The way we looked at certain things has changed over the last decade. Ten years ago, there were people — I don’t mean only Rabbis and other men of the cloth, but laymen and business people — who were speaking about an end to war. For example, John Naisbitt, a popular futurist, wrote: “One of the things I think may be possible, that I never thought was possible before, is the end of war. This has to do with the economic development we’re seeing today.... All the while we’re getting so economically interconnected as to make war a lose-lose [proposition].... Having lived most of my life under the threat of nuclear annihilation, I find this an uplifting, and real, possibility.”

Then there was 9/11, and a war in Afghanistan, and a war in Iraq, and its not over. Throughout the world, without even mentioning what’s happening in Israel, there are many tinderbox situations. What’s more, it’s not merely that we’re fighting wars, it’s dominating our attention and we’re getting interested.

How does the Torah tell us to view war and what guidance does it give?

Parshas Ki Seitzei

Our Torah reading begins: “When you go out to war against your enemies.” The Hebrew word translated as “against,” על really means “above” or “over.” With this brief phrase, the Torah guides us on the outlook that should characterize our approach toward war.

First of all, we have to realize that we are waging wars against “our enemies,” foes that stand opposed to our values and principles to the extent that the Torah — which is the Torah of peace — tells us that we may (and in some instances, we must) take arms against them and seek to conquer them.

That’s hard for many of us to bear. We have internalized the message of peace and brotherhood to the extent that when we’re told a war is necessary, we turn aside. We don’t want to get involved. On one hand, that’s admirable, for violence is undesirable. On the other hand, there is a certain lack of proper feeling here. If the Torah calls the person an enemy, he should be viewed as such with all the severity that term applies. He is not a friend or a colleague. He is someone whom the Torah says we must hate and whom we should seek to conquer. Why? Because he stands in opposition to G‑d’s desires.

The Torah’s approach to warfare involves making an offer for a peaceful settlement at the very outset. So if the enemy does not accept it, there is something fundamentally wrong with him and it is proper that he be hated. Indeed, the inability to rouse ourselves to such hatred is just as severe as the inability to rouse ourselves to true love. As our Sages declare: “He who is merciful to the cruel is cruel to the merciful.” Both love and hate are genuine emotions which we should use in our Divine service, not because of our own personal desire, but as mandated by G‑d’s will.

But when one hates, there is a difficulty. Our Sages tell us that one who wrestles with a dirty person will become soiled himself. Since war involves close combat and the enemy is hateful, fighting him can make one’s own self hateful.

For this reason, the Torah explains that we are “above” our enemies. Yes, we may end up locked in close combat with them, but that does not define who we are. We are identified with our G‑dly souls, the aspect of our being that is “an actual part of G‑d.” When we reveal that potential, we are truly above our enemies, above all elements of this material framework of reference. Then, as the verse continues: “G‑d your L‑rd will deliver your enemy into your hand” and we will be victorious in battle. And what’s more, we will preserve our G‑dly image when doing so.

The purpose of war is not to utterly destroy the enemy, but rather — as the verse continues — “and you shall take captives.” For the Torah does not want to destroy anything; everything has a purpose and can be employed in the service of G‑d. But when an entity belongs to the enemies of G‑d, it will not be used in the proper way. The positive potential it possesses will be perverted and employed undesirably. When, however, it is “taken captive” by the forces of holiness, that positive potential will be released and employed as G‑d intended it.

Looking to the Horizon

War and peace are closely connected to Mashiach’s coming. On one hand, Mashiach will fight wars. Indeed, one of the ways that he will be identified is that he will, as the Maimonides writes, “wage the wars of G‑d and be victorious.” On the other hand, Mashiach’s purpose is to introduce an age of peace and prosperity where “there will be no famine nor war,” and “nations will not lift up swords against nations.”

These two concepts are not contradictory. The goal is peace, an era where peace comes not because of détente and not even because of enlightened self-interest, but because G‑d created a world which is characterized by unity and oneness. Difference need not lead to division. Quite the contrary, individuals with different qualities complement and balance each other, leading to harmony and synergy.

Nevertheless, on the path to realizing G‑d’s purpose in the world, there may be individuals and nations that stand in the way. They are preoccupied with their self-interest and may even be cruel and despotic. With them, Mashiach will wage war. If they forcefully attempt to prevent the forces of justice and righteousness from advancing, the impediment they create should be removed, even if it requires a battle. On the other hand, the ultimate purpose is that they should be “taken captive,” that their potential should be transformed from a negative force to positive energy, enabling the G‑dly intent for which our world was created to be manifest in all its particulars.