The war in Gaza is over (at least we hope) and the time for taking stock has come. For some, the question now is “Who won and who lost,” to which there is no clear answer. And for some, the question now is “Will Hamas eventually rearm and fire more missiles at Israel to advance its Islamic fundamentalist agenda,” to which, again, there is no clear answer. The government of Israel opted not to remove Hamas as Gaza’s rulers, perhaps because the international condemnation of the military operation necessary to do so would have been too much to bear, and perhaps because there was no consensus to do so within the Israeli cabinet. Now is the time for taking stock of what Israel has gained and what it has lost from this terrible war.
On my mind is a verse from this week’s parasha, Shoftim:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time…you must not destroy its trees… Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
The verse refers to the Torah’s prohibition against destroying fruit trees during a war. As Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) taught, we cannot be so carried away in time of war that we forget the war will be over one day and people will have to live and feed their families in the place where the battle was waged. War demands restraint, decency and compassion. I believe we can be proud that when Israel is forced to wage war, it displays those qualities. Israel’s reluctance to completely obliterate its enemies is surely due to the fact that it knows the price of that victory in human and material terms. And we may surmise that Israel’s enemies, if they had the capability, would not be guided by those principles of restraint and compassion.
And on my mind is this verse from Parashat Shoftim:
You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you to possess. (Deuteronomy 19:14).
This verse appears in a section that underscores how important it is for the Jewish people to create a society based on justice in the Land of Israel. It addresses an area of law known in Hebrew as Hasagat Gevul, or encroachment. Simply put, there are rules that prohibit someone from moving a fence or a land marker in order to take away land from his neighbor and add to his own. Apparently, people did this either openly or in the dark of night, and the Torah prohibits it. A society based on principles of justice demands that people respect the boundaries between them.
There’s an old story told about this verse. Two farmers were having a dispute over land, so they went to their rabbi for a resolution. The rabbi heard each person present his case, after which he got down on his elbows and knees and put his ear to the ground. The two disputants were bewildered, and they asked the rabbi for an explanation of his strange behavior. “Shhhh…” said the rabbi. “I’m listening to the land and…it’s crying.”
In the folktale, the land was likely crying because the two farmers couldn’t settle their argument. In the context of the Gaza War, I think that the land is crying because it fears that the need for its defense it not over, because Israel still has enemies who wish to harm her, and because the people of Israel were forced to do terrible things to prevent further bloodshed and destruction from taking place.
With the war apparently at an end, my prayer now is that the land will stop crying, that Israelis will be able to return to the productive task of building up the land and of making it productive and prosperous for its inhabitants, and building up the nation that lives on the land. My prayer is that Israel’s enemies will cease their interminable efforts to displace and harm Israel, and that they will see the wisdom of laying down their arms and weapons of destruction and share in the blessings of peace and abundance that the land so generously offers.
Then, and only then, will the land stop crying.