Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Sh’lach 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Sh’lach 2024

War and Peace: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives 

Are violence and war avoidable? Since October 7th, American Jews, long accustomed to extended periods of peace experienced at home, have had to contend with the meaning, necessity, and scope of war. Some of the internal divisions within the Jewish community no doubt have been generated by where one stands on this question of violence.  

Before Immanuel Kant penned Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, (1795) one would be hard-pressed to identify a single thinker who believed that war could be eliminated from human life. Certainly, there were individuals who proposed ways to reduce the frequency and duration of war, from Epicurus to Baruch Spinoza, among others. Isaiah, meanwhile, could imagine a messianic era without war and violence, but this depended on divine intervention in human affairs. Such a state could not be achieved solely by mortal action.  

In opposition to the vision of messianic idealists ancient and modern, there exists a camp who argue that war brings a net benefit to society. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic thinker who posited that everything is in a constant state of flux, stated that “War is the father of all, the king of all.” He held that conflict was necessary for progress, nor was he alone. Nietzsche famously believed that war fostered creativity and heroism while providing the means for people to overcome mediocrity. The 19th century thinker, Georges Sorel, believed in revolutionary violence as the necessary force to purify society. 

However much we cherish the hopeful vision of Isaiah, this may be the more widely held view, as individuals as diverse as Yahya Sinwar, Frantz Fanon, the famous anti-colonialist thinker, and Edward Luttwak, have demonstrated. Luttwak, a contemporary military strategist, famously asserted that people should “give war a chance,” because prolonged conflicts can lead to more stable outcomes than quick resolutions. 

Despite Isaiah’s seductive vision, the Bible is largely focused on the world as we find it, one in which war is a necessary evil. Rather than decreeing war morally wrong or believing that an end to all warfare is on the horizon, it outlines a set of conditions to minimize the worst aspects of military action. These conventions of warfare are a very early example of “Just War Theory.”  

The Bible also provides lessons in military strategy. In Parashat Shelach L’kha, the Torah describes the use of advanced scouts to gather military intelligence on the land of Canaan. Scouts have played an essential role in ancient and modern military conflicts; the primary role of military scouts is to provide accurate and actionable intelligence that enhances the situational awareness of commanders and contributes to the success of military operations. 

In this section, Moses instructs the scouts, who are also tribal leaders, to See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land. 

Largely, the scouts fulfill these dictates. They return and state: We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan” (Bemidbar 13:17-29, The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006). 

Following the color-coding above, a careful reader can see that the only question the scouts don’t answer is if the land is wooded or not.  

Yet the scouts exceed their role, arguing that “’We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.’ Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, ‘The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them’” (Bemidbar 13:31-33, The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006). 

The medieval classical commentators carefully analyzed how the scouts stepped out of their lane. For example, Ibn Ezra sensitively notices that “they spread calumnies (a bad and defamatory report) among the Israelites.” In other words, they didn’t merely share their strategic concerns with Moses and other top leadership, which would have been appropriate. Instead, they ran a public and active smear campaign, breaking the military chain of command while destroying morale. Note that they did all of this without providing an alternative solution to the problems they faced, or at least none that the Torah records. It would seem as though they preferred to remain landless and stateless in the inhospitable wilderness, or return to the subjugation of Egypt, rather than fulfilling their mandate by returning to the ancestral land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  

We ought to have tremendous compassion for the scouts. Faced with a difficult, costly, and uncertain war, few of us wouldn’t shrink from the daunting challenge in front of the young nation. Who doesn’t long to see “the end of history,” whether that is the vision of Francis Fukuyama, Immanuel Kant, or Isaiah? We hunger for a world in which all children are safe, the planet exists in balance, and every person is granted a life of opportunities. From a certain viewpoint, the horrors of warfare and bloodshed seem avoidable, yet we sadly seem quite far from the friendship of the lion and the lamb. 

What remains an open debate is whether we have arrived at a point where John Lennon’s advice to “give peace a chance” is wiser than Luttwak’s counter to “give war a chance.” Which path is more likely to lead to a more durable and just outcome? What do you think and why?