“When you wage a war against your enemies, and God will give you victory over them ...” (Deut. 21:10)
War is perhaps the most tragic and horrific aspect of the human condition. Our most fervent wish is for peace. Peace is the final blessing of birkat kohanim. The closing statement of the Talmud also extols the unsurpassed importance of peace: “The Holy One found no vessel more capable of holding blessing for Israel than peace” (Oktzin 3:12).
So why does Jewish law include such concepts as compulsory and optional wars – milchemet mitzvah and milchemet reshut? Why do we find that the greatest spiritual leaders of the Jewish people – Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, King David, Rabbi Akiva – all led their nation into battle?
In a letter penned in 1904, Rav Kook explained:
“It would have been totally impossible, at a time when all of the surrounding nations were truly wolves of the night, that only the Jewish people would refrain from waging war. The nations would have joined together and destroyed the remnant of the people, God forbid. On the contrary, it was absolutely crucial to act without mercy in order to evoke fear in the wild savages.”
We look forward to the day when the human race will advance to the state when war will become unnecessary. The Torah, however, does not attempt to proceed too quickly, before the world is ready.
“Nothing ruins the groundwork for perfecting human society as much as the influence of lofty ideas on masses who are not ready to accept them. Those who sought to advance humanity by imposing the Torah’s ethical teachings before the world was ready for them completely misunderstood God’s intention.
The proof [that this approach is faulty] is apparent in the phenomenon of those who burnt their victims alive in auto-da-fe [during the Spanish Inquisition] under the banner of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is because the Torah’s lofty ideals require preparation. As the Sages cautioned: ‘The Torah is an elixir of life for those who follow it diligently... but the careless will stumble in it’ (Shabbat 88b, based on Hosea 14:10).
The cruel conflicts that we witness are a result of ethical constraints that were artificially imposed upon the nations of the world. This created an unhealthy society suffering from severe distress. It induced destructive traits, mental imbalance, and deep-rooted anger. Festering resentment erupted into horrible acts of destruction and cruelty, with a brutal violence that exposed their still unrefined character.
Even for the Jewish people, regarding matters pertaining to the public and national arena, the Torah did not attempt to impose unrealistic saintliness. This would have led to an unnatural, forced piety. The Torah’s objective is to establish an ethical awareness in the hearts of the people based on their own free will. That is why we find that the Torah is tolerant regarding certain war-related issues, such as the law allowing soldiers to take female captives (Deut. 21:10-14).
Yet, one may still ask: what is the purpose of war?
In his book Orot, Rav Kook sought to uncover God’s purpose even in war. Great wars, he explained, have an important function in the world: they awaken yearnings for the Messianic Era. Solomon described the hour of redemption as “the time of the songbird (zamir)” (Song of Songs 2:12). It is a time to prune (zamir) and cut down the wicked. But what about the many innocent lives lost in the destructive surge of violence? This phenomenon contains a measure of mitat tzaddikim mechaperet, a lofty atonement that comes from the death of the righteous. These souls elevate to the Source of life, and bring universal good and blessing to the world.
With the conclusion of a war, the world is renewed with a new spirit, and the footsteps of the Messianic Era can be heard. Thus the daily prayers make a connection between war and the light of Redemption: “the Master of wars, Who sows kindness and brings forth salvation... You will shine a new light on Zion.”
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I, letter 89, p. 100; Orot pp. 13,15)