Recently I was struck by the realization that war never actually lets go. Though it might end – and we might continue – we are forever changed. I am in awe of the human spirit and perplexed by the concept of war. Let me be clear – I am not a pacifist. I know that some fights are necessary, and I do not shy away from them. Still, I wonder if we ever enter a war with the real awareness of the future cost.
In the Torah, there is lots of discussion on how we are to create and sustain a just society. Within it, there are laws regarding war, and through some of these laws, we receive guidance on how to handle such trials.
One of the laws given is that when we approach a city to wage war, we must first offer it a chance for a peaceful surrender. Although different commentators debate how truly progressive this objective is, we are also told that this is only appropriate in a so-called ‘optional war.’ In a commanded war, we do not extend offers of peace. However, we do check in with our soldiers to determine if any of them need to be spared participating in such a fight.
Before beginning a commanded war, soldiers who have just built a home, just planted a field or are recently married are told to go home. The Torah is not willing to sacrifice any person who has prepared for these joyful milestones but not yet experienced them. As biblical commentator Rashi explains, this is a matter of ogmat nefesh, which means, anguish of the soul. Rashi’s view seems to be that it is not right to have them stay if they would be in anguish over missing such wonderful events back home.
We’re also told that a soldier who is fearful, or fainthearted, should be exempt from fighting because we wouldn’t want his fear to affect the others around him.
In reading these laws within the Torah, it becomes apparent that the magnitude of war and its lasting effects were recognized by our tradition. In other words, the Torah wants us to understand, as best we can, that war comes with serious ramifications.
Now, most of us are not standing at the border about to wage war on a foreign city. However, many of us take on more intimate and emotional battles every day. As we are constantly soul-searching and trying to find self-awareness, I would like to take these rules of war and apply them to the intricate interactions we have with one another. In our modern day battles of will, how can we try to maintain a just society and thoughtful atmosphere even amidst disagreement?
I believe there are four distinct lessons that we can apply to complicated social interactions.
First, offering a diplomatic alternative before engaging in battle is rarely done. What would it be like to look your spouse, coworker or friend in the eye – before saying anything harsh – and warn them with,
A fight may be around the corner if their next move isn’t a peaceful surrender?
I’m not saying this approach avoids all conflict; there will still be tension in the air – but it could spare you that particular battle and any of the hurtful ramifications of the words you would have used to fight.
Secondly, all wars are necessary. Though there are some things worth fighting for, like principles and people we must protect, there are also a large number of wars that are optional. Knowing that Judaism recognizes these two distinct categories leads me to believe that we should, from time to time, evaluate our situations and choose to opt out of certain fights. Though anger may prompt us to feel something hurtful needs to be said, it’s possible that while it could be said – there could also be alternative approaches.
Thirdly, I’m enthralled by the idea that avoiding personal anguish trumps engaging in necessary battles. I know many individuals who stand by their ideals and their belief in right versus wrong. They fight and teach and preach those values regardless of cost. From time to time, I may fall into that category. We seem to have before us an understanding of the way standing up for justice might come at the risk of great personal pain. We are taught here that such pain is reason enough to hesitate, and that we should, in fighting for the greater good, pause and consider the effects on our soul. And if they seem too great, we have the option to choose to turn away – even from the most righteous of fights.
Finally, there is the hint at the reality that pain and heartbreak can be contagious. If we recognize this to be true for the fearful soldier, we may also see its truth in our friends and loved ones. This means we are obligated to consider not only the pain of our hearts or the one we fight but also all those who love and care for each person involved. Remembering that there can be collateral damage to arguments may help us better respond to that contagious pain when it does eventually spread.
Spending this much time thinking about how we fight might not seem appropriate. If you prefer, you can spend your time promising never to fight again. But such vows are often broken before the ink dries. Instead, we can be proud to know that our tradition acknowledges both the need for battle in a just society and also provides lessons which can help minimize or prepare for the ramifications of war.
My prayer is that we can learn from these laws in the Torah and in doing so – maybe fight a little less, or prevent some of our anguish, or help our loved ones, so they don’t have to hurt on our behalf.