PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA

GOING TO WAR

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!”  (Numbers 10:35)

            One of the Hebrew verses in this week’s portion should be familiar to anyone who attends services in an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue.  When the ark is opened and the Torah is about to be carried out, the congregation sings Vihi Beinsoa HaAron Viyomer Moshe

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say.”  The verse continues Viyafutzu Oyvecha Vayanusu M’sanecha Mipanecha.   “May Your enemies be scattered.  And may Your foes flee before you.”  We take the Torah out of the Ark with the vision of God as a warrior fighting our enemies.

            Anyone who attends services in a Reform synagogue will not find this verse familiar.  The Reform Movement has removed this verse from its prayerbook, singing instead about how God gave the Torah to Moses.  I do not know why the Movement made this change to the liturgy.  I suppose there was a sense among Reform Jews that singing about war and God fighting our battles detracts from the holiness of preparing to read from the Torah.  I understand this change.  But I always prefer traditional liturgy, even if it speaks about war.

            Living during this time of war in Israel, perhaps it is worth looking at the Jewish view of war.  When I think of hit pop songs in the United States, most of them deal with love.  When I think of hit pop songs in Israel, most of them deal with peace.  Israelis are obsessed with peace.  Nonetheless, Israel has fought wars nearly non-stop since her founding in 1948.  The question is how to fight a war while maintaining the traditional Jewish values of always seeking peace.  For example, according to the Torah, an army cannot besiege a city without first offering terms of peace (See Deuteronomy 20:10).  And even if the army goes to war, it cannot destroy the trees – do wanton destruction.

            Rabbinic literature speaks of two kinds of wars, milchemet rishut (an optional war) and milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war).  An optional war included the actions of King David to expand the borders of Israel.  An obligatory war is a war against Amalek who represents absolute evil (for example, the war against Hitler) or a war of self-defense.  The war in Gaza, to rescue the hostages and destroy Hamas, combines both self-defense and fighting evil.  It is an obligatory war.

            What about the Jewish dream of peace?   Isaiah speaks of the day when, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).  This is a dream of a future Messianic time, a time when all nations shall live at peace.  Sadly, today we are far from that time.

            What about civilian casualties?  They are tragic.  As many of you know, I teach college ethics.  One of the important lessons I teach is known as Just War Theory.  Although developed by Thomas Aquinas within the context of Catholic canon law, it has been further developed by modern secular ethical thinkers.  One of the important insights of this theory is what ethicists call “double effect.”  If an action will have a positive result, but may have a secondary negative effect, that action may still be justified.  The desired positive result must outweigh the possible negative result. 

In war, the argument of double effect is used to support attacking enemy combatants, even if it may result in tragic civilian casualties.  This is the difficult issue in the war in Gaza, where Hamas hides weapons in civilian areas, including hospitals, schools, and mosques.   I heard it put very well, “Israel uses its weapons to protect its civilians, Hamas uses its civilians to protect its weapons.”

            War is ugly, and we all pray for peace.  But sadly, as the Rabbis taught long ago, sometimes wars are necessary or even obligatory.  At this point we can only pray for the release of the rest of the hostages and for peace to come to Israel.  Meanwhile, as I prepare to take out the Torah Saturday morning, I will continue to pray that God will scatter our enemies.