A call for peace:PARASHAT SHOFTIM

How to rule? The Torah has a few ideas.

Illustrative  (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
 The parasha we read this week, Shoftim, deals mostly with issues of rulership: appointing judges, anointing kings, and other halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to kingship, division of estates, and going to war.
One of the laws of war is the following: “When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it” (Deuteronomy 20:10).
This halacha expresses the Jewish value system clearly: Peace is the best way to solve political problems.
War is waged only when there is no other option.
The sages added another layer to this halacha when they pointed to its unique source. According to them, this halacha is unlike most halachot in the Torah which God had given to Moses. This halacha did not come from the “top down.”
The midrash says the following: “Whatever Moses decreed, the Blessed One agreed with him… The Blessed One told him to fight Sichon, as it says: ‘Behold, I have delivered into your hand Sichon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: Begin to possess it, and provoke him to war’ (Deuteronomy 2:24), but Moses did not do so.”
According to Moses’s retelling of the war: “Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sichon of Heshbon with an offer of peace.” Said God to Moses: I told you to fight him and you offered peace. Now I will fulfill your decree.
Every war will start with a peace offering, as it says: “When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it” (Midrash Devarim Raba 5:13).
This halacha that one must call for peace before waging war, according to the sages of the midrash, was not told to Moses by God, but the other way around.
Moses was the one who initiated this halacha – and God agreed to it and commanded it for eternity. Why didn’t God instruct Moses to first offer peace as a lastditch effort before waging war? It seems the reason for this is that calling for peace is not something that can be done fully as a commandment.
It is a step that must be taken according to a person’s conscience.
When God instructed Moses to wage war, he expected Moses to understand that war is a step taken when there are no other options, and that he would first use every diplomatic means to avoid it. Indeed, Moses understood this and acted according to his conscience.
Only then, when Moses set the moral norm on his own, did God agree with him and make this the required norm forever.
Many thinkers of the Middle Ages and modern times saw the Jewish nation as a rare phenomenon; a nation that gave up on the idea of a state and preferred to live in exile in order not to be tainted by the moral depravity that comes with national-territorial aspirations.
This pacifist concept is not the entire truth. Though the Jewish nation, for many generations, could not help but avoid manifest nationalistic aspirations, every single generation evoked the hope that comes with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.”
The Jewish nation yearned to return to its land, but hoped and strove for a return that would be accompanied by a call for peace and not war. The Jewish nation is not one that lives by its sword.
The prophecy of Isaiah about the days when humanity will make the sword superfluous is a vision that has inspired the Jewish nation for thousands of years and is inscribed on the wall of the United Nations.
The Jewish nation never preferred living in exile, but always strove to return to its land and live in it peacefully.
The only justification for bearing arms, in the eyes of Judaism, is for self-defense. The incessant striving for peace typifies the Jewish nation even in today’s world.
Moses understood the value in calling for peace and acted accordingly. His brother, Aaron, “loved peace and pursued peace.” These are the role models of the Jewish people – in exile and after the return to its land.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.