Tzvi Fishman
Torah Commentator, Novelist, and Film Director

Valor and Sorrow in Israel’s Wars

This essay seeks to shed insight into the unique Divine nature of Israel’s wars, and the related topic of Jewish valor, by capsulizing the Hebrew shiurim (lectures) of Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau, head of the Har HaMor Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Tau bases his explanations on the teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook and his son, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, of blessed memories, who taught the Nation to see the lights of Redemption shining in the historical events which we have witnessed in our time as the Nation of Israel rises to renewal, and returns, in gradual stages, to its Biblical homeland and true Torah stature. In effect, the essay is a loose and edited translation of Rabbi Tau’s classes, which can be found, in the original Hebrew, in his book, “Ozar Yisrael B’Givorah.”

The Goal of Israel’s Wars 

Ever since we have been a Nation, we have been engaged in difficult struggles with the nations of the world. It is important to take a deeper look at these struggles, to clarify their nature, in order to prevent our spirits from fallen, G-d forbid, when we encounter the endless persecutions of our past, and face the formidable challenges of our future. Gaining understanding and courage from the wellsprings of Torah, we will be able to wage the battle for our Nation’s survival, not only for our own benefit and welfare, but also to bring blessing to the world.

G-d’s rule over history, and His goal for mankind, unfold gradually over the chronicles of time and crystallize in the life of Am Yisrael. A heavenly “pitka,” or note, doesn’t miraculously fall down from the clouds and reveal to humanity the lofty idea of the Oneness of G-d and His moral demands. Rather, the Divine Ideal is revealed by a People here on earth, through their day-to-day doings, material and national, which they share with all other nations. The word of G-d in the world is revealed in the down-to-earth life of this unique Nation, through its majestic aspirations and holy traits. This Nation, the Nation of Israel, isn’t isolated in its mission, living only for itself and conducting international relations for its own betterment and interests, like other nations in the world. Rather, it is a Nation that stands on the center stage of human history, as “the heart of the nations,” as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi describes in his classic treatise on Jewish Faith, HaKuzari. In its essence, the Nation of Israel is universal, and through its very existence, the great truth of G-d is revealed, as King David says, “For the Kingdom is the L-rd’s, and He rules over the nations.”

This Divine Kingship doesn’t come to demean, oppress, or destroy the peoples of the world, G-d forbid, but rather to impose a cosmically harmonious, Divine Sovereignty, in keeping with man’s essential nature, to uplift human culture and bring mankind closer to its Source. The submission of the nations of the world before the Divine Light, hidden within the Nation of Israel, is, in reality, a blessing for them, and a natural, life-giving necessity, like the dependence of a tree’s branches on its roots. It is like the satellite relationship of the body’s organs to the heart, the life center of the body’s metabolism, from whence the body nurtures all of its powers and strengths. As the soul of the world, where all of Divine Faith and Morality is stored, along with the idea for a perfect human society and the exalted aspiration for the rectification of the world, “Tikun HaOlam,” in its most ideal form – Am Yisrael doesn’t come to compel and force the nations to accept something foreign and external to them. Rather, it seeks to liberate them from everything which is antithetical to the purpose of existence, and elevate them to the lofty freedom of the good life in its truest meaning, a life filled with the awareness of, and allegiance to, the One and Only G-d.

In opposition to this historic mission, and due to its great importance and existential necessity, nations rise up against us in every generation to disrupt us from reaching our goal, attempting to delay our fully developed appearance, and to extinguish the revelation of the Divine Light in our midst, which heralds G-d’s Kingship over the world.

This has been the case since the birth of our Nation. Whenever the special Divine uniqueness and “segula” of Am Yisrael starts to emerge in the world, the most formidable impurity immediately rises against it to erect a seemingly impregnable barrier of crude immorality and materialism, in order to block out the Light of G-d.

