Monday, September 18, 2017

Cracking the Cold (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5778)

Yes, I've neglected this blog, but here is my current draft of a Rosh HaShanah derashah. Please let me know what you think.

Over a period of 16 years, from 1833 to 1849, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a long poem in memory of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s called “In Memoriam A.H.H.[1]”. The best-known line from the poem is probably, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But I want to focus on a different passage today. In describing his own faith in the face of this bereavement, Tennyson wrote:

Behold, we know not anything; 
         I can but trust that good shall fall 
         At last—far off—at last, to all, 
And every winter change to spring. 

So runs my dream: but what am I? 
         An infant crying in the night: 
         An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry.[2]

Tennyson describes his cry as that of an infant; he hears the voice of a baby in the emotions of a grown, worldly, sophisticated man grieving for his friend. Keep that image in mind, please, as we look at a very odd element of the mitzvah of shofar.

Shofar is a surprisingly vague mitzvah; the Torah describes the first day of the seventh month as יום תרועה, a day for trumpeting, but it doesn’t define what exactly a teruah is. How do we know what sound to make? The Talmud[3] deduces the nature of the shofar’s teruah based on the crying of a particular woman in Tanach.

More: We blow 100 shofar blasts each day of Rosh HaShanah, even though 60 should cover all of the possible permutations of sounds. Why 100? Tosafot[4] quotes the 10th century sage, Rabbi Natan baal ha’Aruch, explaining that we want to match the cries of that same woman in Tanach. She cried 99 or 100 times, depending on your version of this idea, and we cry as she did.

So there you have it. How do we know that teruah is a crying sound? That crying woman in Tanach. Why do we blow 100 blasts? Same woman in Tanach. And my problem is this: That woman in Tanach ranks as one of the coldest, most heartless human beings in Jewish history. That woman was the mother of a Canaanite general named Sisera.

Go back in time about 3200 years. After the Jews left Egypt and entered Canaan, Yehoshua led them for 28 years. After he died, we were governed by a series of Shoftim/Judges for centuries, during an up-and-down period in which we were often under the thumb of local tribes. About 120 years into this period, the Canaanites come to dominate us; they have iron, horse-drawn chariots, and they force us up into the mountains. Their lead general is a man named Sisera.

To make a long story short, our shofet at the time is a woman named Devorah, and she leads us in rebellion against Canaan. Miraculously, the Canaanite chariots are routed. The soldiers flee east, to go home; their general, Sisera, deserts and heads west, looking for shelter. He is intercepted by a woman named Yael, who kills him. Devorah composes a poem about the victory, and at the end of the poem she describes the scene back at Canaanite headquarters, where Sisera’s mother anxiously awaits her son’s return. To quote:[5]

“At the window, the mother of Sisera gazes out and cries at an ornately decorated window. She cries, ‘Why is his chariot delayed in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots late?’ The wise noblewomen answer her, and she also gives this statement to herself, ‘Have they not found and distributed spoils, a womb, two wombs to every man, spoils of dyed [fabric] for Sisera, spoils of dyed embroidery, dyed embroidery around the neck of the despoiler?’”

This is the mother of Sisera – a woman who comforts herself with the thought that her son is assaulting women and stealing spoils. And her language – a womb, two wombs to every man – it’s vulgar, obscene! How grotesque! What a mockery of maternity! Sisera’s mother may have cried for her son, but why in the world would I want to model my shofar on Rosh HaShanah on the grief of the most abominably cold-hearted human being imaginable?!

I’m not the only one with this question. Rav Eliyahu Ki-Tov asked this question in Sefer haTodaah, and decided that we are not looking at her villany, but at our own goodness. We are contrasting ourselves with Sisera’s mother. She wept with cruelty; we weep with humanity. There is a logic to this, certainly.

Another answer is to look past her cold villainy, and see her as a bereaved mother. As Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider wrote in a column on the OU website last year,[6][S]o great is the grief of any parent for the loss of a child, that we all are left completely bereft. The universality and commonality of suffering over the loss of a child transcends names and identities.” Rabbi Goldscheider knows what he is talking about; he lost a child. And I accept his point. But I don’t understand – do we really need to demonstrate our compassion for a bereaved parent by invoking this particular bereaved parent? Do we not have enough bereaved parents in our history, on whom shofar could have been modeled?[7]

I would suggest that the answer is not to ignore her villainy, but to embrace it, to understand that her lack of a heart is precisely the point. We invoke her because she is so unsympathetically heartless. This merciless human being, who reassures herself that all is well by imagining her son viciously violating prisoners – even she can crack.  And that unadorned cracking of the cold, yielding sincere emotion below, is what matters in shofar.

Rav Yehudah Amital[8] also emphasized the sincere cry, in an essay regarding Akeidat Yitzchak. He quoted a manuscript of the midrashic Avot d'Rabbi Natan[9] which describes the fateful scene on the mountain. In contrast to the classic image of the stoic father and son, pure in their devotion to Gd, in this version Avraham says to himself, “I am old, and he is young, perhaps Yitzchak could escape!” And Yitzchak says to himself, “Who will save me from my father? I have no aid other than Hashem!” Rav Amital explained, Avraham was no malach, and Yitzchak was no seraph; neither of them wanted to go through with this, and they were looking for something, pleading with Hashem, to prevent Yitzchak’s death. They cracked - and as we say in our Selichot, Hashem answered Avraham. It’s true that Hashem never wanted Yitzchak to die, but even had Hashem wanted Yitzchak to die, He would have halted the akeidah because of Avraham’s plea for Yitzchak’s life – because the most valuable prayer to Hashem is that simple, sincere cry, like that of Avraham, for that which we love the most.

This is what shofar is about – expressing the sincere cry. Returning to the beginning, I think this is what Tennyson described in his own grief for his beloved friend: “An infant crying in the night: An infant crying for the light: And with no language but a cry.” Simple. Sincere. Lacking artifice and style, and all the more beautiful for it. Even Sisera’s mother, at her moment of crisis, releases this pure voice from inside of her.

We may not like to admit it, but we nurture within ourselves the seeds of the cold brutality of Sisera’s mother - and for good reason. A soul open to every emotion, a heart with strings that can be plucked by every circumstance, would drown in a sea of passion. We would suffer depression at every hurricane and shooting and car accident and famine. We would ride a roller coaster of joy with every birth and marriage and success we saw on Facebook or Linkedin. We would spend our last pennies on helping people around the world in need. We would overload in reaction to every news headline and private conversation, and we would be left gasping for air, for emotional space, for survival.

So we develop a necessary shell, but we pay a price in doing it. I become much more at ease snapping my fingers to an upbeat tune than contemplating loss. I become more comfortable reading a book of intellectual essays about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur than intensely contemplating what I did for the past year, and why I did it. I would rather go home to a delicious lunch than remain here asking, a la Tennyson, whether spring will truly follow winter for me, for my family, for my friends.

But on Rosh HaShanah, with the shofar, we are meant to penetrate to just those fears that inhabit the pit of our stomach. To imagine what it would mean to lose that which we love and treasure more than anything on earth – and to cry like Tennyson’s infant. Toward that end we summon the image of the coldest, crudest human being imaginable, Sisera’s awful mother, cracking, and we know that if she can, then so can we. And our cry, at the moment when our cold is cracked, is gorgeous in its purity, in its simplicity, in its sincerity.

Along the same lines, the Talmud Yerushalmi[10] says we blow an animal horn because our own cry on Rosh HaShanah is that of an animal. The shofar has no words, only an animal, or perhaps infantile, sound that emerges with our breath, from our core. May we crack, and find that cry inside of ourselves this morning, for just a little while. May we call out to Hashem sincerely, for the sake of our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our friends, our children. And may Hashem respond to us, as HaShem responded to Avraham, with a verdict for a חתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a year of berachah and shalom.

[3] Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a
[4] Ibid.
[5] End of Shoftim 5
[7] I.e. Sarah and Yaakov, when they believe their children dead. Of course, there are other answers, such as noting that R’ Akiva was her descendant, and invoking mystical ideas. Rav Soloveitchik has a particularly moving idea found in Pninei haRav pg. 158 and “Before Hashem you will be purified” pg. 10. See
[9] Cited in Torah Sheleimah Bereishit 22 #92
[10] Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1

Monday, June 19, 2017

99999 or 100000?

Yesterday, my car went from


For some reason, the former was more exciting to me than the latter. Not sure why.

Either way, I brought the car in for the Check Engine light this morning, to find out this car isn't going to make it much further...

Sunday, June 11, 2017

And here's the derashah... (Behaalotcha 5777)

... from the aquarium billboard:

A couple of years ago, the Nova Scotia board of tourism posted a giant billboard on Bathurst. It featured a monster-sized, awesome picture of a diving whale off the Nova Scotia coast, and it said in tall letters, “We heard you have an aquarium. That’s nice.”[1]

I give the ad campaign a 10 for snark, and a 10 for content – it reminded me that I really, really want to see Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I have a problem: minyan. Other than in Halifax, there aren’t too many minyan options in the Maritimes. Is a Jew – and especially a male, who has extra obligations – allowed to go to a cottage, to go on vacation, without a minyan?

Of course, going to Nova Scotia can have religious value. We can appreciate Divine creation, declaring מה רבו מעשיך ד'! Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of heaven, they would ask you, ‘Did you see the marvels of Gd on earth?’ Then, ashamed, you would mumble, ‘We missed that opportunity.’”[2]

There is also religious value in charging our batteries, absorbing energy for future mitzvos. The Shulchan Aruch writes, “Eating or drinking for your own pleasure is אינו משובח, not praiseworthy. One should intend to eat and drink in order to live, to serve the Creator.[3]

But I’m not talking about going to Nova Scotia in order to appreciate Hashem’s creation, or to recharge for spiritual service. Yes! Admiring nature can be a spiritual experience, but I’m just talking about going as a human being. Human beings love to experience the new and different, we relish natural beauty, we dance to music, we expand our souls through literature and art. Is being human justification for missing minyan, or not learning another page of gemara, or not volunteering for an organization?

Of course, I’m not going to pasken here. First, because psak rightfully belongs solely with shul rabbis. Second, this is a simple, perhaps even a bit oversimplified, derashah; it’s not a shiur. So instead I’m going to focus on the underlying philosophical question: How do we look at sacrificing a mitzvah for the sake of being human?

Let’s review two stories from our parshah: The lashon hara about Moshe, and Pesach Sheni.

First, the lashon hara: As the Talmud[4] tells it, Moshe separated from his wife Tzipporah because he expected to speak with Gd at any time and he needed to be available, just as Jewish men and women separated from each other temporarily at Har Sinai. His siblings, Miriam and Aharon, were scandalized; after all, they were prophets too, but they had families! Hashem decisively declared Miriam and Aharon wrong about Moshe, and they were both punished with tzaraas.[5]

But here’s what people often miss in the story! Miriam and Aharon were right about everyone not named Moshe, everyone who did not speak to Gd “face to face”. Normal human beings are meant to pursue normal human life, with families! And as the sage Ben Azzai noted,[6] does not family life impose obligations which necessarily obstruct total commitment to the omnipresent mitzvah opportunity? Will not a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbour, an organization lay ineluctable claim to your hours, directly and indirectly? Will not participating in a family involve diapers and carpools, cameraderie and sympathy – in short, being human?

If Miriam and Aharon are correct, does that not mean that the Jew is supposed to be a human being, to recognize the limits of Covenant and honour human need?[7]

Rabbi Alex Israel of Yeshivat Eretz haTzvi eulogized Rav Yehudah Amital z”l, former Rosh Yeshiva in the Gush. He reported on the time when Rav Amital saw someone straining to fulfill the minutia of a ruling in the Mishneh Berurah. Rabbi Israel wrote, “Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: “Danny. Be normal!” He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.[8]

So far, then, it seems that Miriam and Aharon are right, and it’s fine and appropriate to relax and take a few days in Nova Scotia. Be normal!

But there is another story in our parshah: Pesach Sheni.

At the start of their second year in the wilderness, the Jewish people brought the korban Pesach, but a small community was denied participation because they were tamei, ritually impure. According to the Talmud,[9] they were ineligible for the best of reasons – they were the chevra kadisha, carrying the bones of Yosef and his brothers. So they were exempt. They could relax. They were required to relax! While the rest of the nation went about their duties.

But that’s not what these Jews did; they came to Moshe in protest, למה נגרע, why should we lose out on this mitzvah? We don’t want an exemption! We don’t want to relax! We want to do the mitzvah! And although they did not receive exactly what they wanted, they are unquestionably admired for seeking greater duties, greater obligations![10]

And if I quote Rav Amital on one side, I must also quote Rav Asher Weiss, the posek of Shaare Zedek Hospital, on the other. He was asked about a thoroughly exhausted person, awake all night for a particular mitzvah, going to sleep at the end of the night, shortly before the time for Shacharis. Since he would be out cold come morning, our Sleeping Beauty would be exempt from davening when the time came. Rav Weiss replied, in part, “One who keeps himself from becoming obligated in a mitzvah, before its time arrives, has not ‘failed’ in the mitzvah. However, the desire of the Torah – רצון התורה – places an expectation upon people to make certain they will be able to fulfill mitzvot, and indeed pursue their fulfillment.[11]” The desire of Torah is that the exhausted individual push past his boundaries and achieve more!

So who is right, Rav Amital or Rav Weiss? Is rest and relaxation in Nova Scotia a fulfillment of the message of Miriam and Aharon, or a violation of Pesach Sheni?

Let’s go back to a problem at the start of Bereishis.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik noted[12] that plants, fish, birds, animals and human beings were created with shared language in the 10 Declarations of Creation:
·         אמירה, עשייה, בריאה – the same verbs create all of us.
·         We were all brought forth as miraculous life from dead matter.
·         Gd expressed a desire for all of us to bear fruit and multiply.
·         Both animal and human are vegetarian at the outset.
·         Adam was even named for the mud from which he and the plants and beasts were taken.
At first blush, to be human is to be a mobile plant, a fish with lungs, an earth-bound bird, a two-legged animal with opposable thumbs.

But first subtly, and then explicitly, Hashem differentiates the human being from all else by communicating with us:
·         The fish and birds are blessed with procreation, פרו ורבו, but humans are told פרו ורבו.
·         Gd tells the reader that animals are to eat plants, but Gd tells the human being directly to eat plants.
·         And then, most powerfully, ויצו! Gd commands us! As Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “Gd takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will.”[13]
Once Gd gives us not instinct but instruction, not physicality but spirituality, we enter into a relationship with Gd, our first and primary commitment, in which we must strive to prioritize that instruction above all else.

And to me, this is the big question of Bereishis, and our parshah, and I think of Nova Scotia as well:
·         When human beings “enter Gd’s confidence”, are we meant to shed our animal skin, to transcend the plant, fish, bird and beast, to bond with Gd and never look back?
·         Or is our spirituality meant to co-exist with our original, animal character, so that we are both human and pursuers of the Divine?

And I would suggest that the answer also appears right there in Bereishis. Right after ויצו charges Adam with spirituality, Gd charges Adam with sociality. Hashem declares לא טוב היות האדם לבדו – it is not good for the human being to be alone. And Gd searches the kingdoms of beasts and birds, who could have been mates of animalistic humanity prior to ויצו but who are now inadequate for the Commanded personality. And Gd finally separates the souls of Adam and Chavah into different bodies, to join with each other socially.

If ויצו meant that we were only to bond with Gd, then there would be no role for a mate and the demands of family. We would spend our lives seeking to grow out of our desires and become as superhuman as possible. No sports, no hobbies, no literature, no tourism, no artwork, no gourmet dining.

