Judaism espouses the principle of reward and punishment. Man was created with complete freedom of choice. If he chooses wisely and keeps G-d’s commandments, he will be rewarded. If he chooses to disregard the Torah, he will be punished. The portion of Bechukotai spells this out unequivocally, first describing in great detail the potential for reward and then, in even greater detail, the potential for punishment. One of the rewards pertains to national security [Vayikra 26:6]: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall pass through your land.” As with all gifts, it is critical to read the fine print: a misunderstanding of this blessing led to the tragic demise of one of the kings of Judea.
The death of King Josiah at the hands of the Egyptians is described in two locations in the Bible: in Kings II [23:29-30] and, in slightly more depth, in Chronicles II [35:20-24] “Nekho, the king of Egypt, went up to wage war in Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went forth toward him. [Nekho] sent messengers to [Josiah], saying, ‘What have I to do with you, king of Judea? Not against you yourself [do I go] today, but to my place of war, and G-d said to hasten me. Desist from the god who is with me, and he will not destroy you.’ But Josiah did not turn his face away from him, but he disguised himself to wage war with him, and he did not listen to the words of Nekho from the mouth of G-d, and he came to wage war in the valley of Megiddo…” King Josiah was killed by Egyptian archers and he was mourned by an entire country. His behaviour is difficult to understand. He was righteous and G-d-fearing. The Bible praises him effusively [Chronicles II 34:2]: “He did that which was right in the eyes of G-d, and he walked in the ways of David his father, and turned aside neither to the right nor to the left.” Why would such an virtuous person flagrantly disregard advice that had come directly from “the mouth of G-d”?
Before proceeding, we must first understand the geopolitical situation at the time. The undisputed world superpower was Assyria. After the up-and-coming Babylonians defeated the Assyrians at Nineveh, the Egyptians forged an alliance with the Assyrians. Their strategy was to defeat the Babylonians before they achieved full strength. Nekho led his troops to battle the Babylonians and the most direct route was through the Land of Israel. While Nekho had no intention of striking the Israelis, King Josiah nevertheless decided to prevent the Egyptian advance. Rabbi Alex Israel, a contemporary rabbi teaching in Yeshivat Har Etzion, explains Josiah’s motivation: “Presumably, with the collapse of Assyrian power, [Josiah] had experienced a new era of independence from a superpower. This had allowed the kingdom to grow and thrive, and Judea began to exert control over new territories, including the defunct northern kingdom. Witnessing Egypt’s attempts to dominate the regional space, [Josiah] was concerned that he would become subject to Egyptian control. This motivated him to confront [Nekho] and obstruct his advance.”
The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [22b] reveals some of the intrigue that took place behind the scenes: “For what reason was Josiah punished? Because he should have consulted with the prophet Jeremiah to find out if he should go to war, but he did not consult with him. How did Josiah interpret the verses of the Torah? How did they lead him to go to war? The verse states: ‘No sword shall pass through your land’. What is the meaning of the term: ‘Sword’? If we say that it is referring to a sword that is not of peace, is it not written earlier in the same verse: ‘I will grant peace in the land’? Rather, the verse must mean that even a sword of peace shall not pass through the land and Josiah sought to prevent this occurrence, in fulfilment of the blessing.” The Talmud’s explanation begs the question: If King Josiah was relying upon a seemingly valid interpretation of a verse in the Torah, why was he punished? The Talmud answers: “He did not know that his generation did not merit these blessings.” King Josiah vastly overestimated the spiritual level of his people. Had he consulted with the prophet, Jeremiah, he would have realized that his strategy was based upon poor data and perhaps he might have implemented different tactics.
The Talmud’s explanation is troubling. Why should King Josiah have been personally punished if it was his people who did not merit a blessing? It doesn’t seem fair. In this essay, we will propose an alternate way of understanding his decision to engage the Egyptians in battle. When Abraham first arrives in Israel at G-d’s behest, he surveys the land that he has been promised [Bereishit 12:6]: “Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, as far as Elon Moreh.” Notice that the words “passed through the land (va’ya’avor ba’aretz)” are nearly identical to the words in G-d’s blessing “no sword shall pass through your land (lo ta’avor b’artzechem)”. Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg, who lived in Germany in the nineteenth century, writing in “HaKetav veha’Kabala”, differentiates between “passing over (la’avor et)” and “passing through (la’avor b-)”. “Passing over” is a geographical concept, in which a person who is travelling from Point A to Point B via Point C happens to “pass over” Point C along the way. “Passing through”, on the other hand, attributes significance to the location that is being passed through, describing a deep and meaningful connection. Abraham “passes through” the land, not to reach some desired end-location but as a goal in and of itself. Reflecting this interpretation back onto G-d’s blessing in the portion of Bechukotai, we are not being promised that troops will not “pass over” the Land of Israel. Movement of foreign troops on Israeli roads is not in and of itself problematic, as a recent example will attest. A few months ago, U.S. Air Force B-52 and B-1B (“The Bone”) bombers overflew Israel on their way to the Persian Gulf, escorted by Israel F-15 fighters, serving as a show of force to the Iranians, that the two allies are determined to prevent them from reaching the nuclear threshold. G-d promises that troops will not “pass through” the land of Israel, meaning that none of Israel’s neighbours will set their sights on carving themselves out a piece of the land for their own. Had the Egyptians merely wanted to move their troops on Israeli highways, Josiah would have let them through. Josiah believed that the intentions of the Egyptians were far more insidious than they claimed and so he set out to stop them.
Wait a minute – how can G-d promise that Israel’s neighbours will have no appetite for a military conflict? Isn’t this an impingement on their freedom of choice? The answer is that the only war that is better than one that is fought and won is the war that is not fought at all. This kind of war is won through deterrence. The U.S. Department of Defense describes deterrence as “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” If the enemy believes that his attack will trigger a devastating response, then he will not attack. Notice that Josiah “disguises himself” to make war with the Egyptians. He has no intention of entering a shooting war. He wants the Egyptians to retreat without a shot being fired. He wants to win on the basis of deterrence. The fatal flaw in his strategy is that his people did not merit winning a war of deterrence. To win a war of deterrence, a nation must not only project power, it must behave as if it is ready and willing to use it. This is no trivial task. It is much easier to play the role of the victim, to bend, to accept periodic outbreaks of violence without a meaningful response. Josiah’s people “did not merit” – they were unwilling to expend the energy and to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain deterrence. Nekho saw through Josiah’s veil and, undeterred, he attacked and was victorious.
Keeping the Torah grants us the potential to live in security. Whether we take advantage of that potential or whether we squander it is completely up to us.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 See Bereishit [31:21] “He passed over the river (Va’ya’avor et ha’nachal)”
 See Bereishit [41:46] “He passed through all the Land of Egypt (Va’ya’avor b’chol eretz Mitzrayim)”