Shoftim parsha: War is a last resort

An analysis of the Torah’s approach to war reveals that war is only undertaken as a last resort. Consider the opening verse in the section dealing with war, “When you come close to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it” (Deuteronomy 20:10).

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

The Midrash maintains that this verse applies only to the first half of the paragraph that discusses optional wars (Sifrei 199). Hence, this part concludes with the words “thus shall you do [seek peace] to all the cities which are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these nations” (Deuteronomy 20:10–15). But regarding the conquest of the seven Canaanite nations, obligatory war, peace overtures are not made. This is the intent of the second half of this paragraph (20:16–18).

Maimonides and Nachmanides both disagree. They insist that the opening verse, which outlines the obligation to seek peace first, encompasses the whole paragraph; thus, it is a general statement about both permissible and obligatory war. After all, Joshua offered peace to the Seven Canaanite nations, whom we were obligated to confront militarily. Maimonides and Nachmanides, however, agree that differences exist between the two types of wars. For example, in optional wars, exemptions are allowed.

But the bottom line is that, from their perspectives, peace is possible even with the Seven Nations, even with those who disdain ethical behavior. If they renounce their evil ways and abide by basic ethical principles, they will be allowed to remain in the land.

The call for peace – even to our extreme enemies – aligns with Judaism’s constant pursuit of shalom. It’s built into the Jewish DNA: one of God’s names is Shalom; we greet and bid farewell with the word shalom; Shabbat is Shabbat Shalom; the Amidah closes with the prayer for shalom (sim shalom). So, too, the Grace after Meals and the Kaddish reach their crescendo with the prayer for peace (oseh shalom). This is no small matter, as the way we conduct ourselves in the everyday sets the tone for the way we act in the most extreme circumstances – like war.

As described by Maimonides and Nachmanides, even when conquering and liberating the biblical land of Israel, we hope for peace, a yearning that continues to this very day.

Candle lighting:

Shoftim parsha

August 18 at 7:36 p.m.