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Parshat Devarim Provoke War or Call for Peace?

Av 5783 | July 2023


The halakhot of engagement

The Torah’s rules of engagement may seem vicious to many modern readers. In several places we are told to utterly destroy the seven Canaanite nations.[1] In next week’s parsha we are explicitly commanded, “Utterly annihilate them, do not forge a covenant with them and do not show them mercy.”[2]

We hope to return to this general topic later in this series, but for now let’s focus on the question of forging a covenant, as it seems incongruous to command a people not to show mercy when that is the thing we are known for.[3] Is it possible that the Torah would reject a covenant of peace in favor of war? Does this have any halakhic application today?

War or peace?

As the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land, Moshe relays his final lessons to the people. In the first speech of Devarim he tells them that God did not allow them to fight or even provoke the nations of Edom, Moav, and Amon because their lands are their God-given inheritance. But after avoiding war with these three nations, God tells Moshe, “Behold I have given Sikhon, King of Cheshbon, the Emorite, and his land into your hand, commence conquering, and provoke him to war…”[4]

But instead of immediately going out to war Moshe relates “I sent messengers from the Wilderness of Kedmot to Sikhon, King of Cheshbon, words of peace saying…” Moshe then offers Sikhon the same deal he offered Edom, Moav, and Amon – to take the main road through the land and pay for all food and water. Sikhon rejects the offer and goes out to battle; God gives him into the Israelites’ hands.

If God told Moshe to provoke Sikhon to start a war, why is Moshe offering them peace?

“A time for war, a time for peace”

The answer may lie in the Torah’s much debated rules of engagement. As noted, the Torah commands us to utterly destroy the seven Canaanite nations, but later in Devarim the Torah tells us that before we wage war upon a city we must first offer them peace. How can we utterly destroy people we have made peace with?

“When you approach a city to wage war against it, call out to it in peace. If it answers you with peace and opens to you then all the people found within it will be yours as a vassal and they will serve you…”[5]

One popular explanation for this apparent contradiction is based on the verses that follow which describe how to wage war against those that reject the terms of the treaty – all males must be killed, but women, children, and animals may be taken, continuing, “This is what you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, that are not from the cities of these people here. But from the cities of these people that the Lord your God is giving to you as a portion you shall not leave a living soul.”[6]

Rabbinic sages differentiate between types of war. A milkhemet mitzvah, compulsory war, is waged against one of the seven Canaanite nations to conquer the territory within specific borders of the land as delineated by God.[7] Wars waged to expand these borders are considered non-compulsory or voluntary, a milkhemet reshut.

Based on the midrash Sifrei, Rashi explains that Israel is commanded to offer peace in a milkhemet reshut, what the Torah refers to as “far” cities outside the borders of Israel, but not in a milkhemet mitzvah within the borders of Israel. His grandson Rashbam generally agrees but adds that if the other nation initiates a peace treaty and submits to being vassals, like the Givonites did with Yehoshua, then it is accepted.[8]

Rambam rejects this explanation and unequivocally states, “A war may never be waged against another without first calling out in peace, be it a voluntary war or obligatory war.”[9] He explains that the Torah’s differentiation between “far cities” and cities within Israel only refers to the previous verse that describes who should be killed. In a milkhemet mitzvah all adults – men and women – as well as male children are killed. In a milkhemet reshut only adult males are killed, women and male children are spared.[10]

Rambam also elaborates on what such a peace treaty entails. Aside from accepting Israel’s sovereignty – through monetary or labor taxes – the people must also accept the Seven Noahide Laws. This also serves to explain why men from the seven Canaanite tribes are allowed to live when peace is made; although they have not been physically annihilated, by accepting the Seven Noahide Laws their idolatrous and corrupt national identity has been destroyed.[11]

Seek peace

With this we return to the first of our original questions – how could Moshe call for peace when God commanded him to provoke Sikhon to war?

The Netziv of Volozhin notes that God did not command Moshe to wage war, simply to provoke. Therefore, asking for peace did not technically violate God’s command.[12] Of course, if they had accepted the terms of peace God would not have demanded that Israel go to war.

