Parshat Matot: Victory by Force of Arms vs. a Victory of the Spirit

Victory by Force of Arms vs. a Victory of the Spirit

Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon is the Director of the Maarava Program for Rabbinical Emissaries to Sephardic Communities

Rabbi Dr. Mikhael Ben AdmonA quick peek into human history suffices to show that human beings are unable to conduct their lives without engaging in war.  Conflicts come about for a great many reasons – territory, economy, honor – and are often resolved by force of arms; a radical solution leaving little room for compromise.  In most cases, each of the parties at conflict tries to subdue the other, in keeping with the dominant nation- submissive nation paradigm.  Since time immemorial, the greatest of minds have tried to determine what optimal warfare is, and even in our own times enormous efforts are channeled towards finding solutions for how to subdue the enemy and which military tactics would be best for this purpose – often, though, this debate is disguised in seemingly lofty ideologies.  In the eyes of the adversaries, there is nothing more moral than defending one’s nation and country; there is nothing more honorable than committing oneself to a noble collective ideology.  However, reality will show that the ultimate justification for war – for all its inherent destructive forces – is, quite paradoxically, moral in itself. 

The Torah, too, does not ignore the concept of war, and commands us, quite explicitly and giving numerous reasons, to wage war against nations like Amalek, the seven nations that inhabited the Land of Canaan, and even Midian in this week’s portion.  The biblical world was not ignorant of the dangers of war and its repercussions, and raises initial thoughts on concepts such as just and unjust wars and what may be legitimate reasons for going out to war.

One might claim that Jewish tradition has adopted views that are in keeping with the generally accepted notion that wars are an existential necessity, and one cannot but take part in the game. Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, who headed Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav and was also one of the most prominent dayanim in Jerusalem in the last generation, claimed that this notion is the only true justification for what is termed the Law of War. In his opinion, if the premise were that the nations of the world would put down their arms, there would be no justification for engaging in war to resolve conflicts.  However, since wars are forced upon us, we must not hesitate to use the enemy’s tactics in order to defend ourselves.  In the ideal world, however, there will no longer be room for such an option.

Still and all, for me this does not suffice.  The Torah uses extreme language when talking of the war against Amalek – “You shall erase all memory of Amalek” – or against Midian, in which case it uses terms such as vengeance.  The question that must follow is, is it possible that the Torah, which aspires to achieving world peace – “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” – is the same Torah that seemingly succumbs to human weaknesses and justifies war? 

To formulate this question in contemporary terms: Does the ultimate Redemption we have always dreamed of require us to be equipped with the most advanced weaponry, have the strongest army in the world and depict ourselves, in the eyes of the world, as an exemplary military power?  Does this not shatter the age-old dream of Redemption?  Does this not pose a threat to the possibility of ever living in a world cured of its evils, a world void of wars?

I wish to suggest that a state of war is more than just an inevitable reaction to a reality imposed upon us, forcing us to contend with a world that is far from perfect; a world in which, oftentimes, that which is noble and worthy is pushed aside in the face of reality, leaving no room for utopia.  But such thinking may lead to despair and cause us to abandon our dream. 

The writings of Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, seem to suggest that a state of peace and tranquility can never prevail in this world. Man is a being filled with lusts, desires, internal contradictions and inner struggles.  It follows then, that big conflicts are a reflection of man’s inherent restlessness.  Kristeva contends that the natural order of things, the default, is being in a state of war, and that a human being who has no inner struggles is, in fact, a dead person. 

However, this notion does not constitute an apology for war or the humanitarian and cultural calamities that come in its wake.  Rather, the idea expresses a profound understanding of the human soul.  War is a type of release mechanism, a sublimation of sorts of an inner reality that seeks to find peace and tranquility.  It is a process whereby the individual, and mankind in general, recognizes and comes to terms with the destruction to Creation and to all living creatures caused by none other than man himself. 

One cannot be born a pacifist; nor can one adopt pacifistic standards in a violent world.  However, war can still be viewed as a negative paradigm, albeit one which advocates the idea that every conflict teaches man that in order to wean off violence he must experience it first.  We can only heal from violence if we perceive it as a therapeutic process, much like homeopathic medicine, where the mindset is of importance.  True, the process of war is initially imposed upon us, but it can lead to healing, and when man heals, the world, too, can heal. 

It is this very idea that the concept of Milchemet Mitzvah (“a war by commandment”) should incorporate: it is a mitzvah to engage in war in specific situations, which, in turn, becomes a preamble to man’s healing process and the first step to ridding oneself of feelings of vengeance.   War should not be praised; rather, it should be seen as a correction of a distortion, a state in which both parties become aware of their weaknesses and their limitations.  Victory by force of arms can only be celebrated if it comes with a victory of the spirit.  And this idea should be instilled in all of mankind.

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