Of course, when Gd seeks a mate for Adam, when Gd creates the concept of community, Gd is undoubtedly looking for that mate to help Adam become a better spiritual person, become a better citizen of that ויצו mandate – but here’s the thing: Gd also implies a parallel mandate: Be a mensch! Be normal! You are to have spouses and children, and therefore you shall have parents and siblings and communities, and you will need those most human experiences and sympathies and goals. Live the life of a human being, feel the emotions of a human being, experience the pain and joy of the people around you!

If Gd desires for human beings to exist in the company of others, then ויצו must not supercede our humanity. We are charged with two competing and complementary aspirations: ויצו, to bond with Gd, and לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, to bond with man. We must aspire to be godlike and we must aspire to be human.

The challenge is for a human being, over the course of a lifetime, to feed both of these drives[14] – to excel in both arenas. To produce a mosaic of ten thousand occasions, a million instants when we learn a page of gemara or give tzedakah or go for a walk in the woods, we become ideal servants of Gd, fulfilling every mitzvah and spending our every moment in search of ways to grow closer to the Shechinah, and we become ideal human beings, living life, reading books, seeing Nova Scotia, playing games, visiting art museums, viewing plays, growing in our ability to be sympathetic, productive members of society.

The lesson of ויצו is that we must aspire to defy human weakness and draw close to Gd.
The lesson of לא טוב היות האדם לבדו is that we must aspire to be human.

Those aspirations must never be separated. The Jew who tours Nova Scotia or reads a novel must also make a siyum haShas. And the Jew who makes a siyum haShas must also go to Nova Scotia – or at least the Toronto Aquarium, nebach. The Jew who schmoozes with friends on Shabbos afternoon must also make time to learn. And the Jew who learns must also make time to schmooze. We can satisfy both, if we look at our lives not moment by moment, analyzing each decision in a vacuum, but as a whole, to gauge whether we are satisfying our duties in both areas.

These are our grand aspirations. The poet Cordelia Ray wrote of human aspiration,[15] “We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart, and eager pulse, like children toward a star.” May our twin goals, spirituality and sociality, be the binary stars that make our hearts throb. We can never fully achieve either one while we yet stand on the slopes of life – but may our mission, and our passion, be to make that climb.

[2] Collected Writings Vol 8 pg. 259 “From the notebook of a Wandering Jew”
[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231:1
[4] Shabbat 87a
[5] Shabbat 97a
[6] Yevamos 63b
[7] Indeed, when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son came out of their cave after 12 years of non-stop study in hiding from the Romans, they could not deal with human beings; shocked to find people spending time plowing, they turned their gaze upon the fields and those fields were incinerated. Hashem rebuked them, “Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back into your cave!” They observed a year of mourning in the cave, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged much chastened. (Shabbat 33b) Human beings are expected to live as human beings do.
אבא, בזמן השואה הכנת את עצמך למות על קידוש השם, ולאחר השואה המניע העיקרי של הרבה פעולות שעשית היה למנוע חילול השם; רצית למות על קידוש השם – אבל קידוש השם היה המניע העיקרי שלך בכל חייך, קידוש השם כפי שמגדיר אותו הרמב"ם בהלכות יסודי התורה: "עושה בכל מעשיו לפנים משורת הדין, והוא שלא יתרחק הרבה ולא ישתומם". המקור לענין שדברת עליו הרבה פעמים על הצורך להיות "יהודי נורמלי", לא להתנהג בצורה משונה וחריגה אלא דווקא כ"יהודי פשוט", גם הוא נמצא בדברי הרמב"ם הללו: "שלא יתרחק ולא ישתומם".
[9] Succah 25a-b
[10] It is as the Talmud (Sotah 14a) states regarding Moshe, that he longed to enter Israel not to enjoy the produce, but to fulfill mitzvot from which he was exempt!
[11] Minchat Asher II 9. Ditto Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on tiyulim and exemption from Succah, at the end of
[12] The Emergence of Ethical Man
[13] We are also צלם אלקים, and it fits, but I didn’t want to go into that here.
[14] חציו לכם וחציו לד' of Shavuos – Beitzah 15b

Thursday, June 8, 2017

We heard you have an aquarium

I saw this ad a couple of years in Toronto, and fell in love with the sheer snark of it...

... and it's the topic of my derashah this Shabbos. Writing it now.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pesach Seder Companion 5777!

My Beit Midrash began publishing a Seder Companion two years ago, with our 5775 version, and continued last year with the 5776 edition.

This year, with 18 Seder-related Divrei Torah which have not appeared in the previous editions, I am glad to present our Pesach Seder Companion 5777! Click the image to be taken to it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Purim Torah 5777: Jewsplaining

For whoever still comes by to read my very occasional posts, here's my contribution to Toronto Purim Torah 5777: The Torah's 618th mitzvah, Jewsplaining:

In Bamidbar 20:8, G-d instructs Moshe, “And you shall speak to the stone,” from which Rabbi Abba bar Eban derived a commandment to lecture the United Nations on behalf of G-d. (Eduyot 3:7) Rabbi Abba’s protégés expanded the mitzvah to include lecturing all ignorant people, and Rabba Caroline Glick expanded it further to include talking to actual rocks. (Shabbat, Perek Rabbi Elazar d’Milah) Sefer HaChinuch lists this as the Torah’s 618th mitzvah: Jewsplaining. Israelis prefer to call it Hasbara, meaning “condescension”.

Within this daily mitzvah, every Jew is obligated to seek out a hostile listener and explain the Middle East to him/her/it for at least eighteen minutes, without convincing him/her/it. Children may also be obligated, because Jewsplaining requires neither intelligence nor maturity, only a willingness to loudly repeat one-sided tropes like “Jordan is the actual Palestinian state” and “Israel invented oxygen, go boycott oxygen” until the other side draws a weapon or walks away.

One does not recite a blessing before Jewsplaining. Per Rashba (1:18), we do not recite a blessing for a mitzvah which depends on another party for its fulfillment; one example is tzedakah, since the intended recipient might decline. Regarding Jewsplaining, the mitzvah is fulfilled only if the listener remains deaf like a stone, and so one’s success depends on the listener being stubborn. Therefore, there is no blessing. [Note, though, that some authorities rule that the Jewsplainer fulfills her obligation so long as she thinks convincing the listener is impossible. Even if the listener changes his mind, it may be assumed that he was already uncertain, and the speaker’s role was only indirect grama.]

I would have written more, such as regarding the Karaites over at the New Israel Fund and their interpretation of this mitzvah, but there was no room in our publication...

Monday, March 6, 2017

Our Troubled History of Righteous Warriors (Pre-Purim Derashah)

I presented this derashah on Shabbos, and it was sufficiently well-received for me to post it here as well:

Children of the 1970’s and 1980’s will remember the movie Wargames, in which Matthew Broderick hacked into the Pentagon’s central computer system – the WOPR – and accidentally started playing a real-world version of a game called Global Thermonuclear War. At the end of the movie, the WOPR computer observed that war is, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

Tanach and Talmud seem to come to the same negative conclusion regarding war:
·         Look at our earliest biblical battles:
o   Avraham battles an alliance of four kings to save his brother-in-law Lot; the Talmud[1] says that Avraham was then punished for drafting his students to fight in the war.
o   Yaakov prepared to fight against Esav, and we are told, ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו, Yaakov was afraid, and he was troubled. Midrashim[2] explain: Yaakov was afraid lest he be killed, but he was also disturbed by the possibility of killing others, apparently even in self-defense.
o   Shortly thereafter, Shimon and Levi smashed the city of Shechem and saved their sister Dinah. Yaakov responded, “You have muddied my name in the eyes of the nations of the land!”
·         Fast-forward to Nach, where we meet Dovid haMelech, who is told by G-d that he cannot build the Beit haMikdash because דמים רבים שפכת ארצה לפני, You have spilled much blood – but Ramban[3] says that this blood was spilled in wars ordered by Gd!
·         Or since Purim is coming, read Megilat Esther – the Jews didn’t want to go to war, even in their own self-defense. Esther and Mordechai pleaded with Achashverosh to rescind the decree against them, and only when he refused were they forced to resort to battle.[4]
·         In this light, it’s no wonder that we are prohibited from using iron to shape the stones of the mizbeiach; כי חרבך הנפת עליה, your sword is an unwanted, unrighteous weapon of death.
It seems that the WOPR is indeed correct about war – the only way to win is not to play!

