Matot Masei 5766 and War in Lebanon

On June 25 Hamas terrorists killed 2 IDF soldiers and captured a third, Gilad Shalit. On June 28 the IDF went into Gaza looking for him, and they have been there ever since, not just hunting for Shalit, but also working to destroy the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. Besides freeing Shalit, Israel needs to stop the Palestinian terrorists from shooting Kassam rockets at the southern Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

A few weeks later, on July 12, 2006, Hizbollah terrorists launched a rocket attack on the northern Israel city of Shelomi, and then Hizbollah forces invaded Israel and hit two IDF humvees with anti-tank rockets, killing three soldiers and capturing two – Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz warned “If the soldiers are not returned we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” Hizbollah and the Lebanese government ignored the warnings. On Thursday, July 13 Israel launched a counter-attack against Hizbollah, aimed at securing the release of the prisoners. Hizbollah responded with a massive assault of Katyusha rockets on Northern Israel towns. Israel has been systematically destroying Hizbollah hideouts and weapons ever since.

Being in Israel while all this was going on was an eerily familiar experience. I seem to have a penchant for showing up in Israel when major things happen. The first time I visited Israel in 1978 was the day Golda Meir died. We were living in Israel during 2000-2001 when the Second Intifada broke out. Last year I was there just before the withdrawal from Gaza, and this year I was there when war broke out with Lebanon. Maybe the Israeli government should pay me to stay in America. Then again, I suppose any time one visits Israel there could be something going on.

That’s actually one of the things I enjoy about visiting Israel. Not that there are wars, mind you, but that I always feel alive, like I’m in the middle of things. Reading the newspapers is not just abstract events effecting people a long ways away. When you’re in Israel the newspapers are telling you what’s happening right there. You feel a part of it just by being there.

One of the strangest things about being in Israel when there are all these wars going on is how totally normal life goes on for the most part. When I lived in Iran during the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, normal life did get significantly disrupted. We were told to “keep a low profile,” to alter our routes to work for security purposes. A curfew was imposed, and there were power outages every night. You knew you were in the middle of a revolution.

By contrast, on July 13, when war with Lebanon broke out, I was in Egypt SCUBA Diving and enjoying the sun. It was almost a surreal experience to be enjoying an experience like a Caribbean vacation when not that many miles away war was breaking out.

At no time did I feel any concern for my personal safety. Jerusalem is undoubtedly the safest city in Israel. Hizbollah would never dare launch a rocket in the direction of Jerusalem. As inaccurate as their rockets are, they would probably blow up the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. That would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

The mood in Israel, did, however turn as soon as hostilities with Lebanon broke out. Everyone immediately said that what was going in Lebanon was very serious indeed, the most serious security event since the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq let loose SCUD missiles against Israel. Israel is a small country—Haifa, which has absorbed some of the worst of the missile attacks, is only a two hour drive from Jerusalem and an hour from Tel Aviv. Everyone in Israel knows someone whose life is disrupted by the missile attacks. Rabbi Tsvi Landau, who was here last year with the Fall USY Kinus, lives in Karmiel which has suffered several rocket attacks.

Sitting in Jerusalem life was totally normal – my typical routine was to go for a run in the morning, followed by a latte and a croissant at Café Hillel then off to the Conservative Yeshiva to study. No indication whatsoever that a little over 100 miles away people were running for bomb shelters several times a day when the sirens went off giving about one minute warning of a rocket landing. Yet at the same time, people in Jerusalem are very aware of what’s going on the north. Every hour on the hour the news is broadcast on the radio (updates on the half hour). When you hear the beep beep beep that the news is coming, cab and bus drivers turn up the volume of the radio and everyone pays attention. There’s a definite tension in the air.

This week’s Torah portion talks about an earlier war the Jewish people fought. A war fought thousands of years ago – against the Midianites.

The story told in the Torah about the war against the Midianites presents a battle plan that no moral nation today would undertake.

