Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Mattot 2014

Parashat Mattot
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
18th July 2014

“We may dream of the glorious age when: ‘They shall turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more [Isaiah 2:4].’ That is a dream which seems far from realisation especially today, when nations are armed to the teeth and intent on inflicting as much harm as possible, when ploughshares are being beaten into swords and fields turned into mortuaries.”

It fills me with sadness that these words by Rabbi Abraham Cohen spoken on 15 August 1914 at the Singer’s Hill Synagogue in Birmingham still ring true today, nearly 100 years after the outbreak of World War I. While we do not find ourselves at the brink of world war, as I write these words, rockets are flying once again back and forth into Israel and Gaza. Friends and family of so many of us find themselves seeking shelter several times a day and night and the news is reporting the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians including several children.

Our Torah portion, Parashat Mattot, also speaks of war. God instructs Moses to enter into a war of revenge against the Midianites. The war described is cruel and ruthless: not satisfied with the death of the Midianite men, Moses instructs the Israelites to also kill all male children and adult women. Only the lives of virgin girls are spared, though they are effectively designated as sex slaves.

Especially in light of the recent events in Israel, this Biblical war of revenge must make us shudder. How can the central text of our religion, the Tanakh – the Bible, advocate such a war? Rabbi Shefa Gold describes this terrible moment as contradicting all the laws of mercy and kindness and overturning even the laws of warfare. In this Biblical episode, we witness the awful cruelty unleashed by unrestrained power. As the late progressive Jewish commentator Rabbi Günther Plaut observed, Jews throughout history have been challenged by the moral questions presented by the text.

I will leave the analysis of who is to blame for the current escalation in violence in the Middle East to the commentators and politicians. Like the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, we, as Diaspora Jews, are simply confronted with what is happening. While we may not have the power to change what the future will bring, we are nonetheless able to ask moral questions about the nature of war.

In another World War I sermon, Israel Mattuck preached on 23 October 1915 at The LJS: “The essential and fundamental antagonism between religion and war is in their opposite relations to the principle of unity in mankind; war is a denial in practice of this principle upon which religion has insisted. The hardships and sufferings and miseries and griefs and deaths, which make war the hideous material evil that it is, are the accompaniment and outcome of this denial in its part of a spiritual and moral good. This, then, is the challenge to religion in the essence of war. If war could speak in words, it would be something like this to religions, ‘You have always insisted that humanity is one. And now behold what I have done, I have set nation against nation in a life and death struggle. The interests of one are altogether opposed to the interests of the other. There is nothing but discord!’”

We cannot allow war to have the final word. If humanity is to have a future, we must insist that we are all human beings made in the image of God whatever our nationality or religion. Especially at a time of war, our religion demands that we act ethically and avoid methods that are unrighteous. As Mattuck urged in 1915: “Let us, therefore, with all our might cling to righteousness in our aims and in our methods, resisting the temptations to achieve momentary gains by unrighteous means, but confident now and always in the faith that in the end righteousness must prevail with a great and mighty triumph.”

I hope that by the time you read this, Palestinians and Israelis will have managed to reach a ceasefire agreement and quiet will have returned to the homes of the people. This is much to hope and pray for. But it is not enough! We must dream of and pray for more than quiet; we must dream and pray that one day there will be peace in the region; that Isaiah’s vision will one day come true. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will.

P.S. If you are interested in the full text of the quoted sermons and other World War I sermons, you can browse through an archive of over 70 sermons at http://religionandwar.org/.