Lessons on War from Father Abraham

Rabbi Susan Grossman, 10/22/2004

Sermon for Lech Lecha 5765 (2004)

How to Go To War: Lessons from Father Abraham

By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation
Columbia, Maryland

The Book of Genesis is filled with firsts: the first couple, Adam and Eve, the first murder, Cain slaying Abel, the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah.

Our parsha this morning, Lecha Lecha, introduces us to another first, the first war ever waged in the world: the war of the four Kings of Shinar, Elasar, Elam and Goum who attacked the five kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Zoar.

Commenting on this war, the Rabbis teach in a midrash:

These four kings introduced war into the world, for before their day there had been no war and it was they who made this innovation. God said: "O you wicked men! Because you have introduced the sword, let the sword come into your own hearts, as it says (in the Book of Psalms 37:14), "Their swords shall enter their hearts."

Our ancient Sages considered these kings wicked because they introduced institutionalized aggression into the world. God condemns them for this, ruling that just as they initiated the war, so will they be consumed by the violence they unleashed. In other words, violence breeds violence. As the midrash teaches: once an arrow leaves the hand, it cannot be recalled.

Every day, our newspapers bring home the sad truth of this statement as violence continues to escalate in Iraq.

Rather than containing the danger poised by Saddam Hussein, which the Deulfer and 9/11 Reports have now shown was not an imminent threat, the Iraqi war has instead unleashed chaos across Iraq. Americans and other non-combatant contractors have been kidnapped and beheaded by a loose network of insurgents who specialists tell us will become more coordinated and therefore even more dangerous in the next six months. Continuing insurgent attacks have caused the deaths of over a thousand American soldiers and countless Iraqi citizens.

The situation in Iraq is so chaotic that soldiers this week took the unprecedented step of refusing a convoy mission because they believed it was tantamount to suicide since they lacked adequate military support and body and vehicle armor.

It seems the Rabbis were indeed right: The arrow once unleashed cannot be easily recalled.

Unfortunately, regardless of the debate over whether or not this war was begun under false pretenses, this war must now be won. The stakes are too high to merely pull out of Iraq without reestablishing order there. [ED. NOTE: These two assertions might not be the same. It is possible that if the US were to commit itself to leave, NOT to win, the UN would be far more able to work out peace and reestablish order. Some believe that the harder the US government tries to "win," establishing its own goals, the harder many Iraqis will resist, and the further the country will be from either freedom or justice. — AW]

As the seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbe pointed out: if not for the awe of a central authority, society will devolve into a war of every man against every man, which is exactly what is happening today in Iraq.

Over the next two weeks, citizens of our nation will have to decide how we can best reestablish order there: by sticking by the man who began the war or switching to another who says he can win it more effectively.

Our Torah reading this morning also presents us with another first, the first defensive war in history.

During the war of the four kings with the five kings, Abraham, still called Abram, learns that his nephew Lot has been taken captive. As a result, Abram enters a war he did not initiate. He musters his men and, under cover of night, deploys them in a successful attack that rescues his nephew and drives back the enemy to what is modern Syria.

Abram goes to war knowing for certain that his nephew has been captured and therefore is in immediate danger. In other words, the Torah teaches us, there are times when war is necessary for self- defense or defense of others: the threat must not only be real but the danger must be imminent.

Our text further tells us that Abram returns with all the booty left by the escaping troops, as well as Lot and Lots household and possessions. Once the operation is complete, Abram refuses any personal gain or any gain for his people, asking only for Lot and his possessions, and replacements for what his servants used during the war itself.

In other words, Abram understood that he could only remain a reliable and respected moral authority among the other leaders of his time if he was careful to avoid even the appearance of personal benefit, even in areas others would consider common and reasonable.

[ED. NOTE: Rabbi Grossman does not make the comparison, but we can ask ourselves whether the current occupation of Iraq and the role of such companies as Halliburton live up to this criterion.— AW]

This leads us to another lesson our parsha offers us:

The story of Abrahams participation in this war ends with a reference to Abraham's allies. We learn that Abraham did not lead his men alone into battle, but had coordinated his efforts with his allies, Avner, Eshkol and Mamre, whose men fought alongside his own. (14:24) This reminds us that, while sometimes one must stand up alone for what is right, it is seldom that one can win a war, even a just, even a defensive war, without strong and effective alliances.

From these three references to our founding father we find three Jewish values relating to war: to pursue war only when the danger is direct and imminent, to make choices that avoid even the appearance of impropriety or self- interest, and to work closely and effectively with allies.

The last source we find about the ethics of war in our parsha comes from the next chapter of our story: Abram has seen his nephew safe and has returned to his home, when the word of the Lord appears to him saying:

"Fear not, for I am a shield to you; your reward will be very great" In other words, God protects those who seek to act justly in the world. Acting justly in Judaism includes acting in self defense and for the defense of others. But it also calls upon us to uphold the highest standards so that we retain the moral authority necessary to appropriately represent the ultimate Moral Authority, God, through our deeds in the world. When we do that, and according to the Torah — only if we do that, will the works of our hands be blessed.

The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible teaches us that there is a time for peace and a time for war. Drawing from our Biblical texts, our Rabbis developed guidelines for deciding when to enter a war and how to pursue it once engaged. They understood that a war in self-defense or the defense of others is not only permitted but is also a mitzvah, a commandment. But such a war is to be entered into only as a last resort after efforts are exhausted to broker a peace.

The American people have a serious decision to make in the next weeks which will have serious implications for the role and effectiveness of America in the world. May we make that decision carefully, thoughtfully and with a respect for the freedom we enjoy as Americans to express our differences of opinion.

Most important, however, may whoever wins the White House this November take the lessons of the Torah to heart. May he make wise decisions that will make the entire world more, rather than less, secure and ready for peace. And let us say, Amen.

Copyright. Susan Grossman.2004.


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