A few weeks ago, we read in our weekly Torah reading the command to do what is right and good. The Hebrew word is yashar, which literally means “straight.”
The verse is understood as the command to go beyond the letter of the law. In other words, even though one might be justified in doing something, one might be technically in the right in doing something, it is still sometimes a mitzvah to refrain from doing it in order to go above and beyond what is normally expected in the world and thereby do what is more ethically correct.
I have thought about this verse a lot this recently. I can’t get out of my mind the report that Israel struck a convoy of fleeing Lebanese during the first cease-fire. The loss of civilian life was an accident. Israel did not intentionally target civilians. Israel targeted what it thought was a vehicle carrying rockets, the kind of rockets that have killed dozens of innocent Israeli civilians, including a father and daughter, the kind of rockets that were forcing young children to spend their summer in sweltering bomb shelters, the kind of rockets that forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to become refugees to the South.
We have to remember that Hezbollah started targeting Israelis, holding their country hostage in their unprovoked attacks. Israel is justified in defending itself and its civilians. However, that verse keeps coming back to me.
These civilians were fleeing with the understanding that there was a 48-hour ceasefire. (Yes, it is true Hezbollah did not keep their end of the bargain and continued to shoot rockets into Israel.) But these civilians were leaving because Israel asked them to leave so they would not be in the way of the fighting, in the way of Israel trying to stop Hezbollah’s rockets.
So what would have happened if Israel had let a rocket or two escape that may have been embedded by the Hezbollah in a civilian convoy? Would it have made a great difference in the war effort to secure the North and free Israel from the rain of rockets it is experiencing?
What would have made a big difference is if Israel had said to the world: Look, we are not firing on a civilian convoy that is leaving under an Israeli-sanctioned ceasefire, under Israeli encouragement, even though there may be rockets there and we are refraining from doing so because Israel values all life, and also values the promises it makes to protect life.
Such a step would not have been necessary. But it would have been the right and good thing to do. It would have been good PR, and part of this war is about PR. But more important it would have been good for Israeli’s morale and Israel’s soul.
It is already clear that Hezbelloh will not honor this ceasefire any better than they did the last one, though their capability to hit Israeli cities has in fact been damaged. What is not clear is whether Israel will use the ceasefire wisely, to gain support and win on the PR front, in addition to being smart on the physical-security front. What this war has shown is that physical power alone will not win the war.
And that is where Torah comes in. The Torah reminds us that when we obey its commandments, things work out OK in the end.
Don’t get me wrong, we need might and power. But Israel has never won only by might and power. It is time for Israel to remember that as well.
Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman