August 30, 2001
Parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
To know the mind of Israel today, you needn't consult a Gallup poll. Just jump into any taxicab and ask the driver about ha'matsav (the situation). His first response, "Milchama [war] -- there's going to be a war. We need a war," he'll carefully explain, "to show them we're still stronger. It's the only language they understand." Then, shifting gears (literally and figuratively), he turns reflective: "On the other hand, what happens after the war? What do we do with all the Palestinians? Maybe we have to talk after all." But a moment later he answers himself: "But talk to them? How can you talk to them? The only language they know is the language of power. So there has to be a war." And as he begins all over again, I reach my destination.
One afternoon, I jumped into a cab and opened with my question about "the situation." "Shhhhhh," says the driver as he turns up his tape deck. The cab filled with a soothing, mellow instrumental. "People take my cab to get away from the situation," he explains. "Here, they can relax and enjoy a moment of peace. And you know, sometimes they just stay here all day. Nice, no?"
Our Torah portion opens with these three apparently unrelated laws: The captive bride: ("When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and your desire her and would take her to wife..."); The unloved wife: ("If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both have born him sons..."); And the defiant son: "If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother...")
The rabbis of the Talmudic tradition believed that nothing in Torah is coincidental and so they sketched a narrative connecting the three rules: In the heat of the battle, she was the object of his unquenchable desire. So he brings her home as his wife. But once he's had his way with her, their relationship becomes domestic, and he loses interest. His ardor turns to hatred and she becomes the unloved, rejected wife. In turn, her contempt for him and her resentment of captivity spill into the character of her children turning them defiant and incorrigible.
War is a tempting option. A release of long pent-up anger and frustration, it promises closure: once and for all. But the rabbis knew better. War, even victorious war, always carries hidden devastation that may not become apparent for generations. The spoils and rewards of victory inevitably turn out to be a poison threatening all we value. The ugliness of battle, even a battle fought far away, inescapably finds its way back to stain the purity of home, hearth and heart. War may be necessary. But never think it finished. After the war, the real battle may just have started.
The hardest part for my Israeli family about war isn't the bombing, the loss of tourism, the economic collapse or even the judgment of CNN. They've lived through that before. The worst part is knowing that yet another generation of children must grow up to become warriors.
And worst still, they can't explain to themselves why. "Why are we here? For what do we sacrifice our children?" Their parents, their grandparents, steeped in Jewish history and culture, could recite the Zionist story. But these postmodern, post-Zionist, postnationalist children of the global village have no connection with Jewish history, no roots in Jewish culture, no notion of Jewish identity. They speak Hebrew but have no language to express a Jewish narrative that makes sense of what's being demanded of them. For the first time, Israelis are talking about "losing the State." It's not the threat of regional geopolitical warfare nor fundamentalist Islamic terrorism or another intifada. The real threat comes from within -- from a loss of national will and purpose. This is the real poison brought home by the current "situation."