The Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, which Jews are in the midst of reading, details the laws about making war. It is worth noting that although we might prefer to cling to the words of the prophets and their lofty visions of peace: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” or “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” the Jewish tradition is not a pacifist tradition. It allows for war. The Book of Deuteronomy in fact recognizes that this will be the Jewish people’s lot when they cross the Jordan and conquer the land of the Canaanites. It most especially recognizes that sometimes we must fight wars of self-defense. Of course, before attacking an enemy terms of peace must be offered.
The Bible continues. The priest speaks to the troops and says: “Sh’ma Yisrael—Hear O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle…” (Deuteronomy 20) This refrain of “Don’t be afraid, God is with you” is often repeated. Such words make us uncomfortable. This week we are marking the 15th anniversary of 9-11, a day that continues to wound and a day in which our country, and our city, were attacked by people who believed that they were likewise doing God’s bidding, that their heinous acts had God’s blessing. So how do we read our holy books and not cringe at even such vague similarities?
We can apologize and say but our book is better than theirs. But that only works to a point. There are verses in the Bible that I hesitate to read out loud. We can say that all this verse means is that soldiers must steel up their resolve. You can only win a war if you believe that you are right, your cause is just, that if not for your potential sacrifice your home and your very own family might be killed or destroyed. You need to feel that your actions are blessed by God. Then again, we have learned, sometimes painfully and other times hesitantly, in war sometimes these actions are indeed blessed and sometimes they are most certainly not. That is why our tradition leans so heavily on the prophets. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor ever again learn war.”
Isaiah’s words continue to stir the heart. One day, may it be soon, there will never again be the need for even a war college. It’s not just that we won’t need tanks, planes and soldiers. We won’t even need West Point. It is a dream to be sure, but it is a powerful dream, hope and prayer.
Deuteronomy offers deferments to potential soldiers. The newly engaged are not called up. The Bible states: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened (the Hebrew literally reads, soft-hearted)? Let him go back to his home.” And what is the reason for this? The Torah responds: “Lest the courage of his comrades falters like his.” I have often found this the most remarkable of verses. It is also the most instructive.
The Torah’s Book of Deuteronomy appears focused on exactly what we need to hear: how to manage fear in the face of our enemies. That is perhaps what we really most need today. This offers the most profound lesson for the fear that still bubbles up to the surface as we remember 9-11 and continue the now fifteen year fight against terrorism, and the demonic and murderous hatred of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the like. Does this point us towards some answers? One answer is we have to make war against those who wish to do us harm. We have every right and every obligation to defend ourselves. We can argue about the details, about the where’s and the how’s, but let’s not make any mistake, this is our moral obligation. It is our Jewish obligation.
The more important lesson is about fear and how to manage it. The Bible understands that fear is contagious. It disheartens troops readying for battle and it infects the citizenry just the same. The worst thing a leader can do is to sow fear. The worst thing a comrade, or a neighbor, can do is sow fear. And what is Deuteronomy’s response? Send him home. There is only one response to fear and that is to banish it. Otherwise judgments are clouded and values are lost. You can never effectively fight an enemy if you are motivated by fear. It has to be about defending our lives and protecting our values. It has to be about securing who we are and what we still hope to be. Let those whose hearts are filled with fear go home.
This, I am convinced, is what we must hold fast to. Not fear and terror, but instead the values that animate our great country, the very same values that our enemies attack and loathe—namely that we can be united despite differences of opinion, of race, of religion, of culture. We are a hodgepodge of people and a jumble of different cultures, but united. That is exactly what makes this country great.
“Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic…” Or as the Hebrew more accurately states: “Do not let your hearts grow soft!”
Hold fast to who we are. Remain steadfast in our convictions.