On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Ki Teitzei: The Morality of War

Ki Teitzei translates to “when you go out,” but it doesn’t mean going out to dinner or the movies. The full phrase, Ki teitzei l’milchamah, translates to “when you go out to war.” The Torah recognizes that there is an inevitability to war, and because of that, there must be certain moral boundaries and ethical requirements in the ways that we fight. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, examines Parashat Ki Teitzei and what it means to fight a war with strength and humility.

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Welcome to Episode 34 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast which is presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. And of course, we do think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, so we want to hear what you have to think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ, and like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. 

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about parashat Ki Teitzei, specifically about war. He wonders, how we know when a war is morally justified? And from a more personal stance, what to do when the person you are fighting with is your own self? 

This week, we focus our attention on parashat Ki Teitzei. Literally, it means "when you go out." But the going out isn't going out to the movies or going out to get a bite to eat. It is "Ki teitzei l’milchama," when you go out to war. 

When you go out, it doesn't say if you go out. There's an inevitability to the opening of the parashah. It says, you will in the course of time, you will have to fight wars. You will have to decide whether war is a moral course as a society. But it will be part of your experience. 

And when you go out, it tells us, that there are certain moral boundaries, even in the conduct of war. You can't just wage war in any way that you want. There are ethical requirements in the way that we do everything in the Jewish tradition, including in the way that we fight. 

This parashah is, of course, one of our parashiyot, but for me, it is my bar mitzvah portion. And I could probably chant a little piece of it. But I won't, I won't make anyone suffer through that. But I do remember it was right during a time of war in the United States. 

The Vietnam War was still going. And it was a year after the Six Day War in Israel. And I remember asking, as part of my d’var Torah that day, that 13th birthday, it was literally on my birthday, I wanted to ask the question about how do we know that not only a war is morally justified, but what were the exemptions and what were the moral parameters of that war. And I wasn't the only one to ask those questions. A whole generation of people I grew up with were intensely asking those questions. 

I think today of an incredible young man. His name is Hadar Goldin. He was the last Israeli soldier killed in the war in Gaza. 

And his parents came to my office a few months ago, and they are desperately trying to recover Hadar's body. I want to just tell you about the morality of war through the story of one individual. This young man, when he was about to be drafted, asked his mother to teach him how to needlepoint. 

And of course, being a dutiful Jewish mom, she said, of course, I'll teach you. But then she had to ask, why exactly do you need to learn how to needlepoint before you go into the Israel Defense Forces. It's not likely to be one of those things that you're going to need to know. 

And he said, I have my reason. So she taught him. And then he embroidered a very, very simple message, two Hebrew words on his gun strap, "humility" and "strength." And he literally carried his gun into battle with those two words as his guiding teaching. 

If you think about it, you know, and certainly the Israeli Defense Forces has ethical guidelines. I hope every army in the world has guidelines of sorts. But the Israeli Defense Forces has Tohar HaNeshek, how to keep the conduct of war pure. 

And I think of Hadar Goldin, these two words. If you go into battle, you know you need strength. You can't fight in a war without that. 

But he also carried with him humility, humility of the people that you might encounter along the way. The Torah itself says you can't destroy fruit-bearing trees because then you're not just waging war on your enemy, you're waging war on your enemy's children's children's children. There are requirements of morality at all times. 

Now, you might say, well, you know, I'm listening to this podcast, but I'm not myself in the midst of war. So the founder of Hasidism said, well, who might that enemy be. And the Baal Shem Tov, the master of the good name who literally founded the whole Hasidic tradition back in the 17th century, he says Ki Teitzei is in the singular because what it means is, when you go out to fight your enemy, and your enemy isn't always someone out there. 

Sometimes that enemy is some habit or some part of you that you need to overcome and to redirect and to transform. We always read parashat Ki Teitzei in the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of a new year. It's a time when we do our acts of introspection to really look at who we are and how we conduct our lives and what are the values that we hold, not just in our thoughts but in our daily practice. 

And I love that the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching is a perfect way for us to not always look around us and find faults in everybody around us. By the way, you could just spend your whole life seeing how imperfect everyone around you is. But ki teitzei l’milchama reminds us, you know what, I would probably be spiritually much wiser if I wasn't so busy counting the faults of everybody around me, but actually was able to see those things inside of me, whether it's anger, impatience, you know, unwillingness to do hard and important things. Whatever that part of us that we want to overcome, Ki Teitzei asks us to focus on the inner and outer worlds as well. 

So there is so much Ki Teitzei. I wish the Torah didn't know the world so well and didn't say when you go to war but if you would go to war. But we know it too well that there has not been a time in human history when there has not been war. And sometimes the wars we have are with our families. Sometimes it's with colleagues. Sometimes it's with our own innermost thoughts and challenges. 

So let us at this season of the year, when we're thinking about how not only to begin a new year of wholeness and sweetness and possibility, but also, what is it going to take for us? How are we going to be different? How are we going to in a sense, you know, declare victory over those things that inhibit us from living our best lives and being our best selves? 

So Ki Teitzei, when you go out, go out with that clarity that if we are in the midst of war, we do so always, always with a sense that there are still moral boundaries even in a time of war. And we think of Hadar Goldin, who never ever lost those bearings of strength and humility. So I'd like to think as I go out and as you go out, let's go out with strength and humility to conquer all that needs to be conquered and to prevail over all those forces in ourselves and in our society that need to be stilled. And may we in the coming weeks, go through that very, very important and hard and transformative work of changing ourselves so that we could, in fact, change the world. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot