The seedbed of peace

All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace (Tanhuma Shoftim 18).

The Torah has been tough for me the past couple of weeks. We’re reading, or preparing to read, the accounts of Israel’s conflict with the Midianites (Num. 22–31), accounts filled with retribution and violence, which reach a climax after God tells Moses, “Avenge the people of Israel upon the Midianites” (Num. 31:2).

Scholars say that this command is concerned with retribution rather than revenge, with restoring justice after the Midianites enticed the Israelites into idolatry and immorality, and the consequent judgment. But the warfare itself is deeply disturbing. The Israelites kill every man among the Midianites; they take captive all the women and children, seize all their flocks and herds and possessions, and burn their cities to the ground. After all that, it’s even more shocking to read that Moses instructs the warriors to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him” (31:17).

I won’t try to explain away the brutality of this scene, but I also don’t want to miss the bigger picture. This is not sheer conquest, but a war of retribution for specific wrongs. This warfare is horrific, but guided by regulations and limits, even if we, at our distance, find the rules unbelievably harsh. Lawgivers—Moses and Eleazar the priest—not generals, define who is to live and who is to die, and what is to become of the spoils. This detail alone, in the context of the brutalities of ancient Middle Eastern warfare, is significant. Beyond this, every warrior who has killed a person or touched a corpse must enact a seven-day ritual of purification (31:19–20). This ritual is first given in Numbers 19, which states, “He who touches the corpse of soul of man—kol nefesh adam—shall be unclean for seven days” (vs. 11). Amid all the violence, and particularly amid the dehumanizing practices of their times, the Israelites are reminded that their enemy shares their humanity, and that his corpse has the same status as that of any other “soul of man.”

Again, I won’t deny the brutality of this warfare, but I will underline the fact that it is defined by laws that transcend it. These laws provide the seed for further limits on warfare and for deeper recognition of the humanity of the other, which will be developed within Jewish practice in the centuries that followed.

This teaching, like all the Torah’s instructions—and especially the difficult ones—is as relevant on June 29, 2014, as on the day it was given. 

Warfare remains brutal, horrific, unjust, but sometimes necessary. Therefore, there are rules to guide it, which point beyond it.

Recently three young Yeshiva students in Israel were kidnapped, allegedly by Hamas operatives, and the IDF is still in the midst of an extensive search for them. Some voices try to shift the focus away from the kidnapping victims to those arrested or killed by the IDF in the course of their rescue operation. Others ask why Israel is so upset about three missing youths, when hundreds of Palestinian youths are “missing” in Israeli prisons. There are rules to warfare, however. It may be necessary to arrest suspects when they’re uncovered in the midst of a rescue operation. It may be necessary to respond with force to those assaulting troops with rocks or primitive weapons. It’s never necessary or justified to abduct innocent civilians.

The current tactic of moral equivalency labels whoever inflicts the most damage as the evildoer. It is tragic that five Palestinians have allegedly been killed by the IDF in the process of their rescue operation (, accessed 6/29/14), and terrible that the lives of ordinary Palestinians have been profoundly disrupted. But this doesn’t mean that Israel’s response is equivalent to, or worse than, the original crime of abduction. Military action can be evaluated, criticized, and possibly modified or even ended. Kidnapping is criminal. If the IDF is over-reacting, its leaders need to be called to account, but we’re not going to find justice by examining which side has lost more lives and decreeing that the other side must be the perpetrator. Instead, there are rules by which we can assess and regulate warfare, and the seedbed of such rules is the Torah.

My interest, though, isn’t so much in the rules of warfare as in the hope for peace. Because it places limits on actions that most often defy limits, the Torah points toward peace. It even gives us hope for peace with the Palestinians.

The Master highlights this pointer in Torah when he instructs us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). This isn’t a new torah, but the direction of Torah all along. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your fellow and hate your enemy.’ Yet I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who pursue you [this in the context of the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel, and all that entailed], so that you will be sons of your Father who is in heaven, who makes his sun shine for the evil and for the good and sends rain on the righteous as well as upon the wicked” (5:43–45). Love for the enemy is a radical teaching, which Yeshua will embody in his own journey toward the cross. It’s radical, but rooted all along in the Torah, which calls us to reflect the character of God in our deeds, including his benevolence toward all.

As the ancient sage declared, “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace.” It is our task, as learners of Torah, to cultivate and guard its seeds of peace.


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