D’var Torah for November 8, 2019

This week we will be reading from parashat Lech Lecha. It begins with God calling to Avram telling him to go forth from everything he knows to a land that God will show him. Without even questioning the request, Avram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the people they had ‘acquired.’ As an aside, according to Nachmanides, a medieval commentator, this meant, all the people Avram and Sarai converted to monotheism. This is why people who convert to Judaism to this very day gain an extra set of parents and become ploni ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah.
Avram left the cradle of civilization at that time in Ur, and headed out to Canaan, a backwater, land on the outskirts of the unknown. It was a great leap of faith, for which Avram would ultimately be greatly rewarded, but not without pain and suffering as well.
I have been thinking about this narrative in relationship to our upcoming Veterans Shabbat. Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of WWI, which was November 11, 1918. In 1956 Congress voted to include WWII and the Korean War by declaring Nov. 11th as the day to honor all American veterans.
Traditionally Judaism has been conflicted when it comes to warfare, at least since the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome from 132-136 C.E. This is in part because since that time, until modern days, Jews have had very little in the way of political or military control over their own lives.
That being said, by the time of the Rabbis, they declared in the Mishneh[1] that there were two types of wars, commanded wards (milhemet mitzvah) and permitted wards (milhemet reshut). As My Jewish Learning teaches, “Though there is some ambiguity on the matter, generally speaking, commanded wars refer to wars against the seven nations that originally inhabited Canaan and against Amalek (the nation that attacked the Israelites as they departed Egypt). Permitted wars are expansionary wars undertaken by Jewish kings to secure their boundaries or increase their glory…
As scholar Michael Walzer points out, distinguishing between commanded and permitted wars is very different than distinguishing between just and unjust wars. In addition, for close to two thousand years, Jews did not have the ability to fight their own wars. Thus many questions of morality (i.e., jus ad bellum, the ethics of starting a war, and jus in bello, the ethics of battlefield conduct) are under-discussed in Jewish tradition.”[2]
Ethics of warfare aside, what we do know is that Jews have been fighting in wars since before the founding of our nation, for and against the Revolution, against each other in the Civil War all the way through to modern conflicts. More recently Jews fought for the creation and protection of the State of Israel. Jews have also fought on both sides of WWI, and we have fought for other nations in the world as well. However, the greatest numbers who served were in WWII and in Korea. This was the first time many Americans encountered Jews, which proved transformational for our society.
The men and women of our tradition who choose or who were selected to serve, were taking a leap of faith, much like Avram, that their cause was just, and the fight was right. They have served in numerous battlefields with honor and distinction and are a credit to our nation and our values as a people. Though our tradition may be conflicted about the ethics of warfare, what we are never conflicted about is our gratitude to the men and women who have and who continue to put their lives on the line for the preservation of life and liberty.
On this Shabbat where we recall the beginning of Avram’s journey in to the great unknown, we also offer tremendous gratitude to the men and women who have served our nation, whose journeys were also perilous, whose rewards were often accompanied by pain and suffering, but who often willingly and with honor chose to fight for what was right, decent and honorable.
Please join us at our Shabbat Evening service this evening at 7:30 PM where we will show our gratitude to our Jewish War Veterans and to all Veterans of our armed forces.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
[1] Sotah 8:7; Sanhedrin 1:5