The problem is that Judaism simultaneously depicts war as a righteous, even glorious pursuit!

The Torah presents war as a mitzvah:
·         וכי תבאו מלחמה בארצכם על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרותWhen you go to war, not if you go to war, against the enemies who attack you in your land, blow the trumpets and Gd will save you.[5]
·         כי תצא למלחמה על אויביךWhen you go to war against your enemies
·         לא תכרות להם בריתDo not make peace treaties with the seven Canaanite nations.
·         In the classic catalog of 613 biblical mitzvot, Sefer haChinuch records four separate mitzvot related to war (394, 525,526, 527)

And not only is war a mitzvah, but our Sages teach that war is a religious act pursued by righteous figures, specifically:
·         According to a mishnah, the Sanhedrin, the high religious court, approves all wars;
·         The Talmud describes Shaul’s general Doeg, and Dovid haMelech, and his Shlomo’s general Benayahu ben Yehoyada, as both warriors and Torah scholars;
·         The Talmud teaches that Jewish soldiers were given the opportunity to retreat from the battlefield if they had any sin on their records, however minor, leaving an army of soldiers who would be ideal tzaddikim.
We did not go as far as the Greeks, with Plato’s declaration that one must engage in military service in order to be a complete person – but we seem to have come pretty close!

So how do we reconcile biblical and rabbinic negativity toward war and warriors, with the idea that war is a great mitzvah, waged by our best and brightest? And to apply this today - how should we look at serving in our own IDF?

We could argue that war is simply a בדיעבד, a necessary evil; other mitzvot are necessary evils, too, like returning stolen goods and punishing criminals in beit din. If we were worthy, Hashem would battle our enemies and we would not need to fight, but we have not been worthy and so we have needed to fight.

The idea that war is a concession to reality is not new to Judaism; almost two thousand years ago, the Talmud[6] blamed our wars on the Golden Calf. Rav Ada, son of Rabbi Chanina declared: If we had not created the Golden Calf, Tanach would have been very short – we would have needed only the Chumash, and the book of Yehoshua describing the division of the Land of Israel. As Rav Kook explained:[7] We would have faced none of the wars and challenges and Divine rebukes which fill the rest of Tanach. Our righteousness would have awed the nations of the land, and we would not have needed to fight.[8]

Indeed, according to the Rambam these bedieved wars were an undesirable, weak and inferior means of sanctifying the land of Israel. He wrote[9] that sanctity which comes about via the sword can also be removed by the sword, and so the kedushah conferred by Yehoshua through battle was actually removed by the Babylonians when they conquered us.

Within this view, the ideal would be for victory to come through Divine intervention. Perhaps this is why our Sages looked for less bloody ways to re-interpret the violent exploits of our greatest leaders.
·         Moshe kills an Egyptian who is beating a Jew – but Avot d'Rabbi Natan[10] says he did it by invoking the Name of Gd.
·         The book of Shoftim says that Kalev marries off his daughter to the shofeit Otniel ben Kenaz, after he conquers the city of Kiryat Sefer – but according to the Talmud,[11] what Otniel actually did in “Kiryat Sefer” was to teach hundreds of laws which had been forgotten upon Moshe’s death.
Both of these derashot are based on solid textual analysis, but they also reflect a certain perspective: War represents a failure of spirituality, and our greatest leaders did not need to resort to fisticuffs.

