Alon Goshen-Gottstein
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What does war do to our hearts and souls?

After praying for the well-being of the kidnapped, the soldiers, and Israel itself, I pray that suffering has not hardened our hearts to the suffering of others
A soldier prays. (via Facebook, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A soldier prays. (via Facebook, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

This war is fundamentally just. Our leadership is therefore correct in resisting calls for a permanent ceasefire, which would amount to a return to the status quo and its enduring potential for Israel’s destruction. Complex factors beyond military priorities, involving international relations, global public opinion, international law, media, and more come to play in the present war, Israel rightly keeps its focus on the one core goal: preserving the life of its citizens and the state itself, which means eradicating the enemy that has stated as ideal (and given us a taste of its implementation): wiping out Israel and its citizens.

There is another dimension of war-making, however. Israel’s theory of war-making has consistently recognized a spiritual dimension alongside the purely physical battle, ever since the Jewish people’s first war, the war against Pharaoh and his forces (Exodus 15). The war is God’s and involves Him. War is thus no simple attack on our being; it relates deeply to who we are, to our moral standing, and ultimately to our sins and virtues. Indeed, biblical Israel and later Judaism have strived not only for a just war, but for a “war of the just.”

If battle is a spiritual process, then each and every person in the nation is implicated in some way in the war, for that spiritual element presumes some kind of causality, even if indirect, between our collective spiritual standing and the events of war. War inherently invites those involved to a process of self-examination and self-transformation. In this understanding, prayer for success in war is no mere petition; it is itself an additional level of war-making.

In Genesis 48,22, Jacob refers to his battles with the Emorites, from whom he took the land “with my sword and bow.” The fact is, however, that we have no record of Jacob fighting the Emorites. Accordingly, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos renders these words as references to “prayer and petition.” As I understand it, it is not that the military dimension is neutralized by reference to prayer, but that prayer itself is weaponized. Prayer, then, may be seen as a more elevated form of engaging in battle.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslav picks up on this notion and accordingly redefines the image of the messiah, understood in some traditions as a royal figure who leads Israel in battle. The messiah, says R. Nachman, will conduct all his battles and make all his conquests by means of prayer alone (Likutey Moharan 2,1).

Following this line of thinking, the present time is also a time of prayer. We engage in a spiritual battle by means of prayer. What does this prayer consist of? First and foremost, without a doubt, it is a prayer for the kidnapped, for Israel’s survival and protection, for preventing casualties among soldiers and civilians, for a healing of the wounded, and for the comfort and security of society as a whole.

Among several spiritual practices that I have assumed during this time of war, I add two chapters of Psalms to each of the daily prayers. The first is Psalm 27, which was recited from the beginning of the month of Elul right up to Simchat Torah, and which I continue to recite. It affirms courage and trust in God in the face of war and expresses hope and aspiration for the future. It is, therefore, perfect for these times. The second psalm was recommended by ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Landau, one of the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry, who asked for Psalm 91 to be recited. Its theme is protection and trust in God. Indeed, protection is what we need at this time, perhaps more than anything else.

But the reasons we need protection go beyond the certain concerns of our physical well-being once we consider prayer to be an expression of spiritual battle. Golda Meir is famously said to have quipped: “When peace comes, we will, perhaps, in time, be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” Regardless of whether she said these precise words, the question they raise is what engaging in persistent battles does to our hearts and souls. In this present war, given its intensity and the goals of destroying the enemy, we must ask the same: what is it doing to our hearts and souls?

As the world pressures us to cease the fighting and as the world critiques our actions, we understandably push back, recalling the foundations of a just war. But does its bloody price compromise our position as a people engaging in a “war of the just?” I am haunted by multiple questions, regardless of how much and how precise our knowledge of events on the ground is. We are obligated to make room for some painful and challenging questions:

  • Has this war been fought purely as a war for the protection of Israel?
  • Have other human elements, such as revenge and hatred, shaped the battle, informed decisions, or established strategy?
  • Can I trust leader whom I see as lacking adequate empathy and compassion, even to his own people, and who sees his own survival and self-interest as primary drives, to act wisely and compassionately to others, especially at time of war?
  • Have all decisions taken into account the human reality of the other, in an attempt to maximize the protection of life?
  • More fundamentally, has the rhetoric of dehumanization, that naturally came to expression following the events of October 7, blinded us to the humanity of Gaza’s citizens?

We are often told that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Perhaps it is. More than anything, that has become an important pillar of my prayer during this period. I pray that we really are that. I pray that our hearts are not hardened due to our own suffering. I pray that we can see the suffering of others, even as we seek to protect our people now and into the future. I pray for wise and compassionate leadership. I pray for a heart wide enough to make room for the suffering of my people and of others. All these are incorporated into my prayer precisely because herein lies the spiritual battle, the higher battle that I believe is lived in prayer.

The Midrash tells us that when a person is hanged for his sins, he must be buried immediately, because every human person is in the image of God. The Talmud tells us that when a person suffers, the divine suffers with him. This is a time of great suffering. Suffering engulfs our entire region, in body and mind, cutting across all divides, between one nation and another, and between humans and the Divine. It is only the battle of prayer that allows us make room for this recognition and to pray that, in the end, God Himself will be victorious. For it is not we who will save or defend ourselves. It is from God, and in God, that our battle will be won.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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