5761 - #43
The Issue Is Not Land
everyone knows, the best method of waking a sleeper or a
is to call him by his own name.
For years, I have been
troubled. I care greatly for Israel but deep within my
being I always wondered: is land worth the price of life?
I have always been affected by the powerful perception of
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk who had difficulty
accepting the need for the birth pains of Mashiach,
a time of destruction prior to the coming of the Mashiach.
Human life is too valuable to the Jewish soul to accept
the necessity of death even if the benefit is the awaited
redemption.1 Similarly, I questioned: is the
land worth the loss of life, even as we treasure the land
The answer of Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 425 seems
to be yes. The command to destroy the Seven Nations in
the conquest of Israel2 demands that we enter into war
-- and war means casualties, as the Torah does not
operate in the realm of miracles. Yet this response still
leaves me wondering: how can land and political
sovereignty be worth the price of life?
I think of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkais famous
declaration to Vespasian: Tein li Yavneh
vchachamecha, Give me Yavneh and its
sages.3 As Vespasian surrounded the
city of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkais
concern was the continuation of the Torah, the spirit of
the Jewish people. He understood that the Jewish people
could still survive with Yavneh, with the value of the
spirit of Torah - even as Rome grabbed political dominion
over the land, including Jerusalem. It is Torah that is
paramount; the Jew can live without political
sovereignty. It was only when Rome attacked the
foundation of the faith - by disallowing the study of
Torah - that the Sages recognized the necessity of
rebellion and supported Bar Kochbas efforts 70
years later. Under such circumstances, we have no choice
but to fight and sacrifice life - for Torah is itself
life.4 Notwithstanding the
significance of the land within the spirit of Jewishness,
it is still not the spirit itself.5 Thus I continue to be troubled about the cost
of land in human lives.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkais further words in Mechilta
Yitro (beChadash), Parsha 11 only strengthen the
question. He argues: If the Torah demands that the stones
of the alter not be formed through iron tools,6 how much more so are we to ensure that those
who promote peace between people, including peace between
nations, are protected from harm?7 This point is reinforced by the fact that David
HaMelech was barred from building the Temple
because his hands were covered in blood.8 Only Shlomo HaMelech, whose reign was
marked by peace, was allowed to construct the Temple. If
peace is so significant, how could territorial war even
Yet, we still refer to the Temple as the House of David.
It was David - whose battles expanded and protected the
borders of Israel -who laid the foundation for the
eventual construction of the Temple. If war is
antithetical to the very essence of the Temple, how could
our House of God be built upon the shoulders of
Davids conquests? Nonetheless it would seem, war is
integral to this very House of Peace. Still to me it is
problematic to accept loss of life in the pursuit of
The tragedy of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - a day that
terrorism has forever marked in history - has finally
offered me an answer to my dilemma. The problem lay in my
perception. Even as we fight the battle, we miss the very
essence of the battle. Even as my soul feels the meaning
of the struggle, my language did not convey this meaning.
Thus my dilemma. But now I know: the issue is not land.
The war with the Seven Nations, the war with Amalek, is
not a nationalistic war. It is a war of Torah spirit. The
enemy is not one who attacks our national aspirations;
the enemy is one who challenges the essential value of
Torah. National aspirations alone are not worth the cost
of human life. It is humanity and moral aspirations that
demand battle, even the cost of human life in their
defence. We fought the Seven Nations not simply because
they occupied the Land of Israel. Amalek is our sworn
enemy not simply because this nation was the first to
attack our nation as we left Egypt. These nations
represent immorality; they are the enemies, not simply of
the Jew, but of universal righteousness. It is the spirit
of Torah - the call of the Jew to require and defend
human morality - that, unfortunately, sometimes demands
The Jewish nation is unlike any other nation in the
world. Its call cannot be nationalism. Its call must be
the service of the One God. Its call must be the
promotion of human growth in the image of the Divine. The
nation of Israel is to be the model to the world of the
essence of humanity and human goodness. Our land is to
house this model society. What has troubled me for years
is that, in my heart, I knew the battle had to be fought
but I could not reconcile the recognition of the validity
of this battle with nationalism and the language of land.
Israel is unlike any other nation. Its language cannot be
generic nationalism. But I now know - and the world
should see - that the battle is not over land. The land
only forms the context for what is a battle of morality,
of justice, of the Torah spirit. This war must be over
the definition of our very essence as human beings.
The Torah does not command us to fight nationalistic
wars. That language must cease. We must respond to the
call of our unique name, Israel. We are charged with the
responsibility to fight universal wars when the enemy is
the enemy of humanity and the Divine spirit within us.
Land is not the issue. Morality is the issue. We cannot
sanction giving land as a reward for immorality. A true
peace and a Temple can only be built upon righteousness.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail
1 While I
have heard this statement of Rav Chaim presented in many
forms, one presentation, in the name of Rabbi J.B.
Soloveitchik is found in Rabbi Aaron
Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, Insight 17.11.
2 See the
specific language of Chinuch, Mitzvah 425.
4 See T.B.
5 I still
remember when standing atop a building in Jerusalem, my
feelings when my host showed me the landscape in terms of
its connection to Biblical events. The land is indeed the
manifestation of the spirit but it is still not the
6 See Shemot
interestingly, Rashis quote of the Mechilta.
8 See Divrei
Hayamim I 22:8.
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