Sermon originally shared by Rabbi JB Sacks on August 20, 2021
The war tried to kill us in the spring.
Those are the opening words of Kevin Powers’s elegiac novel of the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds. As with all great writing about war and human conflict—such as All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage (to which Powers’s novel has often been compared)—the book’s focus is not on battlefield maneuvers and strategy or even the confrontation with enemy soldiers, but rather on issues of personal responsibility and morality. How does war affect the human soul?
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, begins with a verse that raises these issues in a stark and discomfiting manner:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and your God HaShem delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house.1
These verses introduce the law of the captive woman, which prescribes the circumstances and conditions under which an Israelite soldier may marry a woman captured in war. Even though the Torah seeks to discourage the practice and soften its impact on women, the law offends our modern sensibility and sense of justice. It seems to sanction forcible marriages and allow soldiers to take sexual advantage of captive women. The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the law as a moral compromise, premised on the idea that it is in the nature of men (and the Torah is clearly speaking here of men) to succumb during war to their basest instincts2. In the view of the Rabbis, the behavior would take place anyway, so it would be better to regulate and discourage it than to ignore it. And so we must ask: Is it futile and indeed self-contradictory to speak of the morality of war?
We are now in the midst of withdrawing U.S. personnel from Afghanistan. We, of course, entered Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11 in order to remove Al-Qaeda from there. That mission was accomplished in about three months. That might lead us to think about wars, their goals, their costs, their value. In the twentieth century, the United States was involved in 31 conflicts. We were involved in conflicts during 84 of those 100 years. In the twenty-first century so far, we have had no year without being involved in a conflict.
The book of Judges makes a point of recording that “the land was at peace for forty years”3 or “for eighty years4,” as if to emphasize that such interludes were few and far between. And, if the biblical record is correct, then our ancestors lived in full peace more often than we. In the U.S. the last year that we were not involved in any wars was 1988. We have forgotten what living without being in a war actually is, and many Americans have never had that experience. Surely it is worth a moment to reflect not on the various justifications offered for the numerous wars, but rather on their spiritual impact on those who bear the burden of battle as well as on those of us who wait at home for their return.
The opening line of our portion raises an interesting question: Why does the Torah say Ki Tetzei la-milchamah al oy-vecha, “when you go out to war against your enemies”? The phrase “against your enemies” seems superfluous—armies always go to war against enemies; whom else would they go to war against? Yochanan Kirshblum, in his commentary entitled Thinking Outside the Box, answers this question and, at the same time, offers an important insight. He suggests that the “enemies” referred to here are not the opponents on the battlefield, but rather ourselves—or more particularly, our yetzer hara (our impulse toward evil, toward the negative), the tendency within us to free ourselves from G!d’s insistence on moral conduct regardless of the circumstances. That is the enemy with which we must do battle during times of war.
In this internal battle for the preservation of our moral compass, tradition teaches that we have two critical weapons: our compassion and our unwavering commitment to the principles of Torah that define our faith. Although at one time we in the United States were (as Israel has been for all of its existence) a nation of citizen-soldiers, today not only are most of us far removed from the front lines, we rarely give much thought to the realities of the wars that are fought in our name. But indifference to the suffering caused by war—even the suffering of one’s enemies—hardens the heart of societies just as surely as it hardens the hearts of individuals.
The Rabbis of the Talmud were keenly aware of this. In a remarkably moving midrash, we learn that the one hundred shofar sounds at our Rosh Hashanah services correspond to the one hundred groans by the mother of Sisera (a Canaanite general killed in the war against the Israelites during the time of Deborah), as she waited in vain for her son’s return5. Sisera was a brutal despot whose death was our People’s salvation, but nonetheless we are reminded every year by the shofar blasts to be compassionate toward those who have been left widowed or childless by war’s destruction, regardless of who their loved ones were or on which side they fought. During the war in the Falklands/Malvinas, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, displayed great courage but also perfectly reflected Judaism’s insistence on maintaining unbridled compassion when he publicly declared, “Even terrorists have mothers, and we must not be indifferent to their anguish.”6
And yet, compassion—however powerful and necessary—is not enough to preserve our moral bearings in times of war. Judaism demands that we remain committed to who we are and what we stand for as Jews. As Rabbi Jacob Philip Ruden stated during the early days of World War II, God’s laws “look different in the glow of incendiary bombs and against the growling, angry background of explosion and fire and death,” but “they are indeed eternal and changeless”.7 Remaining true to the Torah’s imperatives by which the Jewish People have been defined is to wage battle against the notion that war is a license to trample on our sacred principles. A case in point is the biblical demand that we preserve the God-given natural resources of our world. That law remains constant in war and peace; it is not abrogated even in the heat of battle: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees.” So too, as the thunder of war approaches, our insistence upon universal moral principles cannot waver. The Torah demands that “when you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” Expanding on this verse, Maimonides makes clear that the terms of surrender must include the acceptance of fundamental moral obligations: “If they make peace and accept the Seven Commandments commanded to the community of Noah, which includes prohibitions against murder and for maintaining law and order, then one must not kill a single life.” Even—and perhaps especially—in times of violence and death, we reassert our humanity and the commitment to live according to the eternal principles of Torah.
In the midst of World War I, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise asked, “Can We Win the War without Losing America?” That question has reverberated throughout our history. From the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War to the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, to the pervasive surveillance of private communications today, we have repeatedly faced the question: How much moral compromise does war demand? That is the struggle implicit in the opening verse of this week’s portion, for it is true that when a nation takes the field in war, it also confronts an inner enemy, and that confrontation, too, can shape a nation’s character and decide its fate.
Ose shalom bimromav, he ya’ase shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol yosh-vei teiveil, v’ya’se oto bimhei-ra v’yameinu, v’nomar, “Amen.”
May the One who brings peace in the heavens also bring peace upon us yet within our reach, and inspirit and instill within us peace, the will to reach for it, to work for it, and the will to maintain–peace for us, for the People of Israel, and for all the inhabitants of our world, and may it be soon. Amen.
1 Deuteronomy 21:10-11.
2 BT Kiddushin 21b-22a.
3 Judges 3:11, 5:31.
4 Judges 3:30
5 Judges 5:28; Tosafot, BT Rosh Hashanah 33b, s.v. shiur, citing a non-extant midrash.
6 United Synagogue lecture on “The Morality of Warfare,” May 25, 1982, reprinted in Marc Saperstein, Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800–2011)
7 “God in the Blackout,” Oct. 2, 1940, reprinted in Saperstein, op cit.