Parshat Shoftim: The Voice of Torah and the Laws of War


By Moshe Lerman

Parshat Shoftim discusses the laws of war. A whole chapter, Devarim 20, is devoted to the subject. To put it simply, the Torah commands us in no uncertain terms to not have mercy with our enemies. A cursory reading of the chapter suffices to conclude that the State of Israel does not act according to these laws. This is not so strange, as the laws seem to be so much at odds with modern views on morality that even in the world of Torah their proper application in today's world is a cause of deep division.

By providence, Parshat Shoftim also tells us what to do when we do not know how to apply a law of Torah:

"If a matter of judgment is hidden from you, between blood and blood, between verdict and verdict, between plague and plague, matters of dispute in your councils – you shall rise up and ascend to the place that HaShem, your G-d, shall choose." (Devarim 17:8)

Those who pass judgment, including all teachers of Torah, are obligated to bring every serious issue of doubt before the Sanhedrin in Yerushalayim, so that they can decide on the matter. Subsequently:

"According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do. You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left." (Devarim 17:11)

In his comment to the latter verse, Rashi cites from Sifri: "Right and left, even if they tell you about right that it is left, and about left that it is right." In other words, we follow the rulings of Sanhedrin even if they should make a mistake.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Horayot) seems to explicitly negate the latter position: "One could think that if they said to you about right that it is left and about left that it is right, listen to them. Therefore the Torah says to go right and left: that they will tell you about right that it is right and about left that it is left."

However, there is no real contradiction. This Yerushalmi was written in reference to the first Mishna in Horayot, which implies an additional obligation for those who pass judgment and teach Torah. The Ramban explains the point in his commentary to the first Shoresh in the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot:

"The Torah was given to us in writing through Moshe Rabbeinu, may Peace be upon him, and it was apparent that the opinions regarding all the important issues that would come up would not align by themselves. So, the Exalted made us the law that we should listen to the great Beit Din in everything they will say, whether they received explanation from Him, or whether they will speak from the essence of the Torah and its intention according to their understanding. Because, it is through them that He commands us and gives us the Torah. Regarding this there is one condition, which he who delicately studies the beginning of Horayot will notice. The condition is that if in the time of the Sanhedrin there was a sage who was fit to teach and the great Beit Din would issue a teaching that a certain thing is permissible and he is convinced that they erred in their teaching, he should not listen to the words of the sages and he is not permitted to allow himself that what is forbidden to him, but he must act with stringency for himself. And this is even more so if he would be a member of the Sanhedrin. He has the obligation to come before them and tell them his claims and they will debate and discuss with him. And if all agreed that the opinion that he said should be discarded, showing him how his reasoning is erroneous, he will return and he will act according to their understanding."

The purpose of the institution of the Sanhedrin is to grasp the truth. Sanhedrin represents all of Israel, and it is the task of all of Israel to contribute to the process of clarifying our faith. If all unite in the prescribed fashion, Heaven will assist and Sanhedrin will rule according to the truth. They will teach about right that it is right and about left that it is left.

In times of exile, without Sanhedrin, we have no choice but to listen to the rulings of great rabbis who consult with each other. In such times, the judgments of individual sages can surely be trusted, because Heaven assists those who do their utmost.

I write this to sound an alarm. We are in war and we need to know the laws of war. But we did not do our utmost, and heavenly assistance has left us. Though it was in our hands to do so in the years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we did not unite around a reestablished Sanhedrin. Reality is the test, the witness, and the judge. It has come to the point that several rulings by individual rabbis concerning matters of war and peace have decisively contributed to the strengthening of our enemies.

In the face of relentless enemies and plagued by many societal problems, secular zionism has lost its direction. In the area of security, the leaders of the State are stuck in a profound dilemma between their desire to adhere to a universal sense of morality, and the special nature of Israel's enemies. It is clear that the solution to problems of Israel will come from the Torah of Israel. But how will the State listen to Torah while our religious leadership has not given Torah its prescribed authoritative voice?

Let me end with a warning from the Torah: "If you will not disinherit the inhabitants of the Land … they will harass you upon the Land in which you dwell." (BaMidbar 33:55)

The holy Or HaChaim comments: "The explanation of this is that not only will they hold on to the part of the Land that you did not take, but in addition, in the part of the Land that you did take and on which you settled, they will harass you."

This is what we currently experience. From a spiritual perspective, our enemies derive strength from our failure to follow the Torah. I suggest that our failure to unite and establish Sanhedrin is a prime example of the principle.

May Your Mercy overcome Your Anger.

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