.”  During the Middle Ages, a prayer to avenge the Martyrs of the Crusades was inserted into the Torah service.  

It’s galling, therefore, to hear even our friends urge us to exercise “proportionality” – as if our enemies have ever cared at all about this.   

And yet, our sages do care about both “proportionality” and about minimizing violence whenever possible.  The classic example of the former is Lex Talionis, the famous, “Eye for an Eye,” Levitucus 24:19–21.  As our tradition interprets it, this commandment requires moderation, not vengeance.  Only an eye for an eye, and, in many more cases, only monetary compensation for physical injury.  As to minimizing violence, rabbinic tradition brings many examples in which retribution and punishment were discouraged, condemned, and forbidden.  

So, on the one hand, neither all vengeance nor “collective punishment” is considered immoral in the Torah – at least when necessary to preserve observance of the Mitzvot, such as avoiding idolatry.  And on the other hand, that same Torah is deeply concerned with humanity, justice, and dignity.  It imposes restrictions upon vengeance, which our sages greatly expanded.   Cities of refuge are established to which a suspected murderer may flee in order to have a trial and thereafter, if innocent, live in safety. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself, and not to bear grudges or to seek vengeance against our neighbor.  And the rabbis considered the motivation of vengeance to be destructive of the soul.  

We are hearing and will undoubtedly continue to hear a rising international tide of criticism against Israel for alleged vengeance and collective punishment.  As both a Jew and an Israeli citizen, I bristle at those criticisms because I believe that Israel is justified in doing whatever is necessary to stop rocket fire even if, as is inevitable, innocent people die.  Our enemy is making this necessary.  Moreover, these are our enemies, not our “neighbors.”   We are not commanded to love our enemy nor “turn the other cheek.” 

At the same time, we mustn’t violate our values, both because we do value justice and because vengeance is corrupting.  Therefore, as painful at it is, we must not entirely close our ears to criticisms, especially from our friends and allies.  Even if and when they may be wrong in specific application, they are correct in principle.  We should be sure that we are motivated primarily by necessary defense and prudent deterrence, rather than by an understandable desire for vengeance.   This, I believe, is the message of Torah. 

Shabbat shalom.  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3