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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Peace in the Pursuit of War; War in the Pursuit of Peace

Parshat Pinchas chronicles the beginning of the campaign against Midyan in retaliation for its attempt to undermine and destroy Am Yisrael. The Torah (25:17-18) employs consistently unusual language and form to communicate the motivation, method, and objective of this action: "tzaror et ha-midyanim ve-hikitem otam. Ki tzorerim heim lachem be-nichleihem asher niklu lachem al devar peor ve-al devar Kazbi bat nesi midyan achotam ha-mukah be-yom ha-mageifah al devar peor".

The term "tzaror" is noteworthy. It invokes the larger paradigm of classical war (Bamidbar 10:9, "vechi tavou milchamah be-artzechem al hatzar ha-tzorer etchem...") with its attendant existential danger, despite the fact that the Midyan circumstances were superficially atypical, as there was no immediate physical threat of extinction. Evidently, the Torah's presentation reflects that the Midyan danger, and the urgency and principle of self-preservation it triggered, were no less acute, notwithstanding the differences!

The Torah utilizes the "tzaror" expression here in a reciprocal way: "tzaror...ki tzorerim heim lachem" (see also Or ha-Chayim ad loc. - why the need for both "tzaror" and "ve-hikitem", and why the reference to Midyan's enmity?) Perhaps the Torah is articulating that it was important for Am Yisrael to cultivate hostility toward Midyan by identifying and fully comprehending the degree of enmity and danger they embodied, although and because it was more subtle. An unconventional threat may prove to be more difficult to identify and then combat, and may portend a greater crisis that demands immediate neutralization. The Torah emphasizes that Am Yisrael should not be lulled into a false sense of security or even lesser urgency.

The Torah's presentation of the Midyan threat and the need for a concrete response is unusual in other ways, as well. There is an apparent gap between formulating the urgency and justification to act and the actual implementation, which is delayed until Parshat Matot (Bamidbar 31:2) (See Or ha-Chayim), as if to convey the need to psychologically prepare for, and come to grips with, the true nature of the threat-mandating action. Evidently, a two-staged campaign is specifically required to contend with this particular challenge. The first stage entails fully assimilating the dangerous implications of Midyan's actions that mandate a strong defensive response. This phase is appropriately conveyed by the terminology of "tzaror", reflecting the need to cultivate a proper perspective on the character and gravity of the threat, as previously noted. Only then would actual military action, characterized as "nakom nikmat benei Yisrael me-eit ha-Midyanim", be justified. The Midrash Rabbah notes that while typically offers of peace precede military conflicts with even more pernicious foes like the seven nations, the Torah records no parallel suggestion of a resolution with Midyan!

The singular treatment of Midyan can be explained precisely by focusing on its indirect and unorthodox or atypical tactics. When Midyan concluded it could not defeat Am Yisrael frontally and militarily, it opened up a different front. The advice of Bilam turned the promise of peace and the prospect of ongoing future interaction into a tactic and weapon of war. The Torah's use of "venichleihem" and the implication that the methodology implied by this phrase embodies the animosity of Midyan ("Ki tzorerim heim lachem be-nichleihem asher niklu lachem"!) succinctly captures this theme. Targum Yonaton and Rashi (defus rishon) and others specifically emphasize that the devious manipulation of Am Yisrael was the special modus operandi of Midyan.

Even among enemies there is generally a code of warfare. Even among implacable foes there is typically something unequivocal and even honest in the exchange of hostilities, a measure of integrity in war. Midyan, however, represents a different and particularly egregious model of opposition. They cynically exploited Klal Yisrael's greatest vulnerability, their almost desperate desire for peaceful relations and meaningful, friendly interaction with other nations. The promise of peace was employed to corrupt and destroy them from within. The episode of "devar Peor", beyond and in addition to the specific infractions it involved, was fundamentally a manipulation of Am Yisrael's desperate yearning for peaceful and meaningful relations as a recognized and constructive member of the family of nations, notwithstanding Bilam's prophecy of a different destiny: "am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav". The fact that Midyan did not refrain from exploiting the integrity of its own people (Rashi 25:18) in pursuit of this tactic was particularly striking. The manipulation of Am Yisrael's idealism and passionate aspiration for shalom-peace was particularly insidious and demanded a vigorous response, not merely as retaliatory punishment, but as necessary way of securing Am Yisrael's very survival.

This perspective explains the phenomena previously described. The various uses of "tzaror...ki tzorerim" were all part of Am Yisrael's necessary learning curve with respect to the full implications of this unconventional yet nefarious warfare. A call for peace was futile and inappropriate at this stage of the conflict, as the illusion of peaceful and even productive coexistence, even the pretension of fraternity, had already been employed as a dangerous tactic and identified as the prime weapon. It became crucial to identify and fully comprehend this insidious tactic, as well as to shatter the illusion or projection of sincere fraternity that had been cynically projected. Hence, before the retaliatory action of nekom nikmat, and as part of its justification, it was first important to cultivate a realistic awareness of the threat itself - "tzaror et ha-midyanim ki tzorrem heim lachem be-nichleihem asher niklu lachem" - so that it could be effectively neutralized.

