Workshops, seminars and courses that inspire full-hearted living

Beha’alotcha: The Anti-Militarism of the Rabbis

The following essay is gently adapted from A Yom Kippur sermon entitled “Living To Tell the Tale: The Anti-Militarism of the Rabbis” that I offered in 2007. You can find the original in my collection of essays “Hineni: Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah”. You can learn more about the book, and order a copy if you wish, by following this link.

Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron, vayomer moshe: kumah adonai v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha

And when the ark would set out, Moses would say: Rise up, Adonai, may your enemies be scattered, may your opponents flee from before you! (Numbers 10:35)

By now almost everyone has heard a version of the Short Guide to Jewish Holidays, but it bears repeating because it holds an important teaching: “They tried to kill us, we’re still here, let’s eat.”

One of the reasons I am grateful to be a Jew is that Judaism is not a record of history’s victors. Judaism is a record of history’s survivors. We lived to tell the tale, and in that rests a particular gift that we can offer to ourselves and to the world. For the Jewish tradition takes a jaundiced view of triumphal militarism and imperial muscle and might. Having outlasted the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, and on down through the ages, Jews have earned a hard won perspective on the ephemeral nature of military conquest and imperial ambition. We have learned to be skeptical about bowing down to the false gods and assumed permanence of obelisks, military monuments and triumphal arches.

Our reference point, as skeptical outsiders to power, is as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, resident aliens in a land not our own, subject to the whims and machinations of a potentate who saw himself as the law and saw his horses and chariots as proof of his Divinely ordained right to rule. Our identity as a people was formed by these humble origins, and the Torah never fails to remind us to learn the lessons of our history: to treat the stranger and the powerless with dignity; not to put our ultimate faith in human might; to accept and sanctify a transcendent moral code to which even the most powerful must submit.

Yet the Torah is also replete with the language of war and tales of battle and conquest. The shofar blast is a call to arms, and the Ark of the Lord leads the troops into battle. It is a simple matter to ignore the moral grandeur of the Torah, and instead draw from it the message of Holy War, with God on our side. There is, sadly, no shortage of Biblical interpreters of all faiths who have justified and continue to justify their conquests and atrocities on the so-called Word of God.

As I have frequently explained, however, Judaism as we know it is not the Torah itself, but is the distillation and reinterpretation of the Torah as we have received it through millennia of rabbinic interpretation. The Judaism we have inherited was initially shaped by the sages who led our people in the time of the Roman Empire. They had experienced the increasing repression of the Jews by the Romans. They had seen the fate of the Jewish zealots, who opposed Roman rule unto death. They had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, and the wholesale murder and degradation of the Jewish People. They therefore emphasized the Torah’s skepticism toward political and military power and downplayed the Torah’s militaristic aspects. They understood that war was sometimes a necessary response for self-defense, but considered it a last resort. They filled our liturgy with prayers for peace.

Because our sages understood the Torah to be the word of God, they would never directly contradict the words of Torah. Instead, they would bring other verses of Torah that would make their point for them, and they would often do so in an ironic, even subversive, way. They audaciously transformed the shofar blast that we hear on Rosh Hashanah, for example, from a call to arms into a call for empathy, even for the suffering of our enemies. And for the ritual of removing the Torah from the Ark, they chose verses for the prayer book meant to frame our understanding of the purpose of Torah in our lives.

The moment in the synagogue service at which we open the ark is dramatic, and there is an obvious verse in Torah to mark the occasion:

Vay’hi binsoa ha’aron, vayomer moshe: kumah adonai v’yafutzu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha—
And when the ark would set out, Moses would say: “Rise up, Adonai, may your enemies be scattered, may your opponents flee from before you!” (Numbers 10:35)

This verse occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha. It marks the climax of the Israelite’s preparations to march through the wilderness. After a year at Mount Sinai they have now been organized into camps and legions, and are ready to march towards the Promised Land. The Ark of the Covenant leads them on their march, which is described in explicitly military language. Yet for the ritual of taking the Torah out of the ark, the rabbis’ chose to pair this verse with another Biblical verse, this time from the prophet Isaiah, that undermines the militaristic imagery image and turns it on its head:

Ki mitzion tetze torah udvar adonai mirushalayimFor out of Zion comes forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

How does that undermine the previous verse? The rabbis assumed a familiarity with Torah in their time and place that we no longer possess. They would cite a famous verse, and assume that their listeners would know the context and the rest of the passage. (I suppose a comparable situation for us might be citing a famous song title or lyric and assuming that our listeners would know the lyrics and understand the reference and context. You can date me with “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”) In this case the rabbis chose one of the prophet Isaiah’s most famous and compelling visions, certainly one of the Greatest Hits of the Torah. When the rabbis cite, “For out of Zion comes forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem,” they are also citing what follows:

v’shafat bein hagoyim v’hochiach l’amim rabim. V’chititu charvotam l’itim v’chanitoteihem l’mazmerot. Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yilm’du od milchamah —
And God will judge among the nations and settle their disputes. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

Our sages took the most famous and compelling vision of peace in the entire Bible, and juxtaposed it against the marching orders of the Book of Numbers. As we parade the Torah around the sanctuary and touch it and kiss it, our sages wanted Isaiah’s vision of peace echoing in our ears.

Similarly, when the Torah is returned to the ark after the Torah reading, the rabbis

again made their position clear with carefully selected verses from Torah. They begin by bringing the rest of the passage from the Book of Numbers:

Uvnucho yomar shuvah Adonai riv’vot alfei yisraelAnd when the ark would rest, Moses would say, “Bring back, O God, the many thousand troops of Israel.” (Numbers 10:36)

To counterpoint this verse, the sages looked to the Book of Proverbs, and they chose the follow that verse with this one:

Etz chayim hi lamachazikim ba, v’tomcheha m’eushar. Dracheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom —
The Torah is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it; all who uphold it may be counted fortunate, for its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3:18, 17)

May we absorb these teachings from our Torah, and may we glean new insight from the wisdom of our sages of blessed memory. May we be as audacious in our time as they were in theirs in reinventing Judaism, making certain that the Judaism we live and pass on to the future embodies the highest human values we can imagine. May we and our tradition continue to lead toward the day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler