In an ideal world, peace would be accomplished peaceably. There would be no need for violence or force. Strength would not need to be displayed, and enemies would not need to be eliminated.
But the world we live in is not ideal.
The IDF’s operations in Jenin this week were necessary and precise. The city had become a hotbed of terrorist activity, and special forces carried out a surgical strike to rout out the terror infrastructure and seize their weapons of war. The operation was successful without a single civilian casualty.
Nevertheless, Israel’s perpetual critics were quick to respond with their accustomed outrage. A BBC correspondent revealed her irrepressible bias by stating that “Israeli forces are happy to kill children” because it is alleged that some of the twelve armed terrorists that were killed in the fighting were under 18.
Loss of life – any life – is a terrible thing. The Israeli soldier who died in the operation was 23 years old. The twelve terrorists ranged from their late teens to adulthood. Of the dozens of Israeli civilians who have been killed by terrorists throughout the past year, some were elementary school age, some were teens, some adults, and some elderly. There is an obvious distinction to be made – one that Naftali Bennet did make in response to the BBC’s correspondent’s outrageous provocation – which is that Israeli forces target only terrorist combatants, while the terrorists are explicitly targeting unarmed civilians.
There is another important distinction to draw, and that is that the Israeli forces fight defensively in pursuit of peace, while the terrorists pursue a widespread uprising so that they will not have to share the land peaceably with their Jewish neighbors. Violence and conflict are undesirable, but motives and context are important. There are those circumstances in which violence is reprehensible, as in the case of the terrorist attacks against civilians; and there are those circumstances in which violence is regrettable but justifiable, as in the case of the IDF’s preventative operations in Jenin.
This distinction is found not only in this week’s current events, but also in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. At the conclusion of last week’s reading, Pinchas killed Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, who had brazenly rebelled against Moses and God by having sexual relations with a Midianite woman in the public square. Thousands of Zimri’s tribesmen followed his lead and engaged in lewd acts with the Midianite women, and as a result of this immorality, a plague afflicted the nation, killing tens of thousands. The plague was halted only when Pinchas rose up and impaled Zimri with his spear.
At the open of this week’s parsha, Pinchas is praised by God for his actions: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.” (Numbers 25:10-12).
The Sages ask why Pinchas’ lineage is mentioned here – “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen” – particularly in light of the fact that it was stated explicitly at the end of the previous reading when Pinchas was first introduced: “Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand” (Numbers 25:7). There is no redundancy in the Torah, and therefore there must be a reason for this repetition.
Rashi comments that the lineage is repeated in order to equate Pinchas’ character with his paternal grandfather, Aaron the high Priest. There were many who doubted Pinchas’ motives in killing Zimri. They attributed his violence to Putiel, his maternal grandfather who was an idolater who “fattened sheep for (idolatrous) slaughter.” Therefore the Torah twice relates Pinchas to Aaron, who was known as a “rodef shalom,” a lover and pursuer of peace.
Furthermore, as opposed to the people’s reaction to Pinchas’ deed, G-d responded by rewarding him with a “covenant of peace” in perpetuity. This was a confirmation that the violent assassination of Zimri, though construed by the populace as a heinous act of brutality, was in fact a justified and praiseworthy act of peace.
But can violence and peace be so easily reconciled? Why was it specifically through Pinchas’ ferocious act that God’s “covenant of peace” was achieved? What is the Torah trying to teach us with this seeming paradox?
Rambam teaches that the Torah was given only to bring peace to the world (Megillah v’Chanukah 4:14). In Proverbs we similarly read that the Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are paths of peace” (Proverbs 3:17). Nevertheless, the Torah recognizes that peace must sometimes be achieved through means that are not pleasant or passive.
While “God is One” and His entire creation is a singular infinite unity, this lowest world that we inhabit was created in multiplicity. This is demonstrated in the fact that the Torah begins with the letter ‘beis’ – “Breishit/In the Beginning” – the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet which corresponds to the number two, rather than ‘aleph,’ the first letter which corresponds to the number one. The ideal state of Oneness will be realized in the messianic world to come. But in this realm, there is both good AND evil, right AND wrong. While it is righteous and holy to desire and pursue peace with all of one’s being, it is foolish and even sinful to stand idle against those forces that blatantly oppose conciliation and coexistence.
There is a time to fight and a time to embrace. There will always be those who cynically question Israel’s motives, but as we learn from the zealous Pinchas, at times we must rise up and confront the opponents of peace precisely in order to achieve the lasting and universal peace that the Torah envisions and that we ardently desire.