from the heart of jerusalem

Our struggle as Jews goes beyond doing ‘right’


It was a small mutzav (fortified position) on the Qasmiyeh Bridge, deep in the IDF security zone in Lebanon and far from the border and Hezbollah, until the IDF, as part of a gradual withdrawal, pulled back below the Awali River. 

Overnight, this unit of Hesdernikim (boys who combine their army service with yeshiva study, committing to five years of service rather than the normal three years) found themselves on the front lines and things started heating up. Firefights, midnight ambushes, and roadside bombs became the norm; and morning roll calls and pre-mission briefings took on a whole new meaning. On March 19, 1985, Hezbollah terrorists opened up on one of the patrols as they crossed the Qasmiyeh Bridge and Dani Moshitz and David Cohen, ob”m, were both killed. 

Just a few days earlier, as part of their efforts to stay one step ahead of an enemy which clearly had a “home court” advantage, they tried to change up their patrol routes and to avoid any planned ambushes. Their new route took them through a melon field. Dani was determined to make sure the soldiers took care not to step on the melons. “When all this is over,” he said, “some poor Arab farmer will have to harvest his melons. He is not our enemy, and there is no justification for destroying his crops.” 

Flash forward almost five years. It’s 1990, and I am on a reserve duty patrol attempting to catch Palestinians who are heaving heavy rocks, bottles and even metal bars onto an IDF lookout in Hebron. On the radio, a spotter alerts me to a masked terrorist and coming around a corner. I see him quite clearly, holding a Palestinian flag in one hand and swinging a mace (spiked iron ball on a chain, a vicious and life threatening weapon) around in the air. Upon hearing me shout “wakif” (“stop”), he turns, sees me aiming my rifle, throws down his weapon, and takes off like an Olympic runner. The simplest solution would be to shoot him, but as my life was no longer in imminent danger and he had thrown down his weapon, that was obviously against regulations. 

Just last year I heard from a soldier who had participated in Operation Tzuk Eitan (Strong Cliff) in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. He said that in civilian areas (which is pretty much everywhere Hamas fights) it is now illegal for IDF forces to spray machine gun fire unless they can actually see the enemy they are firing at, despite feeling endangered and even if trying to hold Hamas forces at bay. (Note that this regulation is unique to the IDF; no other army in the world has this regulation.)

How far does ethics in warfare take us? And where did this concept start? This week’s portion, Vayishlach, contains a fascinating detail, hidden in the larger-than-life story of Yaakov’s encounter with Esau. 

Yaakov is finally returning home to Israel and he is about to meet up with Esau, the brother who swore to kill him 22 years earlier after Yaakov tricked him out of the blessings. The messengers Yaakov sends to greet Esau (and gauge his mood?) report back that Esau is coming their way with 400 fighting men, an enormous army in those days. (Avraham conquered an entire empire, in the battle of the Kings, with only 300 men.)

And the Torah tells us: “Va’Yira Yaakov me’od, vayetzer lo” (“Yaakov was very afraid and he was distressed”). (Bereishit 32:8)

The Torah does not waste words, so the obvious question is: What is the difference between fear and distress? What does it mean that not only was Yaakov afraid, he was also distressed? 

Rashi (quoting the Midrash Tanhuma) suggests that he was afraid he might be killed, and he was distressed lest he be forced to kill others. One might think this was the Yaakov who was the “dweller of tents,” passive and afraid of violence. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear, with Yaakov doing battle into the night, that he is not averse to violence if it’s necessary. 

The Siftei Chachamim (Rav Shabsai Bass, Amsterdam 1680) posits that Yaakov was afraid that he or his men might accidentally kill innocent bystanders or Esau’s men who might not need to be killed. Referencing the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 74a; and see Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, 421:13), he points out that even when saving the life of someone being pursued by a rodef (someone intent on taking revenge for his accidentally killed relative), if one can stop the pursuer by simply maiming him, one is actually not allowed to kill him and would be liable to capital punishment in the event!

Since Yaakov was afraid that Esau was coming to kill him, Judaism is quite clear (Sanhedrin 72a): “When someone is coming to kill you, you can kill him first.” And yet Yaakov is still trying to avoid unnecessary force.

It follows that the dilemma here is not strategic, nor is it merely fear and anxiety. Rather, Yaakov is struggling with an ethical dilemma. Even if halachically one might be “covered” in killing the enemy (or even the enemy civilian), Yaakov is looking for the moral high ground. 

There are two principals at play here.

1) Self-defense — meaning one has a responsibility to protect oneself (and in this case, one’s loved ones), which might mean killing someone (Esau, and perhaps some or all of his men).

2) “Thou shalt not murder on the other,” expressing the inviolate sanctity of human life and the imperative not to take another human being’s life.

But to uphold the second principle and refuse to kill would mean violating the first principle of the sanctity of one’s own life. And while Judaism and the Torah will tell us what choice to make in such circumstances, perhaps Yaakov is teaching us that we should struggle with the resulting decision.

I have vivid memories of the hours we spent in officer’s course considering the dilemma of facing “RPG kids” and the like (seven and eight year old kids trained by the PLO to fire anti-tank missiles). And I recall the base commander (Shaul Mofaz, who would later become the IDF Chief of staff) sitting with us late into the night until every last cadet agreed in principle that, faced with such a horrible scenario, and assuming no other choice, the correct thing to do was to fire on the child to protect and save one’s men. Intellectually, until this day I have no problem justifying such actions. But that does not mean it should come easy. In fact, if a soldier forced to act in such circumstances does not struggle, something is seriously wrong. 

Perhaps this is why Yaakov, in the course of this narrative, finally assumes the name Yisrael, because even when doing something entirely correct, he still struggled with the results. The name Yisrael means to struggle (ibid. 32:29): “For you have struggled with … men and overcome.”

As Jews, we are meant to struggle, not only with what is right, but every bit as much with the impact of what that right course of action might mean. 

One of the most difficult battles of the Yom Kippur war took place in the valley just est of Kibbutz El Rom, in the Golan Heights. That valley has become known as “Emek habacha,” the valley of tears. It is so named for the cries of anguish of the Syrian tank crews abandoned on the battlefield, wounded and dying all night long. Incredibly, we were so moved by the pain of our enemies.

Perhaps this struggle will one day lead us to build a world where such struggles are no longer necessary. And in the meantime, blessed are we who feel that pain; that is truly what a Jewish army, and the Jewish people, is meant to be.  

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Binny Freedman is a columnist for The Jewish Star.