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War and peace are issues the world confronts every single day. The State of Israel, in its very turbulent surroundings, is a painful example; for decades the themes of war and peace have permeated its existence.
As with all issues in life, our frame of reference to understand events is the Torah – the blueprint of the world. The last few parshiot – Chukat and Balak – as well as this week’s parsha, Pinchas, and Parshat Matot coming up next week, deal with war and peace. The closer the Jewish people get to entering the Land of Israel, the more the issue of war comes up as they encounter one antagonistic nation after another. In Parshat Chukat we read about the battles between the Jewish people and Og the King of Bashan and Sichon the King of Emori. In Parshat Balak we read about the attempts on the part of Moab and Midian to destroy the Jewish people. And so, too, in our times: the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel in large numbers has been accompanied by war after war.
These parshiot of war and peace give us perspective on what is going on today. We come across different kinds of enemy tactics: we read about enemies such as the King of Bashan and the King of Emori who came with swords and horses – the classic, conventional warfare; in last week’s parsha we read about a different kind of warfare – warfare with words, where the prophet Bilam is hired to curse the Jewish people. And at the end of last week’s parsha we find another kind of tactic: spiritual and moral warfare, where the women of Moab and Midian seduced the Jewish men and caused them to worship idols. This was another tactic to undermine the Jewish people morally and spiritually, by enticing them to worship idols and give up their identity and value system.
So, too, today, our enemies seek to destroy Israel by various means, not only by conventional warfare, but by the use of words. The delegitimisation of Israel and the BDS campaign for boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions seek to destroy Israel’s reputation through a campaign of lies and intimidating rhetoric, undermining the very foundations of the State of Israel. It is a war of words, but it is warfare just the same. Moab’s and Midian’s attempts to undermine the Jewish people spiritually and morally manifests in modern times as well, in the form of assimilation. Although their tactics were intentional and assimilation is not an intentional, strategic attack, nevertheless it has the same devastating consequences of weakening the Jewish people the world over.
We see from these parshiot that the struggles we face today are actually very ancient struggles. Our Sages aptly described this phenomenon as Ma’aseh avot siman labanim, “what happened with the fathers portends what will happen with the children.” The Torah is indeed the blue-print for life.
There is another point which emerges from the Torah, and that is the quest for peace. In all of these parshiot, we see that the Jewish people always try and make peace first and war is only a last resort. The Rambam discusses this in Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Kings, chapter 6. He says, “you may not go to war until you have first tried peace.” We see in these parshiot how Moshe tries to make peace with the kings in the area and yet no matter how much he tries, the enemies’ response is war.
The foreshadowing of our times is poignant. In 1977, when Anwar Sadat came to make peace between Egypt and Israel, the former Prime Minister Golda Meir said to him, “we have been waiting for you for a long time.” Her words capture so much of modern Israeli history, the sense that we have been waiting for peace for a long time. There has been a very deep desire for peace on the Israelis’ part; and successive governments of Israel have made many attempts to make peace with their neighbours as well as with the Palestinian people time and time again. Yet each gesture for peace is turned down by an act of war, just as we see in our parshiot – Moshe tries to make peace with the nations surrounding Israel and each time he tries, their response is war.
Sometimes, however, war is the only option. We see this in this week’s parsha, where G-d commands the Jewish people to go to war against Midian in response to what they had done to the Jewish people in last week’s parsha. The concept of going out to war does exist, but always as a last resort, never the first choice because of its devastating consequences. This is why, according to Torah law, a king is not allowed to wage war unless the Sanhedrin has authorised him to do so. There are many details regarding different kinds of war and how they are categorised but essentially the king needs the approval of the Sanhedrin because some of the commentators explain, going out to war is like a death sentence; inevitably, people will die. War has terrible consequences in terms of human suffering and therefore a king cannot decide on his own whether or not to go war. Thus, the halacha says we must always try first for peace. War is the very last resort.
Making peace with those around us
The Ralbag, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages, learns an important principle from this which applies to every-day life, and that is that we have to try and make peace with those around us, especially those closest to us. In the same way that we have a mitzvah to make peace on the political front, we have to make peace in our personal relationships and interactions.
