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Parshas Vayishlach (5771)

Israel's Wars: An Historical Perspective

As this week’s episode ... er, I mean …Torah portion begins, we find our forefather Jacob preparing for that fateful meeting with his twin brother and nemesis, Esau, who had sworn to kill him.

The Torah relates that when Jacob found out that his brother was heading towards him with a band of 400 men, “Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him” (see Genesis 32:7-8). The next few verses describe how Jacob prepared for the confrontation with his brother in three ways: first, by sending Esau a lavish tribute to appease his anger; second, by throwing himself upon G-d’s mercy through prayer; and, finally, by readying himself and his camp for a battle to the death.

Rashi quotes a Midrash Tanchuma which explains that Jacob was frightened that he would be killed, and he was distressed that, in defending himself and his family, he might kill others. The Ralbag points out that distress is an even stronger emotion than fear – which means that the prospect that Jacob might be forced to kill others was more disturbing to him than the possibility that he might be killed.

The major question on all this is that we have a long-standing principle in the Torah that “Ha-ba le-horgekha hashkem le-horgo – if one seeks to kill you, kill him first” (Talmud in Sanhedrin 72a). This means that when confronted by a situation in which an individual’s life is threatened, one has an absolute right to eliminate the aggressor in self-defense. If so, why was Jacob so ‘distressed’ that he might kill Esau and his men? After all, they were seeking to kill him, so he was totally justified in killing them first to save his own life!

Mahara”l, in his commentary Gur Aryeh on the Torah, answers that Jacob’s distress did not arise from the possibility of having to kill his evil twin brother Esau. Surely, that killing would be considered an act of self-defense and morally justifiable. Rather, he was worried that perhaps not all of the 400 men that came with Esau were indeed out to kill him – in which case, although he was allowed to kill them because of the possibility that they were out to kill him, Jacob was nonetheless distressed that he might be taking the lives of innocent people as “collateral damage”.

We can suggest a different answer. The Ohr HaChaim, in his commentary to Deuteronomy 13:18, writes that even when ‘killing’ is necessary and just, those who do the act of killing nonetheless risk developing coarse and brutal personalities as an almost inevitable byproduct of their actions. Jacob was therefore distressed because he knew that the very act of killing Esau and his men – even when done in self-defense – could infect him with a natural de-sensitivity to the preciousness of life, and do irreparable damage to his soul.

Jacob’s strategic preparations for his confrontation with his brother Esau, as well as his own feelings of distress at the prospect of killing others, have special relevance to our own times, when the modern-day State of Israel, since its inception, has been forced to prepare for confrontations with its own “Esaus” dwelling on all its borders. Allow me to explain ….

Nachmanides (a leading medieval Jewish scholar and kabbalist who lived from 1194-1270) states a fundamental principle in understanding the Torah’s narrative concerning our forefathers: “Maasei avos siman le-banim – the deeds of the Patriarchs are a portent for their children” In other words, whatever happened to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as told to us in the Torah, is a sign and a blueprint of what is going to happen to all of us, their descendants, in the future. The Torah relates at length all the challenges that our Patriarchs faced and how they dealt with them, because their history will repeat itself through us, and by studying the deeds of our Patriarchs, we can learn lessons in how to deal with those same challenges when we’re ultimately faced with them.

The Vilna Gaon points out that just as Jacob prepared for his confrontation with Esau in three steps – first with gifts of appeasement to the enemy and prayer to G-d, using battle only as a last resort, so, too, should we deal with our enemies throughout the centuries and millennia in a similar fashion – asking G-d for mercy while trying to do all we can on the diplomatic front, and only going to war if all else fails.

Anyone who knows anything at all about the Jewish people’s history - including the period from the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until today - can see how our forefather’s Jacob’s actions were indeed a portent for his children.

The Jewish people have never been a “warring nation” looking to do battle and conquer those around us. With rare exceptions throughout our long and glorious history, we have only gone to war as a last resort after all means of diplomacy failed. (Even during the initial conquest of the Land of Canaan over 3300 years ago, which was a war that the Jewish people initiated, G-d commanded Joshua to first confront the local inhabitants with a choice: you can either leave since G-d promised this land to the Jews, or we will have to go to battle against you – and most of them chose the second option.)

The Jewish people, by and large, have been a peaceful lot who weren’t looking to beat up anybody. As Jackie Mason once put it: When was the last time a gentile went into a Jewish neighborhood and was mugged by an accountant?!

And even now that we have the State of Israel and our very own army, the Israel Defense Forces, we have clearly shown that we still aren’t looking to go to war and beat up those around us, and we only choose battle when all other options fail – no matter what the anti-zionist anti-semites out there will tell you, or how much Israel is vilified in the international press.

In fact, we are actually distressed by the prospect of having to kill others – just like our forefather Jacob before us – and for much the same reasons:

First, we are always worried about possible “collateral damage” and the unintended killing of innocents. A case in point: The after-battle reports of the Battle of Jenin in April 2002 made clear that the IDF took great care to avoid civilian casualties, the opposite of Palestinian claims, and took higher Israeli casualties as a result. When faced with strong resistance in a congested urban area filled with explosives, snipers, and booby-traps, the easy course for Israel would have been a massive air attack to flatten the area. Instead, the IDF engaged the terrorists in house-to-house fighting that spared civilians as much as possible – while losing the lives of over 30 IDF soldiers.

Second, we are distressed by the very fact that we have been forced to go against our normally peaceful natures to engage in battle with the enemy. As former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir once said, "I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But I cannot forgive the Arabs for turning our children into killers."

We descendants of Jacob have a long track-record of peace and non-violence – and truly have much to be proud of.

May it be G-d’s will that the beautiful prophecy of Isaiah 2:4 comes true in our times, and we merit to see a world in which the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare” – Amen.

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