Let no one accuse me of ignoring the troublesome passages in the Torah. Here are some of the more challenging verses in Numbers chapter 31:

3. And Moses spoke to the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves for the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and do the Lord’s vengeance in Midian.

I am appalled at the idea of anyone going out to “do the Lord’s vengeance.” That’s the sort of attitude that leads to suicide bombers.

14. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who came from the battle. 15. And Moses said to them, Have you kept all the women alive?

Moses was angry with the generals who allowed the women to live. They were supposed to be killed.

16. Behold, these caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him.

Not only were the women to be killed, but even boy babies. The only ones to be allowed to survive were young women who were still virgins.

I am not—chas v’shalom, GOD FORBID—suggesting that these passages tell us that Israel should try and wipe out all the Palestinians and/or all the people associated with Hizbollah. But there are lessons we can learn from these verses and their interpretation.

To start with, it’s interesting that Midian is singled out for us to go to war with, “to do the Lord’s vengeance.” All of the regional strife did not start with Midian; it started with Moab. Balak, king of Moab, was afraid of the large number of Israelites who were camped out in his territory. He does recruit Midian’s help, but it’s really Moab’s fight. So why make a big commandment to go fight Midian—shouldn’t it have been Moab?

The Midrash tells us that what Midian did that was so bad is they got into the middle of a fight that was not theirs. Israel had no issues with Midian – until they chose to get in the middle of someone else’s business.

There’s an interesting parallel to today’s situation. Why should Hizbollah be picking on Israel? Israel withdrew from Lebanon, back to the borders agreed on by the United Nations. Hizbollah has repeatedly provided money and arms to Palestinian terrorists. They are not content that Israel has left Lebanon, which was stated as the reason they were formed – instead they join with Hamas in trying to quote unquote “liberate” Palestine.

Hamas, you might say, at least claims that Israel is occupying their land. Hizbollah doesn’t even make that claim, yet they still press for our destruction.

We read our second troubling verse, and modern sensibilities are shocked that Moses was angry that the women were kept alive. Why was Moses upset about this?

It wasn’t because Moses was a misogynist. The problem with the Midianite women is that they were used as a weapon. At the end of parshat Balak we are told how the Midianite women came and seduced the men of Israel and led them to idol worship. 24,000 Israelis died in a plague God inflicted on them because of the idol worship until Pinchas rose up and stopped it.

The message we can derive from this is not to destroy women, but rather to destroy the other side’s weapons. In the case of the Midianites it was their women; in the case of Hizbollah, it’s their missiles.

Which leads us to the third troubling verse I selected to look at. Moses commanded killing not only the women, but all the male children, “every male among the little ones.” Why kill all the male children?

It’s because any males left would grow up to become people who hate Israel and would seek to destroy us. They would feel bound by the ancient Near East’s code of honor to take vengeance. The instruction was given to kill all the males, because any left would grow up to become terrorists.

This too is a lesson for us today. Again, the lesson is not to kill all the males – rather the lesson is that excessive harshness against the population will breed a generation of terrorists. Killing all the males is not an acceptable solution these days – so we must find other ways to avoid creating more terrorists.

If we’re not to go out killing all the men, women, and children, how do we go to war? This week’s parsha tells us “And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses.” So how are we commanded to go to war? Not necessarily against the Midianites, but more generally?

I am always outraged when I read editorials saying the IDF are “brutal.” The IDF teaches all of their soldiers the concept of tohar haneshek, purity of arms. From the IDF web site, the basic concept of tohar haneshek says “The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

These are principles derived directly from the Jewish tradition. A complete treatment of the rules of war we learn from the Torah and Talmud is beyond the scope of my talk this morning, but among other things, we are commanded to do the following:

Not to wantonly destroy property – based on a passage in the Torah which tells us not to cut down fruit bearing trees even in times of war, a principle known as “bal taschit.” If we are commanded not to wantonly destroy property we can make a “kal vachomer,” all the more so, argument that we should not destroy people.

