Ari Sacher

“A Grotesque Existence” Parashat Mattot-Masa’ei 5775

Am Yisrael are sent to fight a war against the Midianites. The Midianites, advised by the Prophet Bilaam, sent their women to seduce Jewish men with the ultimate goal of converting them to Paganism. They were wildly successful. As a result of their machinations, twenty-four thousand Jews died in a plague. The war against Midian is a war of vengeance, plain and simple. Hashem tells Moshe [Bemidbar 31:2] “Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites”. Am Yisrael go into battle and they rout the Midianites: They kill the Kings of Midian, they kill all of the men, they take the women and children captive, and they plunder all of the Midianite possessions.

When the soldiers return from battle they are given a set of laws — the “Laws of War” [Bemidbar 31:21-24]: “Only the gold, the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead. Whatever is used in fire you shall pass through fire and then it will be clean; it must, however, [also] be cleansed with sprinkling water, and whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water. You [who have come into contact with a dead person] shall wash your garments on the seventh day and become [ritually] clean; afterwards you may enter the camp.’’ Soldiers who came into contact with a corpse had become ritually impure and required purification, as did the Midianite dishes.

These laws raise a question. At the end of Parashat Chukat, Am Yisrael wage war against Sichon the King of the Amorites and Og the King of Bashan. Here, too, Am Yisrael are victorious, and here, too, they take plunder. While the chronology is unclear, the wars against Sichon and Og and the war against Midian could not have been separated by more than a few months. Why does Hashem wait until the war against Midian to give the Laws of War?

This question is asked by a large number of the medieval commentators[1] and they all give pretty much the same answer: The war against Midian was qualitatively different than the wars that preceded it in that it was not fought by all of Am Yisrael. A total of twelve-thousand soldiers fought against Midian, one thousand from each tribe. In the wars against Sichon and Og the entire nation fought.

This changed the classification of those wars from “Wars of Individuals (Yachid)” to “Wars of the Many (Tzibbur)”. A “War of the Many” merits certain leniencies that a “War of Individuals” does not, including the waiving of many of the laws of kashrut as well as all of the laws of ritual purity. These leniencies render the “Laws of War” irrelevant, and so the laws are given only after the war against Midian, which was considered a “War of Individuals”.

Rav Benny Lau, writing in “Etnachta”, brings the Teshuvat HaGeonim, who offers an entirely different direction. The Teshuvat HaGeonim also posits that the war against Midian was qualitatively different than all of the wars that preceded it. The difference is that it was a bloodbath. The verb “H-R-G” — “to kill” — is used no less than three times, more than in any war that preceded or succeeded it. Jewish solders burn the Midianite cities to the ground. When the soldiers return to camp, Moshe chastises them, not because they killed the men, but because they let the women live. The war wasn’t bloody enough! Only after they kill the women captives does Moshe calm down.

For reasons that go beyond the pale of this shiur, Hashem wanted this war to be especially horrific. But because of the extreme violence in this war there was a threat that the soldiers might lose their sense of human dignity. The Teshuvat HaGeonim teaches that in order to prevent this from happening the Torah needed to attach mitzvot to the war. All mitzvot — especially the Laws of War — teach restraint, and after the bloody war against the Midianites restraint was critical[2]. The purpose of the Laws of War was to demonstrate to Am Yisrael that even under the most extreme circumstances we must still retain our “Image of G-d” and our spiritual purity.

One of the latest brouhaha’s in Israel is the movie “Censored Voices”. The movie is a collection of interviews of young kibbutzniks who participated in the Six-Day War, as they tell of the fear and the revulsion of killing that they felt as they fought. In the movie, the now-older kibbutzniks listen and react to the original recordings.

What makes the movie sensational is that the original recordings were supposedly highly censored by the Army. Entire episodes intricately detailing executions, violence against civilians, and forced evacuations was purportedly redacted. Predictably, the movie has become a sort of rallying cry for Israel’s vocal über-liberal crowd.

Martin Kramer, formerly the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and now president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, published a well-written rebuttal of the movie’s points in Mosaic Magazine, entitled “Who Censored the Six-Day War?” While Kramer’s article concentrates on the extent — or lack — of censorship of the original interviews, the alleged cover-up or censorship interests me far less than his accusation that the movie is propagating a double-standard. War is hell, says Kramer, and in the heat of war people are capable of committing acts that they would never commit in peacetime.

Sadly, Israeli soldiers have committed acts during wartime that we are not proud of. Make no mistake: they have been punished for their crimes and the army has made necessary changes to prevent these occurrences in the future. But this is not the story that “Censored Voices” wants to tell. Kramer writes that “[It] seize[s] upon events that may be isolated occurrences and isolates them still further, ripping them from their broader context and waving them like bloodied sheets. If Israel cannot wage perfect war, the premise goes, it must not wage war at all, even in its own defence.”

The Torah understands that there is no such thing as “the perfect war”. Each and every war puts soldiers in ethically difficult conditions, some more difficult than others. The Torah understands that in some of these conditions a soldier may stumble and fall, and so it modifies the halachic framework in times of war, subtracting here and adding there in an attempt to keep man from stumbling. But if soldiers do sin during the heat of battle, it does not make the war any less just. It does not make the defence of Jews from those who would like to see them disappear any less legitimate. A war in defence of Israel is called a Milchemet Mitzvah — “a War that is a Mitzvah”. It is both a commandment and a merit to fight in this war. No isolated actions by one or more soldiers can change that fact one iota.

My son, Amichai, maintains that the best way to understand the Torah’s position on morality in times of war can be summarized in a monologue at the end of “A Few Good Men”. In this movie, Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Nathan Jessep, Commander of the United States Marines base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Colonel Jessep is addressing Lt. Daniel Kaffee, an attorney played by Tom Cruise.

Jessep is testifying in a military court regarding the death of one of his soldiers, ostensibly at the hands of his fellow soldiers: “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns… I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom… My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall; you need me on that wall. We use words like ‘honor’, ‘code’, ‘loyalty’. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something… I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.”

While there is no perfect war, the Torah tries to keep us clean even when we’re caught in a hail of bullets. But our failure to attain Godliness will never serve as a failure to fight.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] The ones that I found include the Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachye ibn Pekuda, the Ralbag, and the Abarbanel.

[2] Another example of a mitzvah that teaches restraint in times of war is the mitzvah of “Eshet yefat to’ar” – the laws of beautiful woman [captive]. These laws concern a woman who is raped during war, and determine how the soldier who raped her can take her as a wife after the war.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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