Fighting for the future

Does faith in God mean that our victory is assured in times of war, that our population, land and produce will be increased while those of our enemies will be diminished?

shoftim 88 (photo credit: )
shoftim 88
(photo credit: )
Does faith in God mean that our victory is assured in times of war, that our population, land and produce will be increased while those of our enemies will be diminished? Clearly this seems to be the case if we go by the words which the Torah places in the mouth of the High Priest as he addresses Israeli soldiers. But success is not always achieved. Were not our two Holy Temples destroyed by foreign legions, was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising not mercilessly quelled, have we not experienced grave war sacrifices in our reborn state? Indeed, our prayers have not always been answered - even when more than 100,000 of our most pious prayed together at the Western Wall and failed to make a dent in the government's determination to evacuate Gush Katif. I believe we can achieve a proper Jewish definition of faith by studying a fascinating talmudic passage which examines our well-known evening prayer (ma'ariv). "R. Yohanan declares: 'Who is the child of the world to come? He who joins together the blessing of redemption ("blessed art thou who redeemed Israel") with the standing silent prayer of the evening" (B.T. Berachot 4b). R. Yohanan, one of the towering giants of the Talmud, is considered one of the most trustworthy transmitters of the oral traditions of Israel. In this passage he expresses the important linkage between redemption - the optimistic hope of our nation - and calling upon the Almighty while we are attempting to redeem ourselves through compassionate and ethical deeds, political action, planting and building in Israel, and even by going to battle if necessary. I include these very human activities under the rubric of "prayer" since Maimonides says the biblical command to pray is "and you shall serve the Lord your God" (Exodus 23:25) - a commandment which appears in the context of Israel's progression on the way to Israel, a quest and a march which demands fealty to the biblical commandments, development of the land itself, as well as courageous military battle. R. Yohanan is teaching that redemption cannot happen unless we combine our commitment to God with dedicated action on all fronts: political, ethical, religious, agricultural, civic, economic and military; God guarantees that we will never be destroyed, God will even lead us by means of His Torah as we march along the road to redemption, but we must map out the route and do whatever is necessary along the way. We must link redemption to our human activity alongside prayer. And when our talmudic sages raise the problem that right after the words "who redeemed Israel," and before we begin the standing prayer (amida), our Prayer Book has inserted a paragraph which begins with the word Hashkivenu - "Enable us, O Lord our God, to lie down in peace... save us quickly for Your name's sake, protect us, remove from us the enemy, the pestilence, the sword, the famine, the anxiety... Blessed art thou, O Lord, who guards His nation Israel eternally." The talmudic response is rightfully that this prayer is merely a continuation of the request for redemption. The sages of the Talmud differentiate between the morning and evening prayers: the light morning prayer is a symbol of God's lovingkindness toward us, whereas the bleak evening prayer is a symbol of Israel's faithfulness to God even in times of desperation; it is as the psalmist declares: "To express Your loving kindness [to us] in the morning, and our faithfulness toward You in the evening" (B.T. Berachot 12a). We experienced God's miraculous love in the Exodus from Egypt. We have faith that the redemption will come, as guaranteed by all our prophecies. But when will that happen? That depends on our actions and God's will, the manner in which we forge our path of return to Him, and how well we succeed in teaching ethical monotheism to the world. Along the way, there are existential perils: sword and pestilence. However, we will never be destroyed, and will retain our faithfulness to God's laws even in the darkest hours. And we believe that ultimately "God's Name will be great and holy throughout the world which He created" as testified by the kaddish. The kaddish speaks of our future redemption, when God's name will become great in the world, and that will happen only via our active and action-filled prayer. The High Priest in our portion is not promising immediate success; he is merely teaching that our faithfulness to God must always be apparent - and that eventually we will be redeemed! Faith is not bound up with our personal or even national success; it is rather defined by our faithfulness to God's will even during the dark night, because we know that eventually "God's Name will be great and holy throughout the world" - that ultimately the morning star will appear and sunrise will bathe the world in warmth and light. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.