Shabbat Thoughts- Parshat Kee Tavo

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

 During one of the lesser-known episodes of Star Trek we see an alien race (Klingons) warring against the human crew of the Enterprise. Whereas the famous hand-held ray guns known as phasers are de rigueur in most episodes, in this specific show they have been replaced with swords and daggers. Both humans and Klingons have taken to stabbing and chopping their adversaries. One of the most memorable lines spoken goes as follows: “there are rules even in war; you don't keep hacking a man when he is down."  As a child I enjoyed all the Trek episodes. As an adult I have often mentally returned to this phrase, wondering if it makes any sense. "There are rules, even in war.” How can war be governed by rules?

      While I was in college I learned of the "just war" doctrine. An Indian text speaks of limitations placed upon combat, Roman texts raise certain objections to wanton cruelty in battle (yet crucifixion was viewed as legitimate), Augustine and Aquinas wrote elaborate theses concerning the conditions necessary for justifying war and, when violated, deemed war unacceptable. I shook my head as I read these passages, struggling to understand how the devastation of war could be put in a box of logical argumentation and rational approach. War is the most absurd of all human endeavors. To justify war is ludicrous. Tragically, humans have not yet reached a level of social development such that people can come to understandings with opposing peoples. Defense is essential, as is the preservation of one's life, but to say war is just defies any words by any author.

As a Jew I am curious as to what the Torah might teach about warfare. Torah is not a philosophical document. Torah is a code of Divine Law emerging from the interplay of God with families which eventually grew into tribes. These families, our families, struggled to put food on the table even while they were compelled to see grand meaning in the life of everyday. Within their struggle they heard God's voice and these experiences were recorded and transmitted to you and me. Jews the world over continue to turn the Torah, seeking to glean new understandings from these words which are a blend of sacred voices; the voice of God and the voices of our forebears.

This week's Parshah, Kee Tavo, opens with rules of battle. The Israelites, preparing to enter the Promised Land under Joshua, are likely preparing for war. The entire people was convened and Moses spoke,  even as the soldiers were perhaps sharpening their swords and fletching their arrows. Instead of setting conditions by which philosophers would hypothetically determine legitimacy of battle, Moses commanded that warriors restrain themselves from cruelty. "Don't steal a woman and rape her after successfully capturing a village.  If you are attracted to her, give her 30 days of privacy to become accustomed to her new life as part of Israel and to having been stolen away from her home, family and community. Thereafter, you will marry her. Subsequently, if you need to, you will divorce her."

      During the most brutal of all Bronze Age experiences the Israelites, on the verge of conquering Canaan, were commanded to rise over their most base instincts and, at least attempt to live by some modicum of decency. Philosophy was irrelevant.  Humanity mattered and law was the only way to ensure humanity during episodes of inhumanity.

Now living 3,300 years later have we humans grown at all?

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