Shall the Sword Devour Forever? – Parshat Masay

The war that presently engulfs us is not of our own choosing. It was forced upon us against our will. In this unredeemed world in which we live, sometimes violence must be met with violence. Pressed to the wall as we are, we will respond with the force and the iron resolve necessary to defend ourselves in the best possible fashion.

This is not the first time that we have been compelled to take up the deadly tools of war. For the better part of a century we have held the sickle in one hand and sword in the other.

And the question must be asked: What is this doing to our souls and to our Judaism?

My mind brings me back to a tense Saturday night during the latter part of 1982. Rabbi Yehudah Amital, may his memory be a blessing, gathered together all the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion to make public his great trepidation with the increasing militarism of Israel society. It was the aftermath of the War in Lebanon; thousands of Israel troops were still on Lebanese soil and many of the yeshiva students had just returned from battle. And he told us, with great emotion and sorrow, that it appeared to him that Judaism, as lived and experienced by rabbis and laymen in the Holy Land, was losing its purity, its compassion, its foundational aspiration for reconciliation and peace.

In the charged atmosphere of the question and answer period that followed, it became clear that the interpretation of a central passage in this week’s Torah portion was at the heart of Rabbi Amital’s message and his pain:

“When you cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land … and you shall take possession of the land and settle it … But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides.” (Book of Numbers 35:52-56)

Indignant students of the rabbi passionately argued that waging war against the Arabs of the land – whether in Hebron or in Beirut – is what God has commanded us. We must be relentless in our battle to claim every inch of the land as our own. No less an authority than the Ramban, Nachmanides, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all times, was invoked to justify the opposition to the message of Rabbi Amital:

“We must not leave the land in the hands of any other nation at any time … We are commanded to conquer the land and to settle it … Behold we have been commanded to conquer the land throughout the generations.” (Ramban, Commentary to Maimonides’ Book of Commandments, addendum to positive commandments)

And Rav Amital responded that our Zionism was never based on the opinion of the Ramban, because many authorities disagree with him. According to the Rambam, Maimonides, and other great commentators, the verses quoted from the Torah applied in the past when the Israelite tribes “cross the Jordan into the Land of Canaan” under the leadership of Joshua, but not today. We who have returned to our homeland after 2000 years of exile, are not commanded to live by the sword. On the contrary, said Rabbi Amital quoting from the Book of Proverbs, the Torah’s fundamental ways “are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”.

I don’t know if much has changed since 1982. My beloved teacher has passed away, and it has fallen to his students to defend the honor of the Torah, to continue to put forth a vision of Torah and of Zionism that is full of love not only of the Land of Israel but full as well of love of all human beings.

We will pursue Hamas until they are subdued, to safeguard our beloved state of Israel and our precious citizens. At the same time, we must be vigilant against the growth of hatred and indifference to the loss of human life, in order to safeguard our Torah and our humanity. Let not the Torah’s insight that all human beings are created in God’s image, and her vision of universal brotherhood and peace, become further casualties of the terrible wars that have been cruelly forced upon us.

That was one of my teacher’s greatest fears. And mine as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger resides in Alon Shvut Israel. He serves as the Director of Memnosyne Israel, promoting interfaith, bridge building projects betweens Israeli settlers and local Palestinians. As the Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, he also flies to Dallas, Texas once a month to teach adult education classes within the Jewish community and to spearhead interfaith dialogue.
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