This post was written together with Ruhama Weiss, an Israeli poet, author, and Talmud scholar. The post appeared in Hebrew on YNet, as Ruhama’s weekly column on the Torah portion. The English post is not an exact translation, and in fact there is a section here that is not in the Hebrew and vice versa. The whole piece was written in collaboration and the first person voice of the author is sometimes me (Aryeh) and sometimes Ruhama.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob comes close to doing battle with Laban face to face. In this week’s Israeli portion, we almost deepened our battle with Hamas and with the residents of Gaza. In the end Jacob sealed a treaty with Laban. Will we succeed in sealing a lasting treaty with Hamas and the residents of Gaza?
Jews in the world and in Israel spend a lot of time engaged in the question of whether the Jewish people is in danger of being destroyed; we worry about assimilation, antisemitism, and wars. I do not find myself worried about the question of the survival of the Jewish people, but especially recently I find myself very worried about the danger of the disappearance of Jewish culture. A culture that we built with the sweat of our brow, rare courage, creativity, and pain, over thousands of years (the majority of which were in Exile).
I turned to my hevruta, my study partner, Prof. Aryeh Cohen, an alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and today a professor of Talmud at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. I asked him to help me write a short dictionary of words of war and peace which are in danger of destruction. Here is the beginning of our sad, destroyed dictionary.
Hisul/Termination: When journalists and politicians speak about the killing of terrorists and members of Hamas, they almost always use the word “terminate” (hebrew hisul). The Jewish language, throughout the generations and in all its linguistic layers is not familiar with the possibility of “terminating” people. For the taking of life of a person by another person, there are two main terms: killing (harigah) and murder (retzach). One can also say: the spilling of blood (shfichat dam). If we want to speak “Jewish” we need to choose one of these two words, even when we are speaking of evil people. A Jew must be able to grasp complexity. She is commanded to remember that God created all people in God’s image, and she needs to know that God’s creatures are able to do awful things.
The taking of a human life, created in the image of God, is an awfully hard thing for both God and people. We must not let politicians and journalists launder our conscience. As speakers of Jewish it is incumbent upon us to choose the appropriate term: killing, murder, or spilling blood.
Unity/Solidarity: The archetypical moment of Jewish solidarity according to the Rabbinic tradition was at Sinai. As one people with one heart. Thus they stood at the revelation of God, as God held up the mountain over their heads, the mountain which was burning and smoldering, as the sounds of the shofar grew and grew, and as in the background and on high the angels fought Moses for the Torah which had resided with them for thousands of years with blistering bolts of lightning, which Torah Moses wrested from them with questions of law and humanity. There was, as my student and friend Rachel Bovitz recently taught me, another quieter revelation.
This later revelation, some thousand years later, not in the ownerless precincts of the Sinai, but in the settled tracts of the Land of Israel, came as a response to the simplistic question of a simple man: teach me all of Torah while I stand on one foot. Hillel, the great Babylonian Sage who had immigrated to the Land of Israel, revealed the whole Torah: That which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow this is the whole Torah. This is what after the lightning and the thunder the Jewish people in fear and trembling must have heard at Sinai, for this is the whole Torah. This is what they heard when they stood as one people with one heart. Is this what we hear when we hear the demand for solidarity and unity with Israel? Do we hear this modest revelation or just the thunder and the lightning, the sounds of the shofar?
Nitzahon/Victory: The Latinate “Victory” is originally the name of a Roman goddess, Victoria, the Roman adoption or adaptation of the Greek goddess Nike. The meaning of victory has then been stabilized since the beginning of its usage. Victory is a solid objective thing.
The Biblical nitzahon is not a victory but a supervisor, often a musical conductor (hence its regular appearance in the headings of Psalms as la-menatzeach). At another point of the spectrum of this root, netzach is eternity. It is only centuries later in Rabbinic literature, in the early part of the first millenium CE that victory appears as one of the meanings (eventually the central meaning) of natzach. Victory/nitzahon on the battlefield was not one of the great strengths of the Jewish people in Late Antiquity. The Jewish people was defeated when the Temple was destroyed in 70CE, in the Bar Kochba rebellion and the Diaspora rebellion in the second century CE. The sad and life saving Jewish understanding chose to transfer the experience of victory from the battlefield to the field of Torah study: “Sages battle (menatzhim) with each other in Jewish Law.” (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b). Erudition was turned into the new Jewish field of play and there the Heavens were the limit, and the Sages even defeated God: “What does the Scripture mean: ‘To the menatzeah a song of David’? (Psalms 4) Sing to the One who is defeated (she-notzhim oto) and is still happy. …The Holy One of Blessing is defeated and is happy.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 119a)
The Jewish people exchanged war of the battlefield with the war of Torah, and also understood the difficulty of embracing both types of victory. The Talmudic adage has it that “If a soldier then not a scholar, if a scholar then not a soldier.” (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara 17b) One cannot be victorious on all fronts. The tension between the sword and book in our world is profound, and this must be said explicitly. The war budget consumes the education budget and there is a need to decide between them, and to see with open eyes where military victories lead us. As the “People of the Book” we must be certain that we have done everything in order to advance communication and peace and the Jewish return to the “war of the book, which ends in love.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 32b)
Remember that one cannot accomplish everything and if you decide that there is no possibility for peace, then you are also deciding that the people of the book gives up on its responsibility to be the people of the book, and goes back to the strange days of the Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba. Which war do you want to win?
In conclusion: gevurah/heroism and kibush/occupation or capture: After we have spoken of the wisdom of the exile, and of the unique Jewish understanding which was born as a result of the failed attempts to live as all the nations, there is no reason to add more words to the already formidable collection of verbiage. We will quickly mention the Jewish opposite of the concepts “heroism” and “occupation”. “Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is a hero? The one who smothers his desire, as it says: “The one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And the one who rules their spirit than one who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16)’”
Wednesday night the Jewish people living in Zion returned to the Jewish concepts of heroism and capture. We bless our leaders on the return to the Jewish home.
If only we would establish a lasting treaty between us and them. If only we would continue to be the people of the book, if only would learn to preserve the image of God.
If only we would have a peaceful Shabbat.