5761 - #43

The Issue Is Not Land

“As everyone knows, the best method of waking a sleeper or a sleep-walker
is to call him by his own name.”

Sigmund Freud

For years, I have been troubled. I care greatly for Israel but deep within my being I always wondered: is land worth the price of life? I have always been affected by the powerful perception of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk who had difficulty accepting the need for the “birth pains of Mashiach”, a time of destruction prior to the coming of the Mashiach. Human life is too valuable to the Jewish soul to accept the necessity of death even if the benefit is the awaited redemption.1 Similarly, I questioned: is the land worth the loss of life, even as we treasure the land immensely?
The answer of Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 425 seems to be yes. The command to destroy the Seven Nations in the conquest of Israel
2 demands that we enter into war -- and war means casualties, as the Torah does not operate in the realm of miracles. Yet this response still leaves me wondering: how can land and political sovereignty be worth the price of life?
I think of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s famous declaration to Vespasian: Tein li Yavneh v’chachamecha, “Give me Yavneh and its sages.”
3 As Vespasian surrounded the city of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s concern was the continuation of the Torah, the spirit of the Jewish people. He understood that the Jewish people could still survive with Yavneh, with the value of the spirit of Torah - even as Rome grabbed political dominion over the land, including Jerusalem. It is Torah that is paramount; the Jew can live without political sovereignty. It was only when Rome attacked the foundation of the faith - by disallowing the study of Torah - that the Sages recognized the necessity of rebellion and supported Bar Kochba’s efforts 70 years later. Under such circumstances, we have no choice but to fight and sacrifice life - for Torah is itself life.4 Notwithstanding the significance of the land within the spirit of Jewishness, it is still not the spirit itself.5 Thus I continue to be troubled about the cost of land in human lives.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s further words in Mechilta Yitro (beChadash), Parsha 11 only strengthen the question. He argues: If the Torah demands that the stones of the alter not be formed through iron tools,
6 how much more so are we to ensure that those who promote peace between people, including peace between nations, are protected from harm?7 This point is reinforced by the fact that David HaMelech was barred from building the Temple because his hands were covered in blood.8 Only Shlomo HaMelech, whose reign was marked by peace, was allowed to construct the Temple. If peace is so significant, how could territorial war even be sanctioned?
Yet, we still refer to the Temple as the House of David. It was David - whose battles expanded and protected the borders of Israel -who laid the foundation for the eventual construction of the Temple. If war is antithetical to the very essence of the Temple, how could our House of God be built upon the shoulders of David’s conquests? Nonetheless it would seem, war is integral to this very House of Peace. Still to me it is problematic to accept loss of life in the pursuit of land.
The tragedy of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - a day that terrorism has forever marked in history - has finally offered me an answer to my dilemma. The problem lay in my perception. Even as we fight the battle, we miss the very essence of the battle. Even as my soul feels the meaning of the struggle, my language did not convey this meaning. Thus my dilemma. But now I know: the issue is not land. The war with the Seven Nations, the war with Amalek, is not a nationalistic war. It is a war of Torah spirit. The enemy is not one who attacks our national aspirations; the enemy is one who challenges the essential value of Torah. National aspirations alone are not worth the cost of human life. It is humanity and moral aspirations that demand battle, even the cost of human life in their defence. We fought the Seven Nations not simply because they occupied the Land of Israel. Amalek is our sworn enemy not simply because this nation was the first to attack our nation as we left Egypt. These nations represent immorality; they are the enemies, not simply of the Jew, but of universal righteousness. It is the spirit of Torah - the call of the Jew to require and defend human morality - that, unfortunately, sometimes demands war.
The Jewish nation is unlike any other nation in the world. Its call cannot be nationalism. Its call must be the service of the One God. Its call must be the promotion of human growth in the image of the Divine. The nation of Israel is to be the model to the world of the essence of humanity and human goodness. Our land is to house this model society. What has troubled me for years is that, in my heart, I knew the battle had to be fought but I could not reconcile the recognition of the validity of this battle with nationalism and the language of land. Israel is unlike any other nation. Its language cannot be generic nationalism. But I now know - and the world should see - that the battle is not over land. The land only forms the context for what is a battle of morality, of justice, of the Torah spirit. This war must be over the definition of our very essence as human beings.
The Torah does not command us to fight nationalistic wars. That language must cease. We must respond to the call of our unique name, Israel. We are charged with the responsibility to fight universal wars when the enemy is the enemy of humanity and the Divine spirit within us. Land is not the issue. Morality is the issue. We cannot sanction giving land as a reward for immorality. A true peace and a Temple can only be built upon righteousness.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 While I have heard this statement of Rav Chaim presented in many forms, one presentation, in the name of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik is found in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, Insight 17.11.

2 See the specific language of Chinuch, Mitzvah 425.

3 T.B. Gittin 56b.

4 See T.B. Berachot 61b.

5 I still remember when standing atop a building in Jerusalem, my feelings when my host showed me the landscape in terms of its connection to Biblical events. The land is indeed the manifestation of the spirit but it is still not the spirit itself.

6 See Shemot 20:22.

7 See, interestingly, Rashi’s quote of the Mechilta.

8 See Divrei Hayamim I 22:8.

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