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Love and War

Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

One of the most difficult topics in the Torah is described in this week's Parsha (Deut. 13:16): the commandment to destroy the "Wayward City," a place whose residents are devoted to worshipping idols. Today, it is hard for us to picture such a city, since we probably imagine idolaters as normal families who just happen to worship a statue instead of going to synagogue.

In reality, idol worship was much worse.

Part of ancient cult worship involved various sexual immoralities like public orgies, temple prostitutes, incest, bestiality and carnal molestation (Leviticus 18:27). They also were known to sacrifice children to the gods (Deut. 12:31). Rabbi Akiva (2nd century CE, Israel) reported that he saw a son bind up his father and feed him to ravaging dogs in service of idols. Indeed, modern archaeologists have found mounds of children's bones by pagan altars.

All of this is not a good foundation for the Jewish nation trying to build its home in the Holy Land of Israel. That's why God commanded that the Wayward City be totally destroyed along with its inhabitants.

Insidious Idolatry

Now for the interesting part. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71) states that the Wayward City never occurred. The case is theoretical!

So why does the Torah mention such a case?

The answer is, had we never known the penalty, we would never appreciate the severity of the crime.

The prohibition against idolatry is mentioned 44 times in the Torah – more than any other mitzvah. It is one of the Ten Commandments. It is one of the Six Constant Mitzvot. It is one of the 7 Laws of Noah that all non-Jews are instructed to uphold. And it is one of the Big 3 Mitzvot for which a Jew is expected to give his life, rather than transgress.

But what's so wrong with idolatry in the first place?!

We humans have a deep desire to connect with something beyond ourselves – with the source of our existence. Idolatry is thinking that anything other than God is that source. For some, it could be the sense that money will bring ultimate happiness. For others, it could be the allure of power, love, or materialism.

The danger is that a society without God at its center will likely crumble. Without shared values and a deep commitment to the divine spark in every human being, there is little glue holding society together. Particularly for the Jewish nation committed to a utopian ideal of world peace, idolatry is an unacceptable element of society.

Ironic Twist

If Jews are so committed to peace, how is it that the Torah can also command the destruction of the Wayward City – even in theory?

Sometimes war is necessary. Judaism teaches that while the supreme value is life, we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is also part of justice. Dangerous disputes must be resolved, because if you choose to leave evil alone – it will eventually attack you (Rashi, Deut. 20:12).

People today don't relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Today, most Westerners grow up in quiet neighborhoods, and never experience war, persecution and racism. So it's easy to pontificate peace and brotherhood at the expense of defense. There's a well-known joke defining a liberal as "a conservative who has never been mugged." Questioning the ancient Hebrews' sense of justice and morality is not really fair if you haven't dealt with the harsh reality of their experience.

It is ironic that the Torah – which introduced to the world the concept of the sanctity of life – is now criticized as being "cruel" by today's Western civilizations which are built on that Jewish moral foundation! People today can only criticize ancient Hebrews because those very Hebrews taught them that murder, conquest, and abuse are wrong. The values such as equality, freedom and brotherhood all stem from Judaism. The mindset that wiping out a city is "immoral" because Jews taught that to the world!

Laws of Noah

People mistakenly think that the Torah's directive was to wipe out the Canaanites cruelly and indiscriminately. In truth, the Torah prefers that the Canaanites would avoid punishment; they were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they'd change and adopt the seven universal laws of humanity. These "Laws of Noah" are basic to any functioning society:

  1. Do not murder.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not worship false gods.
  4. Do not be sexually immoral.
  5. Do not eat the limb of an animal before it is killed.
  6. Do not curse God.
  7. Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.

At the root of these laws lies the vital concept that there is a God Who created each and every person in His image, and that each person is dear to the Almighty and must be respected accordingly. These seven laws are the pillars of human civilization. They are the factors which distinguish a city of humans from a jungle of wild animals.

Merciful Warfare

Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy, as the Torah states, "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." (Deut. 20:10)

For example, before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." If they refused, a second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." If they again refused, a final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to fight." Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations, the Girgashites, heeded the call and settled peacefully.

In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jewish people were still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape. (see Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4-5 with Kesef Mishna)

Against Jewish Nature

It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature.

At various stages throughout the 40-year trek in the desert, Moses was forced to reprimand the Jews for having the fear of war. He inspired them with various pep talks, and assurances of victory. (see Exodus 14:3 with Ibn Ezra; Numbers 21:34 with Nachmanides; Deut. 31:6)

The reality is that war makes one callous and cruel. Therefore, since God Himself commanded the Jews to rid the land of evil, God likewise promised the soldiers that they would retain their compassionate nature. In the words of our Parsha: "God will have compassion on you, and reverse any display of anger that might have existed" (Deut. 13:18).

Waging war with enthusiasm has always been a Jewish test. King Saul lost his kingdom by showing misplaced mercy and allowing the Amalekite king to live. And in modern times, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, "It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers."

Overwhelming Good

So what does this all mean for us today?

Without a Jewish king or Sanhedrin, these laws of warfare do not technically apply. But there is still a lesson to be learned. The severity of idolatry is emphasized by the fact that the most extreme punishment in Judaism is reserved for a Maisit – someone who promotes and convinces others to follow idolatry. As described in our Parsha, this person is actively involved in eroding values at the core, and there is no greater threat to society (see Deut. 13:7-12)

From here we can extrapolate: The greatest reward is reserved for someone who does the opposite of a Maisit – someone who actively brings Jews close to their Jewish heritage.

King David says: "Turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:15). One effective method of turning away evil is to "do good." We live in unique times. The world is filled with tension and strife. The goodness is frequently there, bubbling under the surface. Let's think positive. Let's think about what we can do to eliminate the evil ... by overwhelming it with good.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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