Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.” (Deuteronomy 20:10)
The winds of war emanating from last summer’s ”Operation Protective Edge” have subsided, but we still hear loud and clear the raucous shouts at the United Nations, of European leaders and even of top leadership in the US condemning Israel’s “extreme and disproportionate military activity” during the ”cycle of violence,” and condemning the fact that so many more Palestinians were killed than Israelis.
Our erstwhile friends have barely taken note of the ugly truth that there never was a “cycle of violence”; there were only brutal Hamas terrorist kidnappings and missile attacks launched from heavily populated areas in Gaza against the Israeli civilian population, missiles from UNRWA-run hospitals and schools, to which we were forced to respond if we were to protect our soldiers and citizens within Israel.
If the death count was disproportionate, it was not because of the sensitivity of our enemies; it was only because of the superior ability of our Iron Dome missile system to foil the evil desires of the Hamas terrorists, who willfully target Israeli civilians and who cynically use the Gaza citizenry as human shields in order to win the sympathy of a hypocritical and often diabolical world opinion.
Where were the European voices against Hamas, against the terrorists who used billions of dollars which were given to help the supposedly poverty-stricken Gazans and instead were used to build underground tunnels to infiltrate Israel and murder innocent Israelis? Where is President Obama’s voice against UNRWA, which received billions of American dollars for schools and hospitals which apparently cooperated with the terrorists in providing incitement education and in becoming military launching pads against Israel? And all of this after we left the settlements in Gaza unilaterally in 2005!
As we see from the opening quotation, our Bible insists that we never wage war, even a defensive war, without first asking for peace. Both Maimonides and Nahmanides maintain that accepting a peace treaty includes the acceptance of the Seven Noahide Laws of Morality (especially “thou shalt not murder”) and includes the Seven Nations of Canaan.
Nevertheless, the Bible does prescribe that if the enemy refuses peace “You must not leave any living being alive; you must utterly destroy them” (Deut. 20:16, 17). This would seem to include women and children.
Is this compassion? In order to compound our question and add to it a nuance of complexity, only two verses after the command “to utterly destroy” appear the following curious—and exquisitely sensitive—divine charge (Deut. 20:19) “When you lay siege to a city… to wage war against it and capture it, you may not destroy a fruit tree to lift an axe against it; after all… the human being derives his sustenance from it” or as alternatively rendered, “Is the tree of the field a human being, who is capable of escaping a siege?” Can it be that our Torah cares more about a fruit tree than innocent women and children? One might very well argue that a fruit tree which gives human beings nutrition, the wherewithal to live, is of greater benefit than individuals who tragically are making it possible for terrorists hell-bent on obliterating every free society to triumph! Such individuals are lower than apples because they are part of a process which will remove goodness from the world.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, dean of Yeshivat Volozhin at the end of the nineteenth century, in his masterful commentary on the Bible known as Ha’amek Davar, provides a key to our understanding. He insists that when the Bible ordains that we “utterly destroy” even the women and children (as it also commands in Deut. 7:1, 2) this is limited “to those women and children who are also gathered against us in battle….”
It is almost as though this great yeshiva head saw the kind of war we are being forced to wage with Hamas and Hizbollah. To rephrase Golda Meir, “I do not hate Hamas for trying to drive us out of our homeland; but I do hate Hamas for causing us to kill innocent Gazans.”
Let no one be under any illusions: war stinks! But when a callous and cruel terrorist organization uses its own citizenry as human shields, we have no choice but to fight back. Michael Walzer in his classic work “Just and Unjust Wars” maintains that a soldier’s life is not worth less than an innocent victim’s life. We must add to this moral insight: If the innocent victim has bought into the evil of the enemy by continuing to support that enemy’s rule and by enabling that enemy to build tunnels to destroy innocent Israelis, or if the enemy is a terrorist purposely waging war from the thick of residential areas because that is the way they think that can defeat us and stop us from fighting back, then logical morality insists that we dare not allow them to gain the edge, that we dare not allow evil to triumph.
Yes, we must try as much as possible to wage a moral war; but the highest morality is never allowing immorality to triumph. Our Sages correctly teach: “Those who are compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate.” And we can be justly proud of our IDF, which continues to do everything possible to protect innocents in warfare.