This is an important theme at this time of year known as the Three Weeks, from the fast of the 17th of Tamuz leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av. At this time of year we remember and mourn the calamities of Jewish history, and in particular the destruction of the two Temples, both destroyed on Tisha B’Av. Our Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred between people. It was hatred, dissension and conflict which caused the Second Temple to be destroyed, and so when talking about peace, we are not just talking about peace in the global–political sphere, between the nation of Israel and the nations of the world, but within Jewish society, within our own families and communities.
From the Ralbag’s comparison of making peace in the political context to making peace in the context of our interpersonal conflicts we see how destructive any conflict can be. Conflict and disputes between individuals is like a war between nations. During the Three Weeks we must contemplate how hatred, dissension, distrust and conflict between the people consumed and destroyed the whole society of the Second Tempe Era, from a spiritual, moral and social point of view. Machloket, dispute, is indeed like a fire which consumes and destroys relationships, families, and whole communities. We must think about these things during the Three Weeks and realise that peace is the ultimate blessing, without which we cannot enjoy any of G-d’s blessings.
At the beginning of our parsha, Pinchas is given the ultimate reward – G-d’s Covenant of Peace. The Midrash comments on this : “Great is peace that was given to Pinchas because the world cannot survive without peace. The whole Torah is about peace, as the verse states, Deracheha darchei noam vechol netivoteha shalom, ‘her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are those of peace.’” The Midrash gives a number of examples of how the importance of peace is manifest : we greet people – Shalom – because shalom, peace, is so important; we conclude Ma’ariv, the evening service, with a blessing for shalom, the Amidah prayer ends with the blessing of Sim shalom, “place peace among us”; Birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, also ends with the blessing for peace, veyasem lecha shalom. Peace is the ultimate blessing, to the extent that the Midrash on our parsha says ain kli hamachazik bracha ela hashalom, “there is no vessel that contains blessing like peace.” Peace holds everything together and is therefore such an important value. During these Three Weeks we must think about the terrible consequences of dispute and how peace is the ultimate blessing. We must make a concerted effort to reach out to others, make peace and end machloket.
The Chafetz Chaim spoke passionately about how machloket is so destructive and about the imperative to pursue peace. In one of his letters he writes, “And therefore, my brothers and friends, have mercy on yourselves and on the Jewish people, and let everyone in his place extinguish the fire of machloket so that His great Name should not be desecrated any more. And in this merit, we will merit to hear the voice announcing peace in the world.” The Chafetz Chaim signs the letter, “The one who writes with a broken heart.” So important was it to the Chafetz Chaim to maintain peace and avoid conflict that he was truly broken from this. There is a story told about how a fight broke out between two factions within the Chafetz Chaim’s yeshiva and he called all of the students together and spoke to them about the terrible evils of dissension and in particular lashon hara, evil slander. He concluded by saying that it would be better for seventy yeshivas to be closed than for him to join one of the disputing factions. So serious are dissension and dispute because they can destroy a person, a family and society at large.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that we should be students of Aharon the High Priest who loved peace; we must seek peace and pursue it. The Maharal explains that the Mishnah says we must actively pursue peace because dissension is generally the natural course. It’s so easy to get drawn into a fight and therefore we are obligated to go out of our way to pursue peace. We won’t find peace unless we pursue it, because people are naturally drawn into dissension and conflict with one another.
This is why the Torah prohibits using metal to cut the stones for the altar, because metal – a knife or a sword – shortens life and symbolises dispute, dissension and war whereas the altar represents peace in the world. A tool of war cannot be used in making the ultimate instrument of peace. The altar, and the Temple at large, represent peace and unity among us. As the Midrash says, one Temple and one High Priest unified the entire nation. The Temple represents not only peace and unity amongst us, but peace and unity between us and Hashem. This is the ultimate blessing: to be at peace with G-d and with our fellow human beings, with our families and communities.
As we head towards the three weeks and Tisha B’Av, let us use this time to contemplate the root cause of the destruction of the Temple, which was dispute, dissension, lashon hara and causeless hate. Let us not just go through the external motions of mourning, but rather really think about and internalise the terrible consequence of machloket and let this motivate us to repent. As the Chafetz Chaim said in his letter, peace among ourselves will bring the greatest blessing to the world – the ultimate peace brought about by the final redemption which, as our prophets tell us, will bring peace to everyone such that the whole world will live in harmony, serving G-d and enjoying His blessings.
Pinchas – War And Peace (Edited Transcript)
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