The IDF is being criticized for the loss of civilian life and destruction of property in Lebanon, but the criticism is very unfair. The reason there is so much destruction is because Hizbollah has chosen to hide their rockets among civilians. If Hizbollah hides a missile in someone’s garage, unfortunately the house will probably be destroyed when Israel blows up the missile. If Hizbollah stored their missiles in caves in remote locations, no one would get hurt when Israel destroyed them. The parts of Beirut that were bombed are the Hizbollah strongholds where the leadership of this terrorist organization is holed up.

Rambam tells us that based on the verse in this week’s parsha about going to war as the Lord commanded Moses there is a teaching that says we must not surround a city on four sides, but only on three, to leave an escape route should people wish to flee.

The IDF has also followed this rule in an exemplary fashion. They rained leaflets down in Southern Lebanon a day ahead of time, telling residents to leave because the area was going to be under attack to destroy Hizbollah weapons supplies. Hizbollah certainly didn’t express any concern for the loss of Israeli civilians – to the contrary, they targeted Israeli civilians.

Deuteronomy 20:10 commands us to offer terms of peace to a city before going to war with them. Again, Israel has followed this. Hamas and Hizbollah both invaded Israeli territory and killed and captured Israeli soldiers. Israel offered both peace – give back the soldiers, we told them, and we’ll drop it. That’s all we asked for. They refused—in fact both Hamas and Hizbollah responded instead with rockets aimed at Israeli civilians.

The press may criticize Israel’s actions, but that’s nothing new. Israel’s reaction is said to be “disproportionate.” Disproportionate is a relatively meaningless concept when it comes to war. Do we keep a score card? 2,976 people died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Do we stop chasing Al-Qaeda when we’ve killed 2,976 of their fighters? How disproportionate are the more than 50,000 deaths that we’ve seen in Iraq since fighting broke out. Even today, with all the uproar about Israel’s bombing Lebanon, more people are dying in Iraq every day than in Lebanon.

2,403 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor. Should we have stopped our war with Japan as soon as we had killed 2,403 Japanese? Asked them to let us know when we had reached that number?

Israel does everything they can do to protect its civilians, requiring bomb shelters in all new buildings, locating military facilities away from populated areas. Hizbollah does everything to increase loss of life on their side, hiding their weapons within highly populated areas. Hizbollah believes it’s good when they kill an Israeli, and they believe it’s good when one of their people gets killed and becomes a “martyr” because it makes Israel look bad. It’s totally unbelievable to Western eyes, but Cross-Currents has a picture of Hizbollah soldiers literally hiding behind children in a battle with Israeli troops. We can’t keep a scorecard with someone who uses a completely different kind of math.

It pains me to see some people criticize Israel for what’s going on, when Israel didn’t start it, Israel didn’t want it, and Israel is simply protecting her citizens. If Hizbollah put down their guns and returned the soldiers, the war would be over tomorrow. On the other hand if Israel were to put down their guns and return the Hizbollah terrorists in Israeli prisons, tomorrow there would be no Israel.

If Israel were to violate the principles of tohar haneshek, I would be among the first to criticize them. I do question, for example, the appropriateness of bombing the Palestinian power plant in the early days of the current battle against Hamas.

I do not have access to the detailed intelligence that led to particular targeting decisions, but at this point, given the hundreds of rockets falling on Israeli cities, I would not say Israel is using excessive force in Lebanon. Hizbollah must be stopped.

At the same time, we have to remember that in the long run, we will not be able to bomb our way to peace. Real peace, a lasting peace, will only come when the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, get leadership that is not only committed to peace, but that is willing to step up to terrorists and shut them down. Perhaps this is why there is a teaching in Ezekiel 43:1-4 which says the Messiah will come from the East. At this point it really seems like the leader who brings peace will have to be one who comes from “the East,” from the Palestinian side of the Temple…we’re ready for peace any time they are.

Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, please give our brethren in Israel the strength to hang on until that day when the Messiah comes, wherever he comes from, and peace will reign in Jerusalem and Israel,


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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