Regarding the verse, “Sichon king of the Emori, and Og king of Bashan, and all the kingdoms of Canaan” (Tehillim, 135:11), HaRav Kook explains that with the appearance of the Light of Israel in the world, we must smite all the types of wicked kingdoms which stand in opposition to the Divine Light’s emergence: the unbridled, emotional valor embodied in Sichon; the physical prowess of Og king of Bashan; and the strength resulting from the collective might of many nations – the peoples of Canaan. Rav Kook concludes:

“When G-d gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish People as an inheritance, He performed miracles, overwhelming all the nations’ displays of valor… This is an eternal lesson for us that G-d’s counsel and His holy word will endure forever, and all the savage and unbridled heroism in the name of evil, all the colossal shows of physical strength, all the secret councils of many nations and kingdoms which join together against the People of G-d, just as it occurred then, will be of no avail.”

The appearance of the Divine Light in the world, which shines forth when preventative, blocking forces are overcome, is not a one-time occurrence, but rather a long ongoing historical process continuing from the Exodus from Egypt until the final Redemption. Rabbi Kook writes:

“The Redemption continues and advances. The Redemption from Egypt and the complete future Redemption are one – a non-stop continuum, the continuous work of G-d’s strong hand and outstretched arm which began in ancient Egypt and which continues to act throughout all the subsequent events and causes of history. Moshe and Eliahu, who comes to herald the Mashiach’s arrival, are the redeemers of the same Geula, one who begins and one who ends, one who starts and the other who seals the finish – together they complete the whole.”

The struggle between Israel and the nations is the struggle between good and evil, a deadly tug-of-war which is destined to reveal who rules over mankind – the nations of the world or G-d?

Today, as we are rising to renewal, in the very place where our Redemption is unfolding, here in Eretz Yisrael, the greatest concentration of impurity has gathered to interfere with, and block out, the resplendent burst of light accompanying the Israel’s cultural and spiritual revolution, which will redeem all of humanity. Our rebirth is not the revival of an individual nation wishing to improve its own situation, but rather it is a Divine undertaking, universal in scope, central to the world. Our ascent upon the stage of history comes to clarify the meaning of history, the direction of mankind, and the essence and value of all existence. Our Redemption brings a renaissance to world culture, introducing a new moral and faith-filled concept, illuminated and perfected, which will revitalize the face of history and human culture. This healing light, inherent in the blessing that Israel brings to the world, will rectify the national psyche of the nations who long for (whether consciously or not) a social awakening, rejuvenation, and inspiration to free them from their tired and despairing existence.

Here begins, with our re-establishment as a Nation, the most meaningful clarification of Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of G-d’s Name, in the world. And precisely because of this, all of the forces of impurity in the existence are rising against us, instinctively sensing that their defeat and total destruction is at hand. They summon their last vestiges of strength to fight against us, a fierce war of survival and existence, before they collapse and relinquish their dominance over world culture. Like with all things that change their nature, in every place where new life emerges, here too, the previous stage is struggling to save itself – and the struggle is terrifying, a battle to the end with no compromise or compassion.

For this reason, our wars are not like all the other wars in the world.

We fight one long and difficult war against war itself, against the impurity and evil which degrades mankind into wielding the sword and shedding blood. Our wars come to purify the world and to liberate it from the necessity for war which has accompanied humanity throughout history. The wars of Israel are the harbingers of the light of Mashiach himself. They bring his arrival closer, an arrival which appears with the revival of Israel as it awakens from the long and frightful slumber of Exile. These wars themselves are stages of the Redemption.

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook taught:

“Every war is a phase in the Redemption of Israel. The Geula (Redemption of Israel) appears in stages, war after war, whether they were before the establishment of the State of Israel or after; whether they were before the re-conquest of Jerusalem or after. The Yom Kippur War was a special added stage, even with all its trauma and horror. The greater the undertaking, the greater the complications involved, the greater the errors and difficulties – and, arising from this – the greater the Kiddush Hashem. We are at the middle of the road, only half-way to our goal, still in the time of the atchaltah d’geula, the beginnings of Redemption. We experience great and wondrous stages, and yet we must keep in mind the teaching of the Gemara that the Redemption of Israel appears ‘kimah, kimah,’ a little at a time, in gradually developing phases. The process is orchestrated by the One who, ‘neither slumbers nor sleeps.’  The Almighty isn’t lazy, G-d forbid. On the contrary, He ‘causes salvation to flourish’ by bringing about another phase of Redemption, time after time. We must accustom ourselves to gaze upon these matters out of Emunah (faith) and complete bitachon (trust) in the certainty of Geulat Yisrael and the historical order in which it comes.”

