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Weekly Torah Commentary
Shof'tim (August 30, 2014)
Deuteronomy 20:10-14
(10) When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. (11) If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. (12) If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it; (13) and when the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. (14) You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town — all its spoil — and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the LORD your God gives you.

Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Original Text:

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

UNDER THE INSPIRED LEADERSHIP OF MOSES, the Israelites are advancing toward their destination. Religious authority rests with the priests. However, they will need to adjust to a new set of political realities once they arrive. In Parashat Shof’tim, our wanderers receive divine instructions on fundamental aspects of the administration for the new society they will create.

They are commanded to establish a judiciary system and provided with a framework to do so. Also, the powerful and oft-quoted justice code is pronounced: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” The irrefutable bedrock of any sustainable society is justice, and the concept of justice looms large in Shof’tim.

In addition, instructions are given regarding how to behave toward those we will conquer. This same parashah contains the above pasukim (scriptural verses), clearly demonstrating a militaristic disregard for those to be defeated. We clearly are portrayed as the aggressors. Are we to believe that our unique historic role will become realized only once we entirely eradicate our enemy?

How do we reconcile the concept of justice with the brutal behavior proscribed? The enemy first is given an opportunity to surrender, and only thereafter does the battle ensue. But is that really sufficient?

Typically we look at our Jewish past as one of suffering and powerlessness — one in which we are victims. But, in fact, the instructions given here sound more like jihad than tohar haneshek (purity of arms), a fundamental principal of the Israel Defense Forces and expected practice of all Israeli soldiers:

“The Israel Defense Force servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent, and will maintain their humanity even during combat. “ It goes on to specify: “IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

The IDF code, by overlaying the concept of justice to the practice of warfare, tempers the brutal instructions in Shof’tim. This remains a central tenet of IDF training despite the behavior of those who repeatedly and ceaselessly threaten Israel’s existence.

Shabbat Shalom!

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