Are You a Hawk or a Dove? (5776/2016)

At the annual meeting of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, doves and hawks would squabble.

As we discussed current events, the just war theorists would evaluate the morality of recent acts of war. They would assess a country’s reason for fighting and how the country fought. Some wars, they would conclude, are justified.

The pacifists would disagree with every conclusion. Wars, we said, are unpredictable, messy, and filled with collateral damage. Innocents are always harmed. Thus, no war is ever justified.

Parshat Shoftim sides with the just warists. If you have decided it’s right to go to war, Moshe says, how you fight matters. Less damaging, more ethical practices are preferable. Your war is more ethical if:

  • Your soldiers fight willingly.
  • You offer your target city a peace (shalom) treaty before attacking.
  • Your treaty offers protection, allowing the city to pay you to defend it.
  • When the city’s leaders reject the treaty,  you kill only combatants, i.e., adult males.

Talmudic tradition adds guidelines for deciding when to go to war (b. Sotah 44b). Long ago, war was right when God commanded Moses and Joshua. Now, war can be right for self-defence. It can be right for territorial expansion if the country’s judicial body unanimously agrees it is.

What is your gut response? Do you find these guidelines helpful or horrible? Do you think they restrain or encourage aggression? How, in your own life, do you restrain aggression? How do you increase peace?


horse and chariotFear: One Horse or Many? (5773/2013)

When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horse and chariot – forces larger than yours – do not fear them, for the Lord your God is with you. (Deuteronomy 20:1)

How could a single horse and chariot be seen as “forces larger than yours?”

Rashi (1040-1105) says: It’s a matter of perspective. What looks to us like a multitude of challenges looks to God like a very small thing. Translated (by me) into psychological language: facing difficult tasks alone is not easy. You can strengthen yourself by opening up to a spiritual perspective, in which you are guided by a larger community, history or universe.

Kli Yakar (1550-1619) says: “A single horse and chariot” refers to a unified enemy; “forces larger than yours” refers to a divided enemy. Do not fear a divided enemy group; their own internal conflicts will defeat them. This process happens of its own accord and may even look like a quiet miracle from the hand of God.

Ohr Hachaim (1696-1743) says: “War,” in this passage, is a metaphor for an individual’s internal struggles of conscience. “Chariot” refers to our inner drives; “horse” to our evil inclination, the inner voice that directs the drives into stealing, cheating, and overeating. Drives and evil inclination are part of the human psyche, and not inherently frightening. But if we have given in to temptation, we may carry a multitude of guilty memories, making us afraid to begin self-examination and interpersonal reparation. But we need not fear; God is even present in guilt.

As you prepare for the New Year, may you be open to spirituality, assured that problems can work themselves out, and willing to move from feeling to action.


Justice: Yeses and Nos (5772/2012)

Tzedeck, tzedeck tirdof l’ma’an tichyeh, v’yarashta et ha’aretz asher HaShem Eloheicha noteyn lach.

Justice, justice pursue, so that you may live, and inherit the land that God has entrusted to you. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why does Torah say “Justice, justice” instead of simply “justice”? Why the double reminder?

Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) says, “Follow the path of justice when it brings you profit; do not avoid it when it brings you loss.” When we are immersed in a quarrel, we imagine that whatever makes us win is just. But when we are truthful with ourselves, we recognize that we make mistakes, resources must be shared, and no one can hold every advantage.

Sforno (1475-1550) says, “Do appoint judges who judge fairly. Do not appoint based on property, attractiveness or other wiles.” Everyone wants to be honored for appearing just. But justice is not about appearances. Trust those who consistently do what is right, even when it does not bring them wealth or public recognition.

Ramban (1194-1270) says, “If you judge yourself, you will live well. If you don’t judge yourself, God will judge you.” Become a person consistently engaged in self-examination and self-correction. Don’t wait until a sudden catastrophic “act of God” forces you to become more ethical or spiritual. Now is the time to begin living well.

From these three teachers, a message for the New Year: Recognize your imperfections. Try consistently to do what is right. Develop a regular practice of self-examination. Now is the time to begin!