In truth, this bedieved view of war may be part of a broader philosophical view of this world as a perfect planet shaped by imperfect people:
·         We should receive food from the heavens or miraculous crops, but because we are imperfect, we need to plow and plant and harvest.
·         We should be healed of disease upon praying to Gd, but because we are imperfect, we need to rely on painful, expensive and uncertain medicines.
·         And we should be protected from enemies without fighting, but because we are imperfect, we must go to war.

So the WOPR is indeed correct; the only winning move is not to play – but sometimes you don’t have another option.

But there is another layer to war. When the Torah depicts war as religious and righteous, it is because war is not only the act of bludgeoning the enemy.

War also means protecting our families and defending our ideals, and putting our own lives on the line to do so. War means seeing ourselves as part of a community, and recognizing that the parts must sacrifice on behalf of the whole. The redemptive character of war, that which makes it a mitzvah and a pursuit for our greatest and most righteous, is found in living beyond ourselves, pursuing neither pleasure nor power, but selfless purpose.
·         Avraham goes to war not to demonstrate power or gain spoils, but to save his brother-in-law;
·         Shimon and Levi are guilty of excess, but they went to war to save their sister;
·         Dovid haMelech cannot build the Beit haMikdash, but he fought the Plishtim in order to save his nation.

In truth, this approach requires more nuance; not every selfless fight is noble or heroic. The suicide bomber also thinks he is pursuing selfless purpose in the name of country and ideology. We need more discussion of what constitutes a “just war”, and that will be part of our panel discussion before minchah, at 4:45 PM. But the message I see in the Torah’s mitzvot of war is about not the glory of finishing our foes, but the glory of risking one’s life for others and for ideals.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein made this point in an essay entitled The Ideology of Hesder. Describing the mission of the yeshivot which blend Torah study with military service, he wrote:
No one responsibly connected with any yeshivat Hesder advocates military service per se… No less than every Jew, the typical Hesdernik yearns for peace, longs for the day on which he can divest himself of uniform and uzzi and devote his energies to Torah… In one sense, therefore, insofar as army service is alien to the ideal Jewish vision, Hesder is grounded in necessity rather than choice…
In another sense, however, it is very much l'hathillah, a freely willed option grounded in moral and halakhic decision… We advocate it because we are convinced that, given our circumstances - would that they were better - military service is a mitsvah, and a most important one at that.

This is the source of our troubled history of righteous warriors – of Avraham and Yaakov, of Shimon and Levi.
·         The sword may not cut the stones of the mizbeiach, and Dovid haMelech cannot build the Beit haMikdash, because war is corrupting; the Golden Calf ensured that we must fight, as a bedieved concession to our imperfect spirituality.
·         But war is also an ennobling opportunity to live for others, to sacrifice years, and possibly one’s life, to serve the nation. In that sense it may be the greatest mitzvah we can perform.

In the beginning, Hashem created a garden, and populated it with many trees. One of those trees was the Tree of Life; eat from it וחי לעולם, and live forever. Another of those trees was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We chose the latter, the fruit which gave us good and evil combined, and the result was the blending of good and evil in all of our pursuits, however noble. As a result, Chavah is told that bringing a baby into this world will involve not only life, but also pain. Adam is told that bringing food from the earth will involve not only life, but also pain. And serving our nation, too, involves both life and pain.

May we soon know a day when we will return to the Tree of Life, when the sin of the Golden Calf will at last be expunged, when לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה – when nation will not raise sword against nation and no longer will they study war, when instead of מלאה הארץ חמס a land filled with chamas, we will have מלאה הארץ דעה את ד' כמים לים מכסים, a land filled with knowledge of G-d, as the sea is filled with water.

[1] Nedarim 32a
[2] See Rashi Bereishis 32:8, and Sifsei Chachamim there
[3] Ramban Bamidbar 16:21
[4] Esther 8
[5] Bamidbar 10:9
[6] Nedarim 22
[7] Orot HaMilchamah 4
[8] Ditto Shem miShemuel Succot 5674
[9] Hilchos Beis haBechirah
[10] 1:20
[11] Temurah 16a