Topical Torah Essays and Weekly Parsha

Thank You for the Wars?

Nov 17th, 2010 | By | Category: 2006-7, Archives, Chanukah, Jewish Holidays

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Al hanissim v’al hapurkan v’al hagevurot v’al hateshuot v’al hamilchamot…

In the Chanukah prayers we thank God for the miracles and the salvation and the mighty deeds and the wars… On the face of it, the text begs explanation, for why we should be thanking Him for the wars?

Glorification of military exploits has never been a part of Jewish tradition; we do not revel in war and its heroes. Moses led the people into battle against Amalek not with a sword but with his arms upraised in prayer. Joshua led the conquest of the Land of Israel, but his main credential was having been the Torah disciple of Moses and a prophet in his own right. David slew Goliath; but his everlasting memorial is the book of Tehillim (Psalms) he wrote, without which he would have remained a minor biblical figure.

Even in the modern-day state of Israel, a society under permanent siege, whose armed forces have played so prominent a role, the cult of militarism has never taken hold as it might have. To be sure, the country’s civilian leaders have often been former generals (Sharon, Rabin, Barak, et al), but civilian control of the military has always been the guiding principle. So far from the bloodthirsty cries for war and extermination emitted at all-too-frequent intervals from its enemies, Israelis tend to blame their leaders for not being sufficiently aggressive in seeking peace. In every war, every battle, every skirmish, the whole people sits shiva and cries over the dead, the wounded and the captured. Despite the largely secular character of the state, the paramountcy of human life taught by tradition for thousands of years remains strong. The goyim-nachess, the pleasure that other nations take in the panoply of war-making, in fancy dress uniforms and shiny weapons, are not for the Jewish people.

So how can we thank God for the wars? Presumably, it is for this reason that some prefer to translate milchamot as victories, even though the word milchamah everywhere else means war. Others maintain that the letter vav preceding al hamilchamot should be deleted, thus making hateshuot al hamilchamot into a single phrase, the mighty deeds of the wars, referring to God’s spectacular intervention on behalf of the Hasmoneans against the Greek oppressor.

There is, however, another approach, by which the plain meaning of giving thanks for the wars is retained. It begins by pointing out a structural curiosity in Al Hanissim, namely that it puts the wars last in the list. One would have thought that mention of war should have preceded the miracles and the salvation and the mighty deeds. After all, the war was well under way before any miracles occurred. The answer is that had it not been for the miracles and the salvation and the mighty deeds, there assuredly would have been no reason to commemorate the war for its own sake. But, since the miracle of victory against overwhelming odds and the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days did take place, we thank the Guardian of Israel for the war, as well. Because through it the oppressor and his occupation of the Temple was over-thrown. Through the suffering of war God’s strength was made manifest. It was the vehicle for a national renaissance.

However, lest we suppose that the ultimate redemption of Israel will also come through warfare, the Haftorah of the first Shabbat of Chanukah teaches otherwise. The selection from Zechariah concludes with God’s promise to bring the messianic era, not with arms and not with might, but only by My spirit. In the end of history, says the prophet, Mashiach will rule over Israel and the world by the power invested in him by the Almighty; not by the might of tanks and planes, and certainly not by nuclear weapons.

Sources: Shlal Rav, Chanukah.

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