This explanation may seem apologetic; indeed many midrashic explanations explicitly note that Moshe does not follow the Divine command he received. One midrash proposes a radical solution, that this is one of three things that Moshe said before God and God said, “You have taught me:”

“When the Holy One, blessed be He, told him to make war with Shikhon, even if he doesn’t want to [fight] with you, you should provoke him to war… and Moshe did not do this, rather what is written above, ‘And I sent messengers…’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “By your life! I cancel my words and fulfill your words, as it says, ‘When you approach a city to wage war against it, call out to it in peace…’”[13]

The Midrash Tanhuma is even more extreme, adding that God commanded Moshe to utterly destroy them and “Moshe did not do so. He said, ‘So now I should go and kill those who sinned and those who did not sin? Rather, I shall approach them with peace.’” It was only when they rejected his overture that he turned to war.[14]

Can such insubordination be justified?

Rashi explains that Moshe learned from God. There is a precedent that God gives everyone, even the wicked, a chance to choose good – be it offering the Torah to the children of Esav and Yishmael or sending Moshe to warn Pharaoh instead of wiping out the Egyptians in one fell swoop.[15]

While Rashi brings specific cases, the Midrash Tanhuma explains that Moshe was following a more general directive, using the story to illustrate the verse: “Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.”[16] We know God is just and righteous and the Torah’s ways are pleasant. If a Torah command seems to run contrary to these basic truths then we must have misunderstood it.

Consequently, Moshe was not second guessing God, he was applying what he knew of God. Moshe knew that a simple explanation of God’s command was incongruous with the pleasant and peaceful ways of the Torah. So he inserted an element that reconciled what he deemed to be a contradiction.

Modern halakhic applications

So we have seen that the Torah commands us to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations that reside within the borders of Israel. There’s some discussion as to whether peace should be offered first. When Israel wishes to expand its borders they may do so, but first they have to offer peace. Although Sikhon was an Emorite, one of the seven Canaanite nations, he ruled outside the borders God originally delineated, indicating that this was a voluntary war. Or at least it was until he met Israel with an army.

What about the modern state of Israel? Do any of these laws apply?

The rabbinic sages ruled that we can no longer identify these nations, as the Assyrian king Sankheriv mixed the nations. Even if they are not considered the seven Nations, is there a mitzvah to wage war against non-Jews living within the original Canaanite borders of Israel? May they be offered peace, and if so under what conditions?

Rav Herzog discussed whether Israel should sign a Declaration of Independence that granted non-Jews full rights as citizens. He notes a dispute between Rambam and Raavad. Rambam rules that all non-Jews living within Israel’s borders must accept Israelite sovereignty and the Seven Noahide Laws, while Raavad says this only applies to people from the seven Nations, and is therefore no longer applicable.[17] Rav Herzog adds that even if we rule like Rambam, Rav Kook ruled that Muslims and Druze generally keep the Seven Noahide Laws, indicating that those who accept Israeli sovereignty and pay taxes should be allowed to remain in peace.[18] He notes that some other religions currently practiced may not be considered monotheistic but there are opinions that they are not idolatrous either, and therefore there is no mitzvah to expel them from the land.

Ultimately, Rav Herzog explained that this law only applies when “yad Yisrael tekeifah” – Israel’s hand prevails, which was not the reality of the Jewish State in 1948. What about when the State of Israel is powerful enough – would there still be a requirement to eliminate idolatry and other violations of the Seven Noahide Laws?

Rav Herzog seems to indicate that as long as Israel relies on the goodwill of foreign nations this is not an option. Other halakhic authorities give more fundamental reasons why Israel must accept non-Jews, even those that don’t necessarily follow the Seven Noahide Laws.[19] For example, Rav Yehudah Amital points to Rambam that rules that once we make an agreement we may not act deceptively.[20] Radbaz explains that such double dealing would be a chillul HaShem – desecration of God’s name. Since Israel proclaimed itself as a state for all citizens it may not renege on that promise.

