When is War Justified? Parashat Pinchas
In last week’s parasha, we read about the fervent attempts by the nations of Moav and Midyan to harm Am Yisrael. The Moabites feared the Israelites; power and understood that they could not them militarily. They understood that the nation’s power stemmed from its spirituality, and therefore, they sent emissaries to Bilam the “prophet” to persuade him to curse Am Yisrael. The attempt failed over and over again. Ultimately, the Moabites succeeded in a different way; am Yisrael began forbidden relationships with Moabite women and was dragged into worshipping their Ba’al Pe’or. Ba’al Pe’or was a form of idolatry that symbolized the breach of all moral and humane barriers. According to tradition, the essence of worshipping Ba’al Pe’or was opening one’s body before it and defecating. In other words, the rule was to do the most abhorrent and disgusting act before their god and not let any normative boundary stop them. This was the highest degree of moral depravity.
In our parasha, Parashat Pinchas, we find the addendum to the story. Am Yisrael is commanded by God to take revenge upon the Midianites. Distress the Midianites, and you shall smite them. For they distress you with their plots, which they contrived against you in the incident of Peor… (Bamidbar 25:17-18)
Here we discover a new kind of war. From the Middle Ages to modern times, we find two kinds of war. One is war over a nation’s territorial rights or other basic rights. The French Resolution came on the heels of individual rights being trampled on, and immediately following it, the nations of Europe fought France, which tried to conquer their lands. We can count hundreds of wars like these throughout history.
Another kind of ware with which we are familiar is a religious war. Examples range from the Crusades to today’s wars with ISIS. Am Yisrael does not fight wars of religion or due to the morality of another nation. It does not deal with trying to “convert” other nations to its ways, as did the Crusaders of the past or the shahids of the present. Am Yisrael fights for its basic right to live its moral and spiritual life as it sees fit, and rises up against nations that repeatedly attack it in order to harm it spiritual level. By rising up in this way, it demonstrates that its moral level is even more important than its materialistic or territorial rights.
Furthermore, let us note the difference between Moav and Midyan. The Moabites were those who initiated the consultation on how to harm the Israelites. The Moabites were those who drafted Bilam to the struggle. They illicit relationships were with the women of Moav. But the war that the Israelites declared was against Midyan and not Moav. Why?
Chazal, our sages, explained that this was based on the difference between the Moabites’ and the Midianites’ motives. The Moabites were simply afraid, as the Torah describes: Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this assembly (Am Yisrael) will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field. (Bamidbar 22:4)
The Midianites, on the other hand, joined a battle that they should not have been involved with. Am Yisrael’s journey was not threat to them. They simply like the idea of destroying the nation’s lofty spiritual character. Their overriding goal was to bring about the failure of the nation that was spreading monotheisms defeat of idolatry and the breaching of basic human restrictions. We can therefore almost forgive a nation that out of actual fear for its sovereignty. But a nation whose sole purpose was deceitful cannot be forgiven.
This distinction clarifies the message mentioned at the start. Wars between nations over territory and rights are wars that are somewhat understandable. When faced with such a war, we fight back. But we do not declare all-out war to the point of “Distress the Midianites, and you shall smite them” unless there is a real attempt to harm our m oral and spiritual character. The foundation maintaining Am Yisrael for over three thousand years is it essence as a beacon of moral and spiritual light for the entire world, and most of all – for itself. Without this foundation, we cannot exist.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.