At the same time, even as the Torah requires a military response to this particular danger, it equally accentuates a complementary perspective. Given the special challenge and dynamic of the conflict with Midyan, it was particularly imperative to reaffirm and reinforce the ideal and objective of shalom, peace. Precisely because it had been cynically and subversively co-opted as a weapon of manipulation, its centrality required reiteration. After all, peace is a linchpin of Jewish life (Avot, end of ch. 1: "al sheloshah devarim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din al ha-emet ve-al ha-shalom") and of Torah values ("deracheha darkei noam vekol netivoteha shalom"). The last of the mishnayot (Uketzin 3:12) concludes with the proclamation that "lo motza Hakadosh Baruch Hu kli machzik berachah le-Yisrael ela ha-shalom" [just as the final halachah in Hilchot Chanukah and Sefer Zmanim of the Rambam articulates the centrality of shalom even in the context of celebrating the war of the Chashmonaim!] It is intriguing and intentional that Pinchas, whose justified kanaut played such a decisive role in this episode, is awarded the "covenant of peace" (25:12 - introduced by "lachein emor" - not despite but because of) for his leadership. The Netziv and other mefarshim emphasize that Pinchas's qualifications for decisive action stemmed from his being the personification of gentility and peace. He is identified in this context (25:11) as the grandson of Aharon ha-Kohen (see Rashi), the quintessential "ohev shalom ve-rodef shalom" precisely for this reason.

This dialectic reflects three important interrelated themes. 1) While Judaism perceives peace as a supreme value, it recognizes the legitimacy, indeed, the nobility of self-defense and the protection of innocent and vulnerable citizens as well as their quality of life. War is, unfortunately, sometimes the most appropriate way to pursue a just and authentic peace. Unlike other religions or cultures, Judaism displays no ambivalence regarding just wars. It was totally consistent for Pinchas, the quintessential ish shalom, to assume a principled leadership role in this conflict. 2) Even as necessary hostilities rage, it is vital to remain a Pinchas who continues to exude and embody the idealism and ambition of peace. 3) Finally, even justified military action requires excessive scrutiny and rigorous standards and controls. Even the actual conduct of war has to reflect the objective and pervasive commitment to peace. While one of Hashem's names is "Shlomo - mi she-hashalom shelo", He is also characterized as "Hashem ish milchamah" under appropriate circumstances. "Hashem oz le-amo yiten Hashem yevarech et amo ba-shalom" (Tehillim 29:11). Sometimes the path to authentic peace requires great strength and even power, but the goal and ideal of peace must remain pervasive, and even the methodology of war must reflect the motif of peace. Pinchas's legacy is not his uncharacteristic, though necessary, targeted intervention, but the kehunat olam (which does not abide even contact with death) and berit shalom which he bequeaths to his progeny. Absent these motifs and his personal credentials as the epitome of shalom, his kanaut would have been a grotesque chilul Hashem. [See also the guidelines of Sanhedrin 82a and the discussion of the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 9:4) and Ramban (Parshat Vayishlach) regarding Yaakov's critique of Shimon and Levi[1]. I hope to discuss these issues and the broader halachic perspective on war and peace elsewhere.] [Unfortunately, recent developments in Eretz Yisrael demonstrate all too clearly how damaging and grotesque unauthorized violence and misguided revenge can be.]

Many of these themes are eerily resonant in the events of the past few weeks. The State of Israel faces implacable enemies that do not hesitate to employ unconventional, obscene tactics that exploit its impassioned yearning for peace, as well as its incredibly sensitive and humane posture regarding the safety of its own citizens and the protection of the civilian population of its opponents as well. The enemy is well aware that Medinat Yisrael's highly developed sense of morality and responsibility, its greatest spiritual strength, is also its greatest military vulnerability. How does a nation that strives for peace and that values life, freedom, and dignity - the hallmarks of tzelem Elokim - combat the cynical tactics of an enemy that targets innocents and that employs its own vulnerable population as human shields to deter response and to manipulate the media and public opinion? The cynical self-projection of the aggressor as the ultimate victim has been an effective tactic, indeed. Concessions made in the past decade out of an almost desperate idealistic aspiration for peace - unilateral withdrawals, releases of prisoners, and other gestures of good will - have been met with further aggression, repeatedly exploited, and manipulated almost with impunity. Unfortunately, much of the world cannot or does not wish to distinguish between the initiation and response to aggression, and cannot or will not discern the obvious difference between indiscriminate terrorist activity and measured military action. The moral equivalency in the world press and even in the statements of legitimate governments is astonishing. Ve-ein lanu le-hisahaein ela al Avinu she-bashamayim.

Even as we engage in tefillah and support of Medinat Yisrael in this latest crisis, it is important that we acknowledge and appreciate the incredibly difficult balance that has been achieved. We should be immensely proud of the government of Israel and Tzahal for responding appropriately with strength to safeguard its citizens, and yet, with guidelines that continue to reflect both the ideal and the objective of peace. It is particularly important to recognize that Israel's rules of military engagement that seek to minimize collateral civilian damage, embodied in the doctrine of tohar ha-neshek, reflect impressively this idealistic posture toward peace and human dignity, as well, albeit at the expense of maximal military effectiveness. The model of Pinchas, the personification of berit shalom, continues to inspire. May we merit Hashem's hashgachah in the coming days. And may we soon experience the attainment of authentic peace in Eretz Yisrael. "Hashem oz le-amo yiten. Hashem yevarech et amo ba-shalom."


[1] See Rav Rosensweig's essay, "Parshat Vayishlach - The Principled Pursuit of Principle" - editor.

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