B’Midbar and Self Defense

B’Midbar and Self Defense

In the course of their desert wanderings, the Israelites learned how becoming a nation meant far more than Sabbath, festivals and ritual. Even for a new nation directed by God, Israel had to live among hostile neighbors. Those neighbors would not be impressed with Israel’s piety, personal code of ethics and family values. Rather, they would define Israel only in terms of coveted territory and potential slaves. Consequently, Israel must learn to defend itself. Invoking God’s Divine Providence would be inadequate.

B’Midbar introduces the necessity for self defense. The tribes (minus the Levites) were organized into a specific formation; together they represented the first official army in Jewish history. The Torah does not explain-in even one sentence-why the Israelites needed to rely on more than God to defend their country. A strong military was a given; no explicit explanations were necessary.

Today, Israel’s military is one of the most powerful in the world. Living in a hostile region, nothing less would suffice. Due to the most challenging circumstances: The pressures of survival, governing millions of Palestinians living in Judaea, Samaria and Gaza etc. Israel’s armed forces are not perfect. Yet, despite such realities Israel has generally upheld a value embraced by few nations in history: Tohar la neshek/ purity of arms. What this means is that even in the midst of constantly defending a nation, the Israeli military has abided by an ethical and moral code unique to humanity. Steps taken to avoid ‘collateral’ casualties have not only caused Israel great financial expense but the expense of losing soldiers, who sacrificed their lives by honoring the principles of tohar le neshek. The military strategy put forth in the Torah not only established precedent for self defense, but precedent for doing so with the highest regard for human life.

In 2012, Richard Kemp, a former British army commander, told the United Nations that Israel shows greater concern for preventing civilian casualties than any army in history. He praised the IDF for safeguarding civilians; even if that meant putting Israeli soldiers at greater risk.

This week the Torah first introduces us to realities of self defense. We hope that tohar le neshek; a principle guided by the Torah, will continue to reflect Israel’s values in times of conflict and in times of peace.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman