Rabbi Oury Cherki
Ki Tetzeh - A Military Master
Unfortunately, war is part of our world. From the earliest beginnings of history, there have always been wars. Mankind, the highest stage of all creation, has always been busy with thoughts of how to kill other men. This fact gave philosophers a lot to think about, and some of them even tended to idealize the concept of war. They thought that war is good, a way of forging strength, and that it is something constructive.
The nation of Israel never agreed to these faulty ideas. We always saw war as a crime, a terrible event. But we still cannot flee from an important question: After the fact, what significant role have all the wars of mankind fulfilled?
Rav Kook emphasizes that the reason for war is not connected to the Divine guidance of the world but rather stems from mankind's evil inclination. However, when the bonds of evil are released and the evil inclination runs wild, the Holy One, Blessed be He, utilizes the wars which do take place for the highest ideals of history. And that is why the Holy One, Blessed be He, is called "the Master of War." He makes use of war to distribute righteousness and as a basis for building up the world that will take over after the war. Together with all of this He also sows the seeds of salvation. With respect to the harm caused by the wars, we pray every day, "He creates cures, is awesome and praiseworthy, the master of wonders" [Daily prayers, beforeShema]. And as part of this, "every day out of His goodness He renews the actions of Genesis," and He brings new light to the world.
We also fight wars. Of course it would be better if the nation of Israel could perform its mission without waging war. But when we do encounter war, we do not hesitate to turn and fight. And that is why we have obligatory and optional wars, with many rules for organizing them.
In the first war, between Cain and Abel, Cain was the guilty party, but Abel also shared the blame, in a weak sense. It is written, "And Cain rose up over his brother Abel" [Genesis 4:8]. If Cain rose up, this means that beforehand he was lying down. According to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba), Cain was lying down under Abel, who was about to kill him, based on the principle that "If one rises up to kill you, defend yourself by killing him first" [Sanhedrin 72a]. Cain said to him, "If you kill me, what will you tell our father?" So Abel freed Cain, who rose up and killed him. Abel's mistake was to assume that the murderer abided by the same values that he did himself, and he spoke to the murderer instead of killing him.
The hidden ethical complaint of the nations of the world to us is: Do not act like Cain, act like Abel! If you use the weapons of Cain, your end will be like his! However, the Torah emphasized that the human ideal is not the character of Abel but that of Seth, "another child, to replace Abel, for Cain killed him" [Genesis 4:25]. This is the type of person about whom it is written that Adam "gave birth in his image" [5:3]. This is a model of Abel who knows how to make use of Cain's weapons. It is the true archetype of the children of Israel.
The struggle with wars and their halachot lifts us up to ethical horizons. And that is why much of this week's Torah portion involves the laws of war, leading to the high ethical level of the war against Amalek, in an effort to eradicate evil from the world. Our success in this war will reveal to everybody that the source of righteousness lies with the nation of Israel and not with counterfeit morality of those who allow murderers free reign, and who even carry on discussions with them and surrender to their demands.