Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Ki Teitzei
One of the most iconic peace images depicts a young woman confronting a line of armed soldiers. One by one, she took flowers from her bouquet and inserted them into the barrels of the rifles before her.
Religion tells us that it is never too late to turn from war to peace. Faith, on the other hand, teaches us that we must first make all efforts never to turn to war. The prophets teach us to turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai prophesied, “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares; don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”
Even while Torah teaches rules of engagement for war, the first teachings remind us that fighting is always a last resort. Torah tells us that no man is allowed to go to war if he is newly married or if his wife has not had a child. No one can go to war if he has not first made sure of the safety and security of his home for his family. No war can happen where there are trees. The list of prohibitions to waging war goes on, and the sages create volumes of commentary addressing how to expand the rules to ensure peace.
Perhaps we find the most important instruction at Deuteronomy 20:14. “When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.” Anyone who does not want to fight must be allowed safe passage through military lines to protect their freedom. The rabbis acknowledge that some wars begin with a command from God, while others are of our own doing.
A sage attempted to argue that if God ordained the war (Holy Wars), then no such requirement to save people exists. He referred to God’s command to erase Amalek from memory. Amalek was the most corrupt and evil force in scripture. We have to root it out from the world. Hotly refuting this premise, the sages respond that the rule applies to every war. The greatest of our teachers, Maimonides, affirms (without equivocation) that it applies especially to God-ordained wars. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:1) Peace must always be the goal and the first exhibited behavior, even in the direst circumstances. Even against Amalek – we must pursue peace.
Of course, Torah speaks allegorically more than historically. More prescient than any physical battle, the sages teach that “Holy Wars” are the spiritual conflicts to make sure that we root out the evil inclinations within us. As we find ourselves preparing for the High Holy Days, we know that the work of t’shuvah (turning, returning, healing) often causes us pain. Wrestling with our demons (the Holy War) with abject honesty is hard. Torah commands us to remember not to be harsh even with ourselves as we do this work. When we attempt to sit in judgment over others or prepare to do battle with their egos or behaviors, we know that violence is not the answer: physical or spiritual. Pursuing peace demands that we remember the dignity of even those with whom we vehemently disagree.
Einstein taught us that you cannot prepare for war and peace at the same time. If we want peace, then we need to think about the stereotypes we impose on people. We need to reflect on the places where our fears, insecurities, and ignorances play out in our diminution of others. We need to think boldly of peace and even more boldly to quell the voices of dissonance by not participating in them – by holding them accountable. We cannot just for peace pray with our mouths; we must work for peace with our hands, our hearts, and our souls. Shabbat shalom.