Twin Officers at the Gate (5765/2007)

Adapted from the Ba’al Shem Tov

“Place judges and officers in all your gates.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18)

Why does the Torah instruct the Israelites to pair “judges” with “officers” and to place them at the “gates”?  Hassidic Torah interpretation assumes the answer to this question holds a teaching about spiritual development.

“Judges” and “officers” refer to twin inner qualities: love and awe. If we wish to develop awareness of Divinity moving through the world, we must cultivate both qualities: awe at the wonders of the universe, and love for our fellow creatures. We place these twin qualities at the “gates” where all our thoughts and feelings enter consciousness.

How do we know that this instruction about judges and officers is “really” about developing awareness of the Divine?  In its description of the woman of valour, the book of Mishlei-Proverbs (31:23) states, “her husband (ba’al) is known at the gates.” The Hebrew word ba’al means husband, caretaker, or master.  A person of valour knows that we can find our Divine partner, caretaker, and leader at the gates of consciousness.

If we post the guards of love and awe in our consciousness; if we infuse our thoughts about the world with awe and our thoughts about others with love; then we will deepen our awareness of God, and do our part to make the world a better place.


Judges at Your Gates (5766/2006)

Adapted from Rabbi Miles Krassen (Moshe Aharon Ladzyner)

“Provide yourself with judges and enforcers in all your gates.” (Devarim/Deteronomy 16:18)

We read these words at the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year.  Elul is the gate through which we enter Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish spiritual New Year. During Elul we formally begin the process of teshuvah, return to the right path.  We review our moral and spiritual selves.  We make resolutions for improving them in the coming year.

In this context, the words “judges” and “enforcers” take on new meaning.  When making our new year’s resolutions, we must be both judges and enforcers.  We must discern what is the right thing to do, and we must do it.  As we enter the gates of spiritual renewal, we must activate both inner capacities.

This verse also invites us into teshuvah, return, on a deeper level.  “In our gates” can refer to events within our thoughts and feelings.  If we post judges and enforcers within those gates, we can learn to recognize what is arising in our thought and feeling, and intervene before we act.  If we do this, we plant teshuvah within us.  Instead of a yearly process of making new year’s resolutions, teshuvah becomes a lasting process of moral and spiritual growth.


Shofar Calls (2005/5765)

Adapted from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudlykov (Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

“If a matter of judgment is hidden from you . . . then come up to the place that God will choose.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 17:8)

Our liturgy tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, every creature is judged before the Divine Throne.  One can imagine a scene like a modern courtroom in which advocates plead in our favor on the basis of our merits, and accusers argue that we ought to pay for our unrighteous deeds.

How do the accusers get silenced?  By the sounding of the Shofar.  Medieval superstitions tell us that the sound literally scares away those devils.  Hassidic teachers, however, focus on what the sound represents in each of us.

Traditionally, we sound three different calls on the Shofar.  Tekiah, a long unbroken call, evokes God’s lovingkindness, which our advocates hope to awaken.  Shevarim, three strong blasts, evokes God’s frightening might, which our accusers hope to awaken.  Teruah, nine short blasts, is long-lasting like the tekiah and broken like the shevarim.  Teruah represents God’s balanced response after hearing the advocates and the accusers.

Yes, we are held accountable for our deeds.  God asks us to fix and not repeat the mistakes we have made.  Yes, the universe can be a place of lovingkindness.  God asks us to draw on our merits and act ethically.  The more each of us moves away from our mistakes and towards our best qualities, the more we draw down the heavenly trait of lovingkindness – and the more we judge “from the place of God.”

Chariot Image:

  1. A grammatical quibble, you said: “Don’t wait until a sudden catastrophic “act of God” forces you to become more ethical or spiritual.” This made me wonder if ethical and spiritual can be mutually exclusive, for we move closer to haShem through our ethical acts, and our ethical acts inspire us, and help us to feel more keenly spiritual.

    For the rest, it is very interesting to me to consider this in the personal context of having been a security officer for the past six years. My job is, largely, access control, and ‘judging’ who gets to go through the ‘gates’. I’m being a bit flippant – but there’s more there underneath I’ll have to consider in more detail.

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