In the spectrum of human culture, there are those among the nations who speak about G-d, but their conceptions and expressions of morality, and their religious beliefs and practices, are cut off from the true Divine Morality, and from the true paths of G-d, which can only be obtained by cleaving to His traits and His commandments, as set forth in the Torah. In vain they proclaim the Name of G-d on their lips, unable to actualize the Divine Will in life, and unable to deal with crises stemming from their hollow faiths, or with their unrefined passions. The influence of any human morality which man has derived himself, which doesn’t nurture its ideals from the Divine Source of Torah and its Laws, must necessarily be waning. Its hold over the masses may last centuries, but its emptiness will eventually be exposed.

In contrast, the morality of Israel, from its source in the Torah, is pure and vital to existence, as exemplified by the Divine promise, “And you who cleave to the L-rd your G-d are all alive today.” For this reason, it is certain to triumph through its gradually increasing influence on human culture, in its ability to stand in opposition to all of the dark falsehoods which rise up against it.

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda cautioned his students not to fall prey to voices, from without the Nation and from within, which criticize Israel’s use of military might:

“We mustn’t feel any shame whatsoever over those wars which we fought on the way to our rebirth, nor over the hatred which we aroused in our hearts against those who rose up against us to annihilate us. Even if we were just fighting for our survival (and not the wars of Hashem), this too should not cause any shame, for it is not based on any perversion of justice, or oppression of other peoples – on the contrary, it is our very existence that brings light to the world, a light so great that the intellect which is stripped of any Divine Revelation (as amongst the Gentile nations) certainly cannot grasp its dimensions.”

We are obligated to fight against, and eradicate, the individuals or regimes which stand in the path of our Nation, so that they will no longer interfere with the revelation of G-d’s Light on earth. The wars of Israel bring blessing to all mankind. “Do not be afraid, Avram,” said HaKodesh Baruch Hu to Avraham Avinu after he had killed the kings and feared that perhaps he had taken the life of some righteous person in their camp, and thus veered away from his special mission of bringing people closer to G-d. “Do not be afraid,” the Master of the World told Avraham –the people you killed were like thorns needing to be uprooted. And those purveyors of evil whom we must kill today, have no rectification as well. In endangering the life of Am Yisrael, and in their preventing the Sanctification of G-d from appearing in the world, they are nothing but thorns which must be removed from the orchard in order to further its productivity and growth.

The opinion of a certain Torah scholar was publicized during the Yom Kippur War, claiming that we should relate with understanding to the Arabs who were waging war against us, since they didn’t comprehend our greatness and our connection to the Land. Therefore, he insisted, it was necessary to convince them of the justness of our presence in Eretz Yisrael by explaining matters to them. HaRav Tzvi Yehuda responded: “There is no question here of explaining matters to the Gentiles and convincing them of the rightness of our cause. We have to convince them with tanks! May G-d save us from opinions proclaiming we have to judge favorably the murderers who come to slaughter us! May the Guardian of Israel protect and save us from the dissemination of such damaging ideas!”

Rabbi Kook wrote:

“Because we foolishly allowed a remnant of the Seven Nations to remain in the Land of Canaan, we brought upon ourselves all of the physical and material suffering which followed, and learned to do all of their abominations: the immolation of sons and daughters, and all of the perversions of the Amorites. We cannot imagine today, after G-d’s hand scattered those dark clouds in all directions, the depths of the evil that was imbedded in man’s entire being. And now you, my dear one, ask: ‘Why did we treat them so cruelly?’ We can’t describe how dark and depraved the world would be if not for that cruelty of ours, just as we cannot describe how abominable and evil the world would be if not for the illumination of the pure light of G-d and His path, which we spread throughout our history.”

The Goal of the Jewish Soldier

The Nation of Israel is unique and set apart from the other nations of the world by the Divine life content which forms the foundation of its being. Therefore, all of its doings are also different, be they secular or holy. This difference applies to its wars and struggles as well, for they all constitute, in their essence, because of who we are, the wars of Hashem, stemming from our inner Holiness and connection to Hashem. This unique Divine mission of our wars bears its stamp on each and every Israeli soldier who participates in them, and is manifest in the willingness to give up his life for Hashem.

Out of this understanding, Rabbi Kook explains the Gemara which states: “Everyone who went out in the wars of the house of David wrote a bill of divorce for his wife,” (Shabbat 56A; See Rabbi Kook’s commentary in “Ein Aya,” on Tractate Shabbat). This enactment is not merely a technical means of assuring that wives will not remain “agunot,” unable to remarry if their husbands become missing in battle. Rather, it expresses a much deeper and meaningful foundation which clarifies the nature of our wars, distinguishing our soldiers from those of the nations (who go off to war when forced by conscription, or in the most idealistic motivations, for the sake of the governments which send them, or to safeguard their own personal lives and the lives of their families which will be enhanced by victory in battle.  Rabbi Kook explains that when an Israelite went off to battle, he was not motivated by the calculation to safeguard and improve his own private life. The soldier put it in his mind, in an inner effort to reach a level of high moral fortitude, that he was giving up his private life and joyfully marching off to die a holy hero’s death in a war to sanctify Hashem and lift up the honor of Israel. This is the reason he wrote a bill of divorce to his wife, to sever his heart as much as he could from all family attachment and from personal thoughts and concerns, going forth on a Divine holy mission on behalf of all the Nation.

In the time of war, we are compelled to lay aside the private individual aspect of our lives and to become “tzibori” and “Clal Yisraeli” by identifying with the larger community of Knesset Yisrael and its mission. This revelation of our higher inner content is attained (whether a soldier is conscious of it or not), because it stems from our inner segula (our special uniqueness as the Divinely Chosen Nation). It is something which is independent of our free will. This unique segula is concretely revealed through the willingness for self-sacrifice and the desire to sanctify G-d’s Name (Kiddush Hashem) that can be seen in large segments of the Nation who aren’t even aware of these inner potentials – whether through a lack of religious education, or because of their personal perspectives on life, or because of the shallowness of their conscious recognition. In wartime, the greatness of each individual, the true depth of his life and noble ambitions, overcome the Israeli soldier and dictate all of his deeds.

Joy and Sorrow in War

In explaining how soldiers from the House of David set forth to war, Rabbi Kook notes that they would go forth “with joy to die a hero’s death of holiness and valor in waging a war of Hashem.”

The expression “b’simcha”– joyfully – is seemingly surprising. After all, wars are exceedingly ugly and distasteful. The anguish over the martyrs and victims is also very great – what is the relevance to simcha? The answer is that there is absolutely no contradiction between the differing emotions of anguish and joy during war. The love of Hashem and the love of Israel, which reach their fullest and most supreme expression in the pinnacle of sacrificing one’s life, are filled with joyousness and spiritual transcendence. The joy, needless to say, doesn’t come from the war itself, which, in and of itself, is an evil, ugly, lowly matter, abounding in personal suffering and pain. Rather, the joy comes from the great Kiddush Hashem which fills our emotions and longings, and for which we are prepared to sacrifice all earthy things – this is the joy found in the raising up of the banner of Israel, and in the removal of impurity from the world.

