It was the height of the intifada, and we were in the midst of a month’s reserve duty. Deep in the heart of Hebron was an Israeli lookout position, meant to spot trouble on the road below and protect Israeli civilians driving through.
Every day, when kids from the local village got out of school, a hail of rocks, bricks, and bottles would come sailing through the air at the lookout, endangering and sometimes injuring the soldiers manning the post. Every time they called in local patrols, the perpetrators were long gone by the time the troops arrived.
One day, we decided to try a more innovative approach. The village was on the side of a hill above a valley, so we hiked up late in the morning, when everyone was already in school. By 12:15, we were in place behind a stone wall above the village, and the lookout post was clued in to let us know as soon as any action started. At about 1 pm, bottles and rocks started flying, and we came out of cover, running down the hill.
Suddenly, a frantic cry over the radio alerted us that the lookouts had spotted a masked terrorist down an alley, out of range. This was a serious matter; the men who wore those masks were usually members of the death squads that terrorized Arab and Israeli civilians alike.
I took off down the alley, following radio directions from the lookout post. Coming around a corner, I spotted him, waving a medieval mace above his head with one hand, and holding a Palestinian flag with the other. He turned and saw me, dropped the flag and the mace, and took off down the street.
I was running down the side of a hill, so he was lower than me, and I could only see the top of his body as he ran. He was headed into a maze of alleyways. Realizing I was about to lose him, I stopped running, aimed my rifle at his back, and yelled “Wakef!” (“Stop!”)
Technically, once ordering him to stop, I was allowed to shoot to kill to prevent the escape of a masked terrorist. I guess he realized this, because he stopped running.
To this day, I thank G-d he stopped. When I got close enough to pull off the mask, I discovered that he was an eight-year-old boy.
Was this the enemy we were fighting against?
This week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, seems to relate to this issue: “Ki tetze l’milchama al oyvecha,” when [if] you will go out to war against your enemies (Devarim 21:10). There will come a time, suggests the Torah, when you will wage war. And there are specific mitzvot associated with such wars.
The verse here does not describe “waging” war; rather it speaks of “going out” to war. Is there a difference between fighting and “going out to” war?
The verse concludes: “U’netano Hashem Elokecha beyadecha, v’shavita shivyo” — and Hashem, your G-d, will give [your enemy] into your hands, and you will capture his captives.
Which is challenging, to say the least. Why does going out to battle merit, perhaps even guarantee, victory? And why does the verse add the seemingly moot point that we are going out to war “against our enemies”? Who else would we be fighting against?
Perhaps this is the key to this question.
To wage war, two conditions need to be met: One needs to have enemies, and one needs to be able to identify them. If you don’t know who your enemies are, there is no point in going out to war.
This may well be our challenge: confusion as to whom our enemies are, and whether indeed we need to wage war against them.
They say you don’t make peace with your friends; you have to be willing to make peace with your enemies. But you can only make peace with an enemy who wants to make peace. Perhaps this is why no peace has ever been achieved without a war. Sometimes, until you are willing to win a war, you cannot begin the process of creating peace. Indeed, sometimes hesitation to fight impedes the pursuit of peace.
We admire restraint as a crucial ingredient to harmony. Yet imagine if the Allies had shown a little less restraint when Adolf Hitler took over Austria. How many tens of millions of lives might have been saved if America had not waited seven long years, and instead joined forces against Germany as early as 1935?
Perhaps this is why the verse speaks of “going out” to war. War, in a sense, requires us to step outside of the box we normally occupy.
It is good that we live in a world of tremendous desire for peace. And the fact that war is outside of our normal “box” is what guarantees that our wars will be waged as only a nation striving to be an ethical light unto the world can hope to achieve.
More than any other experience, the battlefield determines whether we really believe that Hashem runs the world. Bullets don’t know about statistics, and if your number is up, it’s up. To run up a hill under enemy fire, you have to believe that it has nothing to do with you, because if you thought your survival depended on your actions, it would be madness to try.
Perhaps, then, war is an opportunity to step outside reality and encounter a degree of truth. Perhaps this is why we read Ki Tetze in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the day when we rediscover the concept of malchut, royalty, and the idea that it is G-d who runs the world.
But before confronting the forces of evil, we must first begin with ourselves. Every one of us has an opportunity to go to war — not against the forces of evil we read about in the papers, but against the dark challenges within.
If we really want this year to be different, the question is how far we are willing to step outside of the boxes we have created for ourselves.
A version of this column appeared in 2012.