As for wars waged against non-Jewish states outside of Israel’s borders, based on the Rambam above Rav Mordechai HaKohen rules that in the modern State of Israel peace terms must be offered before engaging in war.[21] Rav Yitzchak Kofman adds, based on the Netziv, that this is only relevant when it will not endanger lives.[22]

Final thoughts

On the verse “Turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it” the Midrash Tanhuma explains that the Torah did not command us to run after mitzvot, but rather to perform those that are possible, bringing examples such as, “If you happen upon a birds nest” you should send away the mother bird to take the eggs.[23] But God commands us to pursue peace – actively.

Modern warfare is so different from what it was in the time of the Torah, or even a generation ago. Halakhic authorities who try to understand how to apply these laws to our reality do not have an easy task.[24] Yet there are certain clear, overarching values we learn from God – peace, human life, a sovereign Jewish state, and basic morality and justice. While halakhic authorities, military experts, and laypeople may disagree about how to maintain these values, anyone who accepts them should be treated as an ally.

Based on the sources we’ve seen, the wars Israel was commanded to fight were not meant to eliminate all non-Jews from the Jewish state, but rather to rid it of those who violate the Seven Noahide Laws all people must uphold and ensure Israel’s spiritual, cultural, and physical existence. Not only is the war not a goal unto itself, it’s also not the first option to achieve these goals. It’s a last, sometimes necessary, resort.

Based on the call for peace that Moshe describes in this week’s parsha the sages teach, “Great is peace, for even in a time of war peace is necessary.”[25] Even as we go out to war we must remember that the ultimate goal is peace.

[1] Devarim 7:1-6. The nations listed are Chittite, Girgashite, Emorite, Canaanite, Peruzite, Chivite, and Jebusite. The list of nations is generally the same, although it is often shortened. (Shemot 23:28)

[2] Devarim 7:2

[3] TB Beitza 32b; Bereishit 18:17-19

[4] Devarim 2:24

[5] Devarim 20:10-12

[6] The end of the verse is literally “You shall not vitalize anything that breathes.” Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra (Ibn Ezra) explains that means that we may not give them food or drink, and should kill them when possible, which is less extreme.

[7] TB Sota 44b. Defensive wars are clearly considered compulsory.There’s some dispute about the status of wars beyond the borders that are initiated by Israel to weaken their enemies for long term protection.

[8] Some commentaries propose a middle ground to reconcile our question. The Seven Nations did not receive individual peace overtures before Israel besieged them, but they did receive several general calls for peace before Israel entered the land.
This explanation is based on TY Shvi’it 1: Rabbi Shmuel in the Talmud Yerushalmi relates that before entering Israel Yehoshua sent three messengers to warn the people they were coming and the people had a choice – abandon their land, make peace, or go to war. The tradition is that the Girgashite evacuated, the Givonite made peace, and everyone else opted for war.

[9] Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1

[10] Ramban also explains that most nations were offered peace, even the nations of Canaan. See Ramban Bamidbar 21:21 and Devarim 20:10

[11] Kesef Mishna Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4. Rambam includes Amalek in this overture of peace, which is particularly difficult to justify.

[12] Ha’Amek Davar Devarim 2:24

[13] Bamidbar Rabba 19:33; For  similar midrashim see Devarim Rabba 5:13 and Tanhuma Shoftim 19:1. This midrash also explains why the commandment to call for peace before war is not mentioned earlier, even though the Torah has mentioned war on several occasions.

[14] Tanhuma Tzav 3:1; Mishlei 3:17

[15] Rashi Devarim 2:26. Rashi’s explanation plays on the language, “I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedmot,” the Hebrew word also means things that happened before or precedent.

[16] Mishlei 3:17

[17] Tekhumin 2:169-179

[18] Chazon Ish ruled that one aspect of the Noahide laws was accepting that these are an aspect of the Torah God gave to Israel, which would generally exclude Muslims.

[19] Although this would not apply to anyone that poses an existential threat to other citizens – such as terrorists.

[20] Daf Kesher 2:340 as explained in Gray Matter 4 Israel; Hilkhot Melakhim 6:3

[21] Mahanayim Adar 5729

[22] Ha’Tzava k’Halakha.

[23] Tanhuma Chukat 22:1; Tehillim 34:15; Bamidbar 22:

[24] This is not to say that they should make decisions in the place of military experts, but there are times when halakhic authorities are consulted about policy.

[25] Bamidbar Rabba

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.