When Israel was at war, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was totally filled with a spirit of valor and joy, radiating encouragement and inspiration to his students in the yeshiva, and to those who were going off to battle. His elevated spirit stemmed from his fervent anticipation and yearning to see the glory of the Nation raised on high. When he was told about soldiers who had been killed, he would break out in bitter tears, but after a few passing minutes, a joyous, heroic countenance would settle upon him once again. We could all see his determination in standing strong and joyous throughout the day, in anticipation of the great national salvation which was in the making. He would attend funerals, as much as he was able in his advancing years, and he deeply felt the anguish of the Nation, but, hand in hand with all of the pain, he clung to a higher ideal and to his aspiration to witness G-d’s honor uplifted, along with the honor of Israel. He refused to listen to expressions of weakness at all. When people came to him worried, hounded by depression and despair, he would cry out, “Shmirat HaLashone!” Guard your tongue! When our soldiers were fighting, it was impossible to bring complaints and worries before him, similar to Mattitiyahu’s rebuke of his sons, “You’re shocked and distressed?!” Get thee forth to battle!

At a time of war, we experience all of the terrible suffering and pain of Israel, yet we rise up above this with a feeling of joy over the general Sanctification of G-d which comes to pass through the defeat of the world’s evil doers, and we transcend all depression and despair, all despondency and melancholy spirit.

Even more than this – it is precisely the love of G-d which gives birth to the deepest feeling of pain over the loss of each individual Jewish soul. Our deep connection to the holiness of the Jewish People, the recognition of their lofty stature in this generation of revival, and our love for the honor of G-d which is magnified by their sacrifice, these are the things which bring us to tears and to the deepening of our anguish. Our mourning stems from an encompassing perspective, which appreciates the value of the Nation as a whole, and thus every individual becomes even more important and valued, and his absence pains and anguishes us because it causes a delay in the complete appearance of the full light of our National Soul, and the full light of the Shechinah, the wholeness of which is necessary in rectifying the world through the establishment of the Kingdom of G-d over the earth.

However, with heartfelt courage and clear recognition that everything is a necessary part in bringing G-d’s plan for Redemption to completion, we are happy over the Kiddush Hashem which increases and manifests itself in the eyes of those who care to see. “In the destruction of the wicked there is joy.” 

It is important to emphasize that all delays (such as losses in battle or divisions of our Land) merely seem that way on the surface. The essential, pre-determined desire of Hashem to bring about the Redemption; the unalterable fact of the eternity of Am Yisrael and our destined Salvation, these are certainties which cannot be curtailed. Whatever appears to be in our eyes a setback and a delay is, in the depths of truth, serving to assist the appearance of G-d’s wholeness in the world. Nonetheless, the ideal is that these things come to pass in front of everyone’s eyes, in a clearly beneficiary manner, so that it will no longer be necessary to receive G-d’s goodness in a complicated fashion, which refines and cleanses through sufferings in order to advance us toward perfection.

Rabbi Kook calls on us to remember that the Clal (overall Community of Israel) must always be infinitely elevated over the prat (individual), and that it is forbidden to divorce oneself from the over community for the sake of the individual, even in cases of personal loss and mourning. On the contrary, the essential principle must be to elevate the individual and include him within the overall collective, as the Rambam writes in a letter: “A person should always look to well-being of the general community, and not look to his own private interests.” Therefore, personal sorrow does not have the power to weaken, G-d forbid, or darken, even any small sliver of the great light of our all-encompassing love for our Nation. This all-encompassing union and identity with the needs, desires, aspirations, and goals of Clal Yisrael comes precisely from the love of G-d, Blessed Be He, and the joy of His Salvation.

About the Author
Before making Aliyah in 1984, Tzvi Fishman taught Creative Writing at the NYU School of the Arts. He has published nearly twenty novels and books on a wide range of Jewish themes, available at Amazon Books and the website. He is the recipient of the Israel Ministry of Education Award for Creativity and Jewish Culture. Recently, he produced and directed the feature film, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman” starring Israel’s popular actor, Yehuda Barkan. Presently, he is working on Volume Four of the Tevye in the Promised Land Series.