The Meaning of Israel’s Wars
by HaRav Chaim Druckman, former head of Bnei Akiva Yeshivot.
[Translated and condensed by Tzvi Fishman, from Rabbi Druckman’s book, “Kimah Kimah.”]
Naturally in examining the meaning of Israel’s wars, we turn to the Torah and to the teachings of our Sages. In the Book of Bamidbar we find the verse, “And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying, Execute the vengeance of the Children of Israel on the Midianim; afterwards you shall be gathered to your people” (Bamidbar, 31:2). Our Sages explain: “This comes to praise the tzaddikim who don’t leave this world until they carry out the revenge of Israel, for this is the revenge of ‘He who decreed and it came to pass in the world’ to say to them you are not carrying out the vengeance of flesh and blood, but rather the vengeance of the Creator” (Sifre, Matot, 197).
Our Sages are teaching us that when the nation of Israel carries out revenge it is the revenge of Hashem. The revenge of Israel and the revenge of Hashem are one.
Further on in this Torah portion, regarding the tribes of Gad and Reuven, we hear this matter expounded by Moshe Rabenu. During Moshe’s conversation with them, they emphasize the good they will be doing to Am Yisrael:
“And they came near to him and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will go ready armed before the Children of Israel until we have brought them to their place… We will not return to our houses until the Children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance” (Bamidbar, 32:16-18).
Moshe Rabenu repeats their words, but with a seemingly small change which clarifies the true depth of their proposal:
“And Moshe said to them, If you will do this thing, if you will go armed before the Lord to war and go all of you armed over the Jordan before the Lord, until He has given out His enemies before Him, and the Land shall be conquered before the Lord; then afterwards you shall return and be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel, and this Land shall be your possession before the Lord,” (Bamidbar, 32:20-22).
While Moshe repeats the pronouncement of the tribes, he adds a totally different perspective which gives their words a much deeper meaning. Moshe clarifies that what the tribes of Gad and Reuven perceive as going forth to war for the Children of Israel is really a war on behalf of Hashem.
Even before this, in the Torah portion of Behelotecha, Moshe makes clear that on the most profound level the enemies of Israel are the enemies of Hashem: “And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, Moshe said: Rise up Lord and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You” (Bamidbar, 10,35).
Our Sages ask: “Can it be that the Creator of the world has enemies?” (Sifre, Behelotecha, 84). And they answer that whomever hates the nation of Israel is like hating the world’s Creator. This teaching is found in other places as well. An enemy who rises up against Israel is like rising up against Hashem. The haters of Israel are the haters of Hashem! Someone who strikes at Israel is like striking at Hashem. The shepherd youth David emphasizes this in his encounter with the giant Goliath as well.
Why is this so? We can learn the answer from Moshe Rabenu in his war against Midian. The Holy One Blessed Be He orders Moshe to wage war against Midian to revenge Israel for what Midian did to them. When Moshe transmits the command to the people he says the battle is to take revenge for Hashem (see Likutei Shmoni, 5785).
The hatred of the gentiles toward Israel stems from our unique oneness which is an expression of the Oneness of Hashem. If we were like the other nations of the world they would not so trouble to persecute and harm us. All of the oppressions we suffer result from our oneness with Hashem. Thus, when we take revenge it is the revenge of Hashem.
In order to understand this matter, we must remember what our essence is and what is the goal of Am Yisrael in the world.
In our deepest being, we are Hashem’s agent to reveal His Kingship on Earth. We express the Divine Ideals in this world by the very fact of our existence, as it says, “We sanctify Your Name on earth as it is sanctified in the heavens above.” The reason this world was created is manifested and brought about via the nation of Israel.
The full revelation of Divine Light in existence can only come to fruition through the nation Israel living in its Land under its own sovereignty. Only a redeemed and independent Israelite nation, upright it its national stature, can fully manifest the presence of Hashem in the world. Only in this manner can the Torah appear in the world in all of its fullness. When the Jewish People are in Exile we only possess a portion of the Torah, mere “sign posts” in the words of our Sages (Sifre, Ekev, 43) which help us to remember the full Torah which can only be observed in our unique Holy Land.
One of the verses of national mourning is “Her kings and her princes are among the nations – there is no Torah” (Eicha, 2:9). From this verse our Sages state that the Torah is in Eretz Yisrael. When Am Yisrael does not dwell sovereign in its own Land, it is like there is no Torah! (Sifre, Ekev, 37). The existence of the Jewish People amongst the gentiles prevents the Torah from appearing in its fullness. As the Gemara teaches: “Since Israel was exiled from its place there is no bitul Torah (nullification of Torah) greater than this” (Tractate Chagiga 5B).
This is the reason why the Torah calls the wars we fight in Eretz Yisrael for our survival “Milchemet Mitzvah” which means Torah-commanded wars. Behold, these are wars fought to reveal the Kingship of Hashem in the world!
The Rambam, in his Laws of Kings and Their Wars (7:15) emphasizes this fundamental understanding of Israel’s wars. He writes:
“Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he should rely on the Hope of Israel and their savior in times of need. He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of the Oneness of God’s Name. Therefore, he should place his soul in His hand and not show fright or fear… Anyone who fights with his entire heart, without fear, with the intention of sanctifying God’s Name alone, can be assured… ‘God will certainly make my master a faithful house, for my master fights the wars of God and evil will not be found with you in your days’” (Shmuel 1:25, 28).
From these words it is clear that a person who sacrifices his life in defense of the Jewish People, his level is supremely exalted and his merit is abundantly great.