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Thursday, December 08, 2022
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It seems that war is one of the most common of all human activities. Study history of the human race, and you will not find many years that were not blemished by warfare. Read the literature of the world, and you will find very few books whose pages are not bloodstained. Study the Jewish tradition, beginning with the Bible itself, and you will find very few narratives that do not contain the images of battle.

When I think back upon my own life, I immediately realize that I was born but several months after Hitler invaded Poland, and that my most outstanding early memories are of the men in my family in military uniform, and of the parades celebrating victory at the end of the Second World War. The wars of Korea and Vietnam dominated my high school and college years.

Of course, Israel’s many wars, major and minor, preoccupied me and my peers throughout our lives and continue to do so. Ironically, my wife and I arrived in Israel this summer for a long stay, which, up until the time of this writing, has known war almost every day since we arrived, except for several brief periods of uncertain cease-fires punctuating missile bombardments, ground invasions, and the heart wrenching loss of life which inevitably accompanies warfare.

Reading the Torah portions of the week is no respite from the descriptions of war. Last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, contained lengthy paragraphs which could easily have been part of a military manual. “When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots–forces larger than yours–have no fear of them…When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace…If it does not surrender to you…You shall lay siege to it….”

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), begins and ends with themes of war. The opening verse reads, “When you take the field against your enemies…” The closing verses of the parsha enjoin us to remember the surprise attack launched against the Jewish people by Amalek and command us to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Not only does this week’s Torah portion begin and end with martial themes, but about halfway through the parsha we find the following words: “When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward…Let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you….”

What is striking about all of these citations is that they are instructions to soldiers, to men who are actively participating in battle. They are the ones who are instructed to be brave and to follow the codes of conduct mandated to men at war. There is no mention of commands for those not engaged in battle. What is the civilian population supposed to be doing while their brethren are risking their lives on the battlefield?

In the military operation in which Israel is engaged against Hamas at the time that these words are being written, I have been able to witness the extent to which civilians are involved in providing assistance to those who are engaged in the actual fighting. Indeed, those on the home front who simply go about their business and try to maintain a sense of normalcy also contribute to the morale of those in the military service. As the signs say along Israel’s highways, “A brave home front ensures a strong battlefront.”

Certainly, those who engage in special prayer sessions, who devote their hours of Torah study and charity activities to the merits of those on the battlefield, also contribute to the war effort and, when victory comes, will be able to say that even as civilians they helped achieve the desired goal.

I must share with you, dear reader, a most inspiring conversation that I read in one of the weekly leaflets available in great variety in every Jerusalem synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. The conversation was between a young woman, who was just a girl when her older sister’s husband fell many years ago in one of Israel’s wars, and her friend. It was at a memorial service for that hero that the conversation was initiated.

“I find it difficult to absorb,” the young woman said to her friend, “that he died so that I could live. Every time I see the pictures in recent newspapers of fallen soldiers, I can’t help but be haunted by the fact they were willing to die, and actually did die, just so that you and I could live our lives.”

Her friend responded, “I too find it difficult to absorb. It is a simple fact that these young men, only one or two whom I knew even vaguely, gave their lives so that I might live. But I take it one step further. I ask myself whether my life is worthy of that soldier’s ultimate sacrifice.”

She continued: “What disturbs me is that in all honesty, I must say that the life I have been living is far from worthy of his sacrifice. What is my life? Another mall, another insipid television program, another flirtatious relationship. Surely, these boys did not have to die to preserve such an empty life. I find myself searching inwardly in ways that I never had before. I want to redefine my life so that I can somehow justify that soldier’s indescribable heroism.”

The first young woman concurred. And so does everyone to whom I have related this inspiring conversation. There is a growing consensus, and it is a profoundly introspective one, that our lives must change so that we can collectively deserve the kinds of sacrifices we are asking of our young chayalim. They must feel certain that the risks that they are taking are on behalf of a people who are devoted to the highest ideals and who are living lives that are so meaningful and upright that they deserve defending, even at the cost of the tragic losses that we have all painfully witnessed this past month or two.

So civilians have a duty, too, not just soldiers. Civilians have the duty to examine their lives and to improve them fundamentally, so that the soldier on the battlefield can say, “I am fighting to protect and preserve lives which are worth fighting for, and dying for.”

By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

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