by Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
If you follow God's commandments, you will have peace (shalom) in the land of Israel. And you will dwell in security (la'vetach). And you when you chase your enemies, they will fall by your sword. What kind of 'peace' and 'security' is it if violence is still seemingly ensured?
Why is it ok for two parties who disagree to solve that disagreement by physically hurting or killing each other? How is that logical? If my neighbor and I fight over who broke the lawnmower, society (and Colorado penal code Article 18 Section 3.2) says I can't smack him in the face no matter how obstinate he is. So why is it alright if one country bombs another if they fail to resolve their differences through dialogue? Yet, violence is an integral part of our culture - in games, in sports, and the way we treat one another. Seemingly, it is part of human nature.
This week's torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, addresses the same tension. In Leviticus 25:18 we learn "If you follow My statutes, and keep My ordinances and do them; and you shall dwell in the land in safety," and onward in Leviticus 26:3,5-7 "If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid... and (you will) dwell in your land safely ...neither shall the sword pass through your land. And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword."
The language is paradoxical. If you follow God's commandments, you will have peace (shalom) in the land of Israel. And you will dwell in security (la'vetach). And you when you chase your enemies, they will fall by your sword. What kind of 'peace' and 'security' is it if violence is still seemingly ensured? Our only comfort is that when violence breaks out, we'll win? Am I mistaken in my understanding of "peace" as the absence of violence? Is it wishful thinking to expect a land of Israel that is truly free from violence?
Commentators also seem to have been confused by this strange juxtaposition. But few of their responses satisfy me.
One response that does appeal to me is offered by the Torah Temimah, written by Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941). Rabbi Epstein connects the promise "and I will give peace in the land" to the promise of plenty (sova). As long as the population is materially satisfied, peace will reign. He arrives at this through a clever read of a Talmudic story- whenever King David's advisors found a deficit in treasury, they would come to him for advice, and King David would tell them to make war, and the treasure would flow into the coffers. If Israel lacks, it will make war. If it is materially satiated, it will be at peace.
Together, these texts can be read as defining two different existences of the state of Israel. The first state, and the one that Israel finds itself in now, is the state of 'security' (bitachon, from the word betach). In this state, Israel very well will continue to exist and will not be obliterated, but Israel must continue to chase its enemies and fell them by the sword, or its modern equivalent of the drone strike. As a side note, I recall President Netanyahu's campaign slogan from when I lived in Israel during his first campaign was "Shalom im Bitachon" - "Peace with Security".
The second state, the ideal state, is the state of 'peace' (shalom). This is the state mentioned in Torah as "And the sword will not pass through your land." This cannot be achieved through violence, but only through a one-two punch of diplomacy and economic plenty. The great wisdom of Rabbi Epstein extends, however, beyond just King David's people, to the Palestinian people as well. When people have enough to eat, and are materially satisfied, the desire to use violence melts away. A committed effort by the world community to economic development in both Israel and Palestine (and God-willing, between Israel and Palestine) will make violence irrelevant and unnecessary, and would usher in a new era where problems were resolved with discussions and not violence.
When our hearts become open to each other, and we see that our own well-being depends on the well-being of our neighbors, we will achieve that great peace that the Torah promises.
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the Director of Judaic Studies and School Rabbi of Denver Jewish Day School. He earned his rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2006.