This week we read a Torah portion that deals very directly with war, Ki Teitzei. Most of us who feel positively about religion believe strongly that nations should live at peace, that war will someday become an ancient, bad memory. “They shall beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall men learn war anymore” our prophet Isaiah predicted. And almost every religion has similar injunctions about peace.
Isaiah predicted this great time of peace 2700 years ago, yet it still seems as far away as ever. The historical truth of human civilization is that a war is almost always going on somewhere, and sometimes everywhere in the world, and that the number of years in which this planet has been free of war is very few. One calculation says that of the 3400 years of recorded human history only 250 years have been free of a documented war—that is, once every 15 years we have a year without war. To be honest, that seems wildly optimistic. In my lifetime I cannot recall a single year in which warfare has not been waged somewhere on the globe.
Which makes the agenda of the opening section of our parshah this week, Ki Teitzei, sadly and strangely appropriate at any time. For it does not begin “Im teitzei lamilchamah, If you go out to war against your enemy” but “Ki teitzei lamilchamah, When you go out to war against your enemy.” Pragmatically, the Torah treats war as a tragic but inevitable result of human conflict. We hate war; we seek to avoid war at all costs; we know that war is destructive to much of what we believe in and pray for. But we also know that there simply are times when it cannot be avoided, when in our fallible human way we will fall into war. Perhaps the best translation here is “When you must go out to war…”
There is an old platitude, “All’s fair in love and war.” Ki Teitzei informs us that all is not fair in war, and that we need to restrain ourselves both in our military conduct and in the ways in which we reenter society. That restraint is essential to our moral claim to serve God through our own actions, to “fight for the right.” We are obligated to act in ways that sustain and reinforce holiness, even under the exigencies of military necessity.
And so our section of Deuteronomy scrupulously outlines the ways in which we must restrain ourselves when forced to engage in warfare. We are not to destroy the productive capacity of the land of our enemies. We are not to exploit captives, women especially, as though they were subhuman. We are to have a cleansing process after battle before we are to reengage in civilian society, a physical and psychological reentry to give us time to readapt to civilian life.
The contemporary Israeli Army, the IDF, has its own code of conduct, the “Tohor haNeshek, the purity of arms.” It is a serious effort to interpret the concept of “fighting only the right way” into practical terms. When Israeli soldiers fail that test they are held accountable by Israel’s own society. This makes the accusations of Israel’s enemies all the more ludicrous when they claim the Israeli army is less moral than its counterpart militaries: the truth is the opposite. Faced with a continually challenging situation, the IDF may be the most scrupulously policed army in the world. It is not that Israeli soldiers are perfect, for they, like all of us, are human and typically young, and often placed in extremely challenging situations that require decisions that can save or end their own lives and those of their comrades and fellow citizens. But Israeli soldiers are held accountable for their actions, they know it, and they are trained to strive to act with appropriate restraint even under severe duress.
Perhaps the greatest lesson, for those of us fortunate enough not to be engaged in military conflict, is that if rules can be applied to the harshest form of human interaction, warfare, they can certainly be applied successfully to the lesser friction and the tzoris in human interactions that we experience in our own lives. If our ancestors managed to avoid the worst excesses of warfare, we too can learn to avoid the worst excesses our society presents to us—the conflicts, arguments and disputes that damage us, those around us and our world. Instead of plunging further into hostility we can de-escalate conflict. Instead of engaging in hateful exchanges on social media we can disengage. In place of doubling down on personal attacks and insults we can demonstrate restraint, judgment and wisdom.
Perhaps then, free of these excesses of conflict, we can resume our task: to create a word of holiness and blessing in which, someday, Isaiah’s words about the end of war and a time of permanent peace will really come true.