This week, we will be reading from Parashat Lech-Lecha. Lech-Lecha is the third portion in the book of Genesis, and in many ways, is the beginning of our story as a Jewish people. It starts with God calling Avram and telling him to leave everything he knows, to head out to a land that God will show him. Avram does this and takes along his wife Sarai, their nephew Lot, and all the people they had acquired. Later commentators understand the Hebrew here to mean, all the people they have ‘converted’ to monotheism.
It is a beautiful passage about belief and taking a leap of faith. Much of our tradition and subsequent interpretations focus on the notions of deep abiding personal relationships with God, as well as seeking out the spiritual and holy in the world. But just a little later on in the same parasha, Lot, Avram’s nephew was kidnapped. By this point Avram was very wealthy and very powerful, and he mustered his men and went to battle in order to redeem his nephew.
Avram may have been a deeply God-loving man, but he was also a clan leader and warrior. For two thousand years we tended to de-emphasize this part of our tradition because we lived at the mercy of nations greater than us. It was only with the establishment of the Yishuv and later the nation of Israel, that we began to reclaim these stories of military might.
It is a central tension we have lived with ever since. We are a religion with a deep and profound desire to bring about shalom, peace in the world. Thereby fulfilling the vision of Isaiah and Micah. At the same time, we cannot ignore our past history or the reality of the modern world, which demands a strong military and sometimes a strong military response to threats and violence.
The lingering question is: how do we make sense of all of this? Avram was a man of peace. Prior to his nephew being captured, there was an ongoing war of four kings against the five. For thirteen years, Avram stayed neutral until his nephew was kidnapped. And even after defeating his enemies, Avram declined to receive any of the spoils of war.
Avram did not seek war, but instead he sought out the highest Jewish value, Pikuach Nefesh, to save a life. From this we can gain a sense of a Jewish perspective on war. As is written in the Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues by Nachum Amsel, … “war is permitted in Judaism, but only under limited conditions. And even when permitted, there are laws and values that must be adhered to while fighting” (pg. 310).
This is why our tradition says, even while making war, one must pursue peace. This may not be the most satisfactory answer to one of the greatest ethical quandaries, but it is a good guide for whenever contemplating military actions.
Shabbat is designed to be a time of peace, and we pray for peace to reign upon all of the earth. Until such a time, we aspire to be a people of peace, understanding that peace can sometimes come at a high cost. But nevertheless, peace is the highest goal, and war should only be an option of last resort, when all others fail.
As it says in Psalm 29:11, “May God grant strength to God’s people; may God bless God’s people with peace.” May we continue to be blessed with strength and might, but only for the pursuit of peace.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff