Shemini: When War is Peace


Special Edition: Israel in Crisis

Let my people go and they will serve me
– Exodus 7:17

As in the days when you left Egypt, I will show you wonders – Micha 7:15

Behold, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps – Psalms 121:4

The eyes of G-d are upon it [the land of Israel] from the beginning of the year until the end of the year – Deuteronomy 11:12

April 2, 2002

As Israel reels from the Passover massacres and has since declared war against terrorism, there is much we can learn from Passover, when we celebrate the first victory of the Jewish people against Egyptian aggression and oppression. Lessons that can help us face our challenges today.

But first let me share with you a personal experience.

I just took the subway to Manhattan – something I haven’t done in a while. In a brief instant I felt the urge to return to my (inner) childhood (maybe it’s Passover, which evokes the celebration of the child). So I sauntered off to the front of the train, and stood staring in the front window at the dark tracks ahead. The labyrinth of the New York underground world never fails to amaze me. An intricate maze of train tracks makes up this city beneath the city.

What struck me most this time was the fact that the rails are in place and lead the train along its tracks from one location to another, from your point of departure to your destination. Then I thought to myself, how simple life would be if we had such tracks in our lives than can help us navigate our way as we search for happiness. How confusing life can be without any bearings to guide us.

But as I was staring as the train was snaking through the dark tunnels ahead, I realized that perhaps there are such invisible tracks beneath the surface of our lives. Perhaps we have inherent coordinates that run like railroad tracks within our inner spiritual arteries. But we need to discover this internal compass.

And this brings me to Passover and to the events of our times. The Torah is precisely as its name implies: A blueprint for life. The Torah is a guide that provides us with direction how to reach our goals and objectives – how to navigate the journey called life and reach our destination. The way the Torah achieves this is by illuminating for us the ‘railroad tracks’ within our psyches and souls, so that we can discover ‘rails’ that can guide us along the often shrouded passageways before us.

By listening to the message of Passover – by looking to the past and how those before us traveled from oppression to freedom – we can discover the spiritual pathways that can help us face and tackle the challenges of our times.


Let us begin with war. Is war good or bad? No sane person likes war, not the warrior and not the adversary. Normal people want to live in peace. We are repelled by bloodshed and would do anything to avoid getting hurt and expend so much time, money and energy – not to mention, lives – in battle.

What is the Torah view on war? Torah – which is called Torat Chesed and Torat Chaim, Torah of love and of life – tells us that of all blessings, peace is the greatest. Yet, when faced with an enemy we must prepare for war if necessary. War is an option of last resort, but when necessary it becomes the way of peace and the way toward peace.

Had Pharaoh freed the Hebrews willingly as G-d commanded him via Moses no war would have been necessary. However, after Pharaoh remained obstinate, there was no other choice and G-d went to war against the Egyptians on behalf of the Jewish people. After each plague, one more intense than the previous one, Pharaoh continued to persist in oppressing Jews. In defiance he even intensified the bondage of the Jewish people.

War became the only option. And when it is the only option – it becomes the way toward peace. Why? Because recognizing evil and doing everything possible to eradicate it is a blessing – the blessing of truth and peace. Denying the existence of lurking evil or being fearful and not wanting to confront the evil is in itself a form of evil.

Yes, we all wish that there be no murder and terrorism in the world. We pray for the time when peace will prevail, and people will respect each other while maintaining their diversity. But, when there are people who wantonly abuse the sanctity of life, who despite all attempts persist in killing innocent civilians, then we must not fear to confront this growing menace. Indeed, by not confronting it we feed the cancer and allow us to kill many others.

One of the lessons we learn from these 49 days (between Passover and Shavuot) when we count the Omer is the need to balance chesed and gevurah, love and discipline. True love is possible only when it respects and preserves the boundaries and space to allow the love to flourish. To spoil a child in the name of love and give him/her everything without limits is actually one of the cruelest things a parent can do. To suffocate a spouse with love and not respect his/her space is another distortion of love. Among the reasons why we fear using gevurah include: fear of confrontation, fear of the unknown (as opposed to the known evil), laziness, naively believing that things will just be fine, denial and other factors that cause us avoid the sometimes inevitable need for discipline.

