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Parashat B’shalah

February 3, 2009

Parashat B’shalah
By Bruce Alpert

Twenty-eight years ago – like today – the US watched a new administration come to power. Perhaps Ronald Reagan’s most controversial appointee was his designated Secretary of State, Alexander Haig who, as a retired general, was feared to have the same militaristic instincts as his new boss. During his confirmation hearing, he was questioned about the dangers of war in those unsettled times. “There are worse things; there are more important things,” he said. “This Republic was spawned by armed conflict . . . we fought and died to prevent dictatorship and genocide, in the Second World War, from becoming the rule of the land. There are things worth fighting for.”

The sentiments that gave rise to General Haig’s comments are reflected in the opening verse of our Torah portion this week. There we are told that God did not lead the newly escaped Israelites by the nearer path to Canaan “for God said ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.'” The verb choice is telling. God is not sending the Israelites into war or asking them to fight. God’s concern is over the Israelites seeing war; and in so seeing, losing the fortitude necessary to maintain the freedom they had just won.

In the past several weeks – and even as I write these words – the world has seen war; a war fought in more or less the same place God caused the Israelites to avoid. I watched the opening days of that war unfold in London where my main source of information was the BBC. Even in the very earliest fighting, the coverage’s central theme seemed to be proportionality: was Israel’s response to Hamas’s rocket-propelled brand of terrorism commensurate with the damage it was suffering? The reporter would pose this question and then – supplying his or her own answer – proceed to announce the lopsided body-count.

By focusing on some allegedly demonstrable notion of proportionality, the reporting had reduced Israel’s military efforts to acts of vengeance. Gone was any notion that Israel might have a strategic objective for which it fought. Gone too the notion that death – particularly civilian death – might not be that objective itself but indeed collateral to it. And gone too the idea that Hamas had its own objectives; objectives whose achievement might well rely on an all-too predictable world response to Israeli self-defense. Hamas, it must be remembered, is not a Palestinian nationalist organization but rather a radical Islamist affiliate that views jihad as its path, and death for the sake of God as its loftiest wish. Hamas depends on organizations like the BBC to see war and vote to turn around.

Yet, as Carl von Clausewitz taught, war must not be looked upon as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving political objectives. Certainly we Jews have understood the war God waged against Pharaoh – whose culmination is celebrated in song in this week’s parashah – not as an act of vengeance but as a political act whose implications we still feel. We sing that song as part of our daily liturgy – perhaps hiding behind the Hebrew to avoid its blatantly militaristic themes. Yet those themes are there. And in singing them, the Israelites first began to recognize Clausewitz’s painful, horrible truth about war: that its implications extend well beyond its devastating toll in lives, and those implications sometimes make it unavoidable.

The war Israel fights in Gaza – as is true of all its wars – is not fought out of choice, and it is not fought for vengeance. Its political objective – which it sought to achieve peacefully four years ago when it withdrew from Gaza – is to secure its borders and to find a potential partner with whom to negotiate, not a cease-fire, but a lasting peace. It faces, however, an enemy whose political strategy is to make the world see war and trust it will choose slavery instead. At another time but in the same place, God took pity on His people by recognizing they had not the ability to see war and understand all of its consequences. So God fought His people’s battles for them. He did so in the hope that by so doing, they would learn the simple truth that some things are worth fighting for.


Bruce Alpert is a rabbinical student at AJR.