He approached me after the service, the Shabbat candles still glowing next to us. “How can you keep leading us in prayers for peace if you aren’t calling for a ceasefire?” Ouch. I took a deep breath. The question, thrown like a dagger, was, at its core, an accusation of hypocrisy.
If our liturgy repeatedly expresses our hopes for peace, how may any of us, the accusation goes, continue to live authentic Jewish lives if we’re not supporting an immediate stop to Israel’s war on terror in Gaza?
There is indeed no more fervent wish in Jewish prayer than the hope for peace. That hope punctuates our liturgy. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once noted “how deeply the desire for peace is etched in the heart of almost every Jew.” Everyone wants peace. We yearn, pray, and cry out for a world of peace. There is no Jew who is anti-peace – only those with different understandings of what peace is. And this is where the conversation must really begin.
The assumption that peace is best manifested through a ceasefire is contradictory to Jewish tradition. I’m sorry to make things more complicated for you, but the notion of equating a ceasefire agreement with the Jewish concept of peace is, at best, naive and, at worst, malicious.
A quick glance through the Torah teaches us that there are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, times when war is the answer. Our tradition does not shy away from fighting, even when it may result in death, especially if we are fighting to ensure our survival. This may be why we are taught it is a positive commandment to remove obstacles that endanger our lives (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 427:8). What is Hamas, if not an obstacle, endangering Jewish life?
“But, wait, Rabbi. Isn’t there a legend that says that the angels were forbidden to rejoice when the pursuing Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea?” Yes, one midrash on this week’s Torah portion shares that the angels were not permitted to rejoice when Pharaoh’s army was killed. But let’s be clear – the war wasn’t over until every last member of Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the sea. We may learn from this that God does not require us to let the enemies that threaten us live. I would argue that God does not even require us to feel bad about our enemy’s loss. The angels should know better, but we are not angels. We are mere mortals who experience life-threatening events and heartbreaking fear – and thus we may even rejoice when true victory is won. For that is when real peace may come.
The striving for true peace is an essential and eternal Jewish longing. It is one of our most precious hopes that someday swords will be beaten into plowshares, and war shall be no more. But when, exactly, is this supposed to happen? At the end of days – when all have recognized our right to exist and thrive, and there is no longer any need to fight for our existence. And not a moment before. Until that time, we hold tight to our swords – always ready and willing to rightly defend our existence.
So yes, I pray for peace. I pray for true peace, one encompassing the idea of wholeness, safety, and security – not just temporary anxiety-ridden pauses from fighting. I pray for the kind of peace we will only know through military victory. That is the peace we need.