War is the ultimate manifestation – and last resort – of discipline necessary to create a loving world. When the Allies went to War against Hitler and the Nazis it was to protect and preserve freedom in the world. No one wants war, but when there is deep evil that threatens life and freedom, war is the necessary discipline within love (gevurah within chesed), to ensure and guarantee that love can thrive.

Another lesson from Passover: Even when the war against Egypt had to be fought, the Jewish people recognized that it was G-d who was fighting the war, not the people. Indeed, when the Jews felt stuck between the Red Sea before them and the pursuing Egyptians behind them – on the Seventh day of Passover – there was a group of them that argued “let us go to war against the Egyptians.” Moses replied in the name of G-d: “G-d will go to war for you.”

Even when we have no choice but to go to war, we must always recognize that it is not our personal battle, and it is not our human strength that gives us power to win our battles. The only justifiable war is one that is meant to bring peace in the world by defending our families and communities from maniacal terrorists, willing to kill themselves as they kill others. Even as we fight this war, we fight it unwillingly and have always in mind that we are defending G-d given life, and victory is dependent not on our own strength but on the blessings and strength of G-d.

This should not be confused with religious fanatics/terrorists that claim to be fighting a ‘holy war,’ a war for G-d. Because G-d gave no human being permission to wage a war on His behalf and in His name, no less one that targets innocent civilians. Targeting and murdering an innocent person is a crime against G-d and against humanity – against all of humanity, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Israeli, Arab, and people of all faiths, races and persuasions.

And when such a war against humanity has been declared, G-d instructs and empowers us to fight a war of self-defense: To defend and guarantee the right of every human being to live in peace and not in terror.

As we celebrate the holiday of Passover, the freedom of the Jewish people from their Egyptian oppressors, we relive the same experience today.

3314 years have passed since the Exodus from Egypt. In each generation we are instructed to relive the Egyptian exodus experience. Today, 3314 years later, we do not need to be commanded. In the same region in the world as the original exile and exodus, Israel is experiencing a bloodbath of its own and this time the entire world is affected. The terrorism of the Middle East now threatens all nations. September 11 has rudely reminded us of that.

Our most human response – and Divine responsibility – is to defend and protect life, all life – not just in defense of the targeted civilians, but also of the attackers and their communities, to protect them from themselves.


All life is sacred, Jew or non-Jew. Peace in Israel means peace not just for the Jews but also for the Arabs. But sometimes the peace must be achieved through strength and discipline.

Yet even after the Egyptians were deservedly drowning in the sea after stubbornly pursuing the Jews, G-d rebuked the angels for attempting to sing praise. “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you sing praise?!”

Even when we must go to war, we need to never lose our sensitivity to the sanctity of life, even of our enemies.

From a Torah point of view every life, including that of so-called “Palestinians,” is sacred. Every human being is created in the “image of G-d” and has a right to freedom.

But no one has a right to murder innocent people for any reason. By doing that the murderer has desecrated the “image of G-d” in which all people are created. Once everyone accepts this absolute law – that we cannot use terrorism and suicide bombings for any reason whatsoever – then we can discuss the cause of the community of Arabs living within the boundaries of Israel.

Regardless of any cause, terrorism is NEVER acceptable. If any war must be fought it must be an uncompromisable fight against any notion that allows for linking a cause with terrorist activity. There is and never will be any justification for killing innocent civilians. We must do everything in our power to eliminate any such thinking.

I submit that the single biggest question today is this: Do the Arabs – I hesitate from using the word ‘Palestinians’ in fear that it may be another PR creation – recognize the legitimate existence of Israel. As long as they do not, or as long as we don’t know their true position, there can be no peace. Period.

To understand people’s intention you have to study their actions. What do we learn from the fact that the terrorists – and whoever stands behind them (does anyone really believe that teenagers just find explosive packs in the streets and strap them to their belts?!) – attacked innocent Jews on Passover Eve, and then made it a point to pull off a suicide bombing on each day of Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from Egyptian oppression? Let the facts speak for themselves… (Do you recall all the talk about America continuing their war in Afghanistan during the Muslim Ramadan?)

We cannot read other people’s minds and know how many people in the Arab world really want the destruction of Israel. But one thing is for sure: True peace is impossible as long as these intentions remain intact.

Perhaps the day of truth has come. This war will hopefully expose the most important element in this international crisis: Is Israel’s right to exist recognized? If there are those that want to destroy Israel they will simply not be able to continue living in Israel. Those that truly want to live in peace, accepting the fact that Israel is here to stay, will be able to find ways to actualize this peace.

It’s worth looking at another one of the many myths pervading conventional thinking: The issue of “occupied territories.” Recently I heard a talk in Washington by Ambassador Max Kempelman, where he argued the falsity of the State Department’s designation of the West Bank as “occupied land,” when in truth it should be “disputed land.” No different than Kashmir and other disputed territories in the world. The implications of this are quite obvious.

These are some of the messages we learn from Passover, and especially the seventh day of Passover, which concluded the process of freedom, when the Egyptians drowned in the sea 3314 years ago.

War is never comfortable nor particularly appetizing. War is bloody and ugly. And no one wants it. But once you face evil it is a blessing to “declare war,” to clearly define your enemy and to align you mindset to a focused objective – rather than hanging in the oblivion of ambiguity – and get the job done as quickly and as bloodlessly as possible.

In the first stages of a war everyone protests because we would like to go back to comfortable denial. We all cry during these days – for the senseless loss of life on all sides.

As Passover comes to a close, let us hope that the truth – and peace – will prevail as soon as possible, with the minimum amount of loss and pain.

As a Higher Will continues to guide us toward an intensifying alliance of Jacob and Esau in an escalating confrontation with Ishmael, hopefully we will be wise enough – with the least amount of lives lost – to understand the deeper meaning of September 11 and the events in the Middle East and act accordingly.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Every silver lining has a shade of gray. Every shade of gray has a streak of light.

May the prophecy be fulfilled: As in the days when you left Egypt, I will show you wonders. Passover opened the doors of freedom 3314 years ago. The liberation from Mitzrayim (Egypt) is the root and archetype of freedom from all exiles and oppressions.

May the doors of freedom finally open up in the fullest way, bringing permanent freedom and peace to the Middle East and to the entire world.

Let my people go. But we need to do our part to want to go and be ready to go, and do everything we can to go.


Here are some things each of us can do to help our brethren in Israel:

~ Wage a spiritual war against all forces of moral apathy and ignorance.
~ Strengthen the three pillars which holds up world – both personal and global: Torah, Prayer, and Kind deeds.
~Intensify your commitment to Torah study – study a new text, and designate additional time to your study.
~ Say additional prayers for the safety of people facing danger, especially for the Israeli Defense Forces.
~ Give additional amounts of charity. Charity has a special energy to counter perilous situations.
~ Engage your family and friends in meaningful dialogue. Reach out to your sphere of influence and inspire them with spiritual awareness. Encourage everyone to study Torah and add a new mitzvah – a good deed. The Bible tells us that through Torah study and performance of mitzvahs G-d promises: “You will dwell securely in your land. I will provide peace in the land. You will sleep without fear” (Leviticus 26:5-6)
~ Initiate a gathering in your home or office, promoting additional goodness and kindness.
~ Jewish men should be encouraged to put on Tefillin each weekday morning. Tefillin has faculties that add in protection in threatening times. [This suggestion was initiated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in connection with the Six Day War and the subsequent wars in Israel].
~Women and girls should be encouraged to light Shabbat and Holiday candles, 18 minutes before sundown leading into Shabbat or the Holiday. It is also customary to give some charity before lighting the candles.
~ Encourage children to say holy verse and prayers and add in charitable and kind deeds. Children play a particular role in time of crisis. As the verse states, “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You have established the strength…to destroy an enemy and avenger” (Psalms 8:3). [This suggestion was initiated by the Rebbe before the 1973 Yom Kippur War].


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