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.
Recently I lent a CD to a friend who wanted to see if he liked it before purchasing it. When he returned it to me, he said, "Thanks, I made a copy of it." I was not happy with this response and encouraged him to buy his own CD. After all, didn't he want to support the musician?
The point is: Does it really matter if a friend copies your CD? Does it matter if you download shareware software that says, "If you like this program, please send a check to?" and never send a check? Even before the Internet, it was easy to get music for "free" and to "borrow" things permanently.
As I ponder these seemingly trivial matters, I am drawn to this week's parashah, Shoftim, in which we read the famous phrase, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20) The word justice is connected to the word tzedakah, which means righteousness. We should each pursue what is right.
As a parent, I've faced this issue with regard to child care. Should you pay on or off the books? If you withhold taxes, you pay more and the IRS requires you to perform a lot of work to do so. If you pay off the books, the baby-sitter will take home more cash and you will have less hassle. But what is right? What is just?
The Torah portion begins by requiring us to appoint magistrates and officials. But what standards should we require of our leaders? What do we expect of ourselves? If we are to judge others, then we must also judge ourselves. I believe this portion makes us confront our personal morality. Judaism urges us to choose the path of righteousness. We are required to do what is right and just, whether the path be smooth or bumpy.
And why should we choose tzedek? It is because of our b'rit, our covenant, with God. As we learn from Rabbi Eliezer: "In a place where there is judging, there will be no further judging. In a place where there is not judging, there will be further judging. Therefore, if justice is carried out on earth, no judging will take place in heaven. But if there is no justice below, then there will be judging above." (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:5)
Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Let us undertake to pursue justice in all the aspects of our lives.
Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164