I’m sure that I’m not the only person who wondered in recent weeks: Just how is Israel going to overcome its burgeoning external challenges? How can Israel possibly mount effective long-term deterrence of so many surging non-state enemies, such as Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaida, and the Islamic State? Doesn’t it appear that there is too much to handle? Doesn’t it feel like Israel is alone? It seems that there are too many missiles, too many tunnels, too many radicals, too many hostile UN committees, too much global anti-Semitism.
It so happens that these very questions are asked in the biblical chapters read this week in synagogues everywhere in the world (Parshat Ekev, Deuteronomy 7-11): “If you say in your heart: ‘The nations [surrounding Israel] are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?’” How can Israel expect to inherit “nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heavens, great and tall people, children of giants…?” The Bible answers: “You shall not be afraid of them but rather recall what G-d did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians: The great trials you saw, the signs, the wonders, and the mighty hand and outstretched arm with which G-d redeemed you. So too shall G-d do to all of the people of whom you are afraid... G-d will deliver their kings into your hands; no man will be able to stand before you.”
This sounds swell. What could be more uplifting just now than a Divine Iron Dome that not only zaps incoming missiles but also disperses jihadists, scatters anti-Semites, and suppresses Iranians centrifuges? Wouldn’t it be nice to discover a weapons system called “Mighty Hand” that makes Israel’s enemies vanish? But of course it is not so simple. The Divine promise to help Israel surmount its enemies is conditional.
It is predicated upon Israel’s adherence to a rigorous code of law and ethics.
Central to this code is a rejection of over-confidence and other idols, appreciation of G-d’s providence, and most of all, adherence to standards of social morality and justice. “Do justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the stranger.”
In other words, the Torah creates an explicit link between Israel’s national security and its national decency; between the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry; between the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Israel’s success in the former arenas is dependent on its virtue in the latter.
Here possibly is an avenue of advance for modern- day Israel: Upgrade our strategic standing in the region by improving social standards in Israel.
Defeat the terrorist group in Gaza called Hamas by eradicating injustice (“Hamas” in Hebrew) in Israel.
It is of course simplistic and theologically facile to suggest that if all Israelis just gave a bit more charity and smiled at one another – Israel’s strategic troubles would be over and no more IDF soldiers would fall in battle.
But Jewish tradition does suggest that our military might and diplomatic power is partially a function of our moral strength; that when Israel is strong socially and spiritually, it will earn the respect of friends and deter its foes.
Perhaps the State of Israel would merit more decisive victories over its enemies if we worked harder at rooting out corruption, at combating the rising tide of criminal activity (murder, rape, robbery, child abuse), at investing in disadvantaged sectors of society, and at minimizing hateful and slanderous speech.
Perhaps a more refined Israeli society would give us a stronger claim on the protections of the Heavens that Israel so badly needs.
Simply put: If there is not too much we can do to check the advance of the Islamic State group, there nevertheless is something we can do to reinforce ourselves against it: Not only build strong fences and defenses, but ensure the highest levels of social solidity and probity.
Then we can reasonably sue for Divine safeguards.
I believe that these are the principles hinted at in the now-famous and controversial letter penned on the eve of the war by Col. Ofer Vinter, commander of the Givati Brigade. Writing to his soldiers, he referenced some of the verses about Divine assistance quoted above, and suggested that Israel’s morality (both that of Israeli society and that of the IDF in the way it conducts battle) would lead Israel to victory.
I suspect that most Israelis agree. Vinter’s invoking of “Shma Yisrael” (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d is One”) is meant to say: “We are committed to living up to the sublime virtues and values of Jewish history and civilization. We know that we have more work to do, but please G-d give us credit for our efforts and give us strength in our battles.”
I don't think that one has to be overtly Orthodox to accept the axioms discussed here. One needn’t possess pure religious faith to understand that we will better endure the earthquakes and conflicts ahead if we truly can commandeer communal self-righteousness and stamina.
There is great logic in assuming that a more just social order makes for a more robust national front.
In truth, we already are a long way to getting there. Israel is a wonderful community, dominated by family values and great measures of loving-kindness and solidarity. But we also are afflicted by significant social ills, and prone to the superficiality, immodesty and crassness of commercialized Western life. We need Shabbat and the values of restraint embodied in its observance more than ever.
“Like a man who chastens his son, so too does the Lord chasten thee,” Moses explained to the People of Israel in ancient times. In other words, all our strategic challenges are tests meant to direct our energies in the right directions. They are tests that carry with them great potential reward: “You will be strong and readily possess the land, and prolong your days in the land which G-d promised to your forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Given the severity of the threats posed to Israel’s security, isn’t biblically-inspired reform of our society worth an extra effort?