My most poignant image of the Six Day War is the photograph of a young Israeli soldier praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, enveloped in a talit, with an Uzi submachine gun hanging from his shoulder. He had just participated in the most daring and important mission of his life, and yet there he stood, not rejoicing with his unit but quietly immersed in prayer. The connection between the warrior and God is both modern and ancient, for even as we learn in this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, about how to wage war, we are also reminded that Israel did not go to war alone. Before the battle began, the priest gathered the troops together and proclaimed: "Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is Adonai your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory." (Deuteronomy 20:3-4) Sh'ma Yisrael, "Hear, O Israel," the very same words that defined the relationship between the Israelites and God, were then used to gather the troops around the flagpole, lest anyone imagined that he could wage and win the battle alone.
And yet this image of God as warrior, so striking in Exodus 15 when Moses celebrated the miracle of the parting of the sea, is also disturbing. The strong militaristic language that proclaims victory in the haggadah is balanced by the talmudic passage cited in Megillah 10b in which God weeps for the drowning Egyptians. God may have engineered our liberation from Egypt, but death and destruction are not the point. War and all its consequences must be carefully considered.
We go to war fully cognizant of what might happen; namely, we might not return. That is why we read about those exempt from fighting: those who have built a new house, or planted a vineyard, or just become engaged to marry. (Deuteronomy 20:5-7) These individuals, who have more peaceful pursuits on their mind, would not make the best fighters. But these men also represent a future for the community that is as important as that promised by those protecting the nation's military interests. Our ultimate mission as Jews is to survive and flourish, to build and plant and grow as a people, which are all peaceful pursuits. Sometimes war is necessary in order to pursue peace, but can we be peaceful warriors? Can we take the message and apply it to today's Middle East peace process, which is a verbal battle if not a physical one? If we always have had God with us, on our side, can we find God in the minutia of the deliberations? In the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 8:3, we learn that when the Israelites went to war, they carried the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments with them, while the intact ones remained behind. Perhaps those shattered shards are the broken dreams of peace, and perhaps it is our job to find a way to embrace the fragments even as we yearn to make them whole once more.