Torah during wartime


In this week’s portion of “Ki Teitzei”, we are shown 74 commandments, the most of any portion in the Torah. In perusing these particular commandments, one may be stymied to ascertain what the connection between all of these commandments are. Yes, Moses is preparing this new generation of Israelites to live in the promised land after they conquer it, but is there a specific method to this seemingly motley list?

Perhaps there is a lesson on morality in this parashat that is remarkable in its venue. Some of the commandments address behavior during that most traumatizing event: war. There have been attempts in the modern world to establish some morality during wars, most notably the Geneva convention in 1917 whose goal was the ethical treatment of prisoners and non-military personnel. Consider that the laws in this portion predate that event by over 3000 years.

The parashat starts off addressing the passion that a soldier may feel towards a captive woman in the thick of battle and some respect to which she is still entitled. Moses promulgates some laws that address the idea that even though the Israelites are fighting a war, they still need to keep their camp pure and clean. There is also the idea that before war is waged, the enemy needs to be given the opportunity to surrender, and then is shown mercy.

Furthermore, while universal conscription is the norm of this citizen army, individual needs are respected. A man who gets married or builds a house is excused from service for that first year so he can enjoy his married life. Interestingly enough, someone who is not up to rigors of battle is also excused from compulsory service. This may be the ancient equivalent of “4F” draft status or someone who just doesn’t think that they have the emotional fortitude to take a life, and not influence other soldiers.

The fact that in a time when there were no rules or guidelines during wartime and everything and anything went, it is astounding that a people would insist on ethical treatment. Today, the modern state of Israel still seeks to practice morality during the most extreme conditions. When attacked, Israel works very hard to target only the perpetrators of aggression. Israel has also accepted casualties of war from the ranks of the enemy and treated their injuries.

Israel has also worked hard to prevent conflict. They have developed a military technology that destroys incoming missiles and built a wall designed to reduce infiltration of aggressors. They also monitor their borders and shipping to prevent their enemy from amassing deadly supplies to prevent further attacks.

In other words, they take steps to avoid casualties in the most humanitarian ways possible.

The sages have said that the Jewish people are to be a light among the nations. To that end, we have many laws that stipulate the ethical conditions under which business is transacted and justice is carried out. Torah is supposed to be an example to the world the heights to which mortal humans can ascend in their morality.

War is the most extreme condition. The death and destruction that it causes leave indelible trauma on its participants. Most of the time, wars are fought by very reluctant actors.

Hashem, understanding that we humans do occasionally have to engage in conflict, sought to create a platform in which the necessary horrifying acts needed to survive aggression were mitigated by a code of ethics and preserved our humanity. Torah does not just govern our day-to-day lives of growing and supporting our families, l’dor va’dor. Torah truly encompasses every aspect of our life.

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