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The month of Elul, in preparation for Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, is dedicated to introspective self-improvement, and there are traditional Jewish meditation practices that can be helpful in this work. Tal Orot will feature four sessions in Elul in which we will practice a set of meditation methods that can help facilitate the process of Teshuvah: clearing our minds, identifying areas that need improvement, and connecting us with our inner resources for positive change. Please fill out this Google form to join the class.

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Parashat Shoftim 5780

Meir Sendor

In the midst of the generally dismal news around the world these days, the announcement of a normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is especially heartening. The UAE, by many accounts, was particularly well-positioned to take this step by virtue of its sincere and longstanding educational program to cultivate tolerance and affirmation of other religions and cultures among its citizens. This outlook is a core value of authentic Islam, though in the current practice of some other Muslim countries tribal and political attitudes have obscured it. There are realpolitik considerations for the move, for both sides, but we can appreciate the enlightened principle that helped facilitate this initiative, which is also a core value for authentic Torah Judaism, properly understood.

This week’s parashah, which focuses on nation-building, includes the laws of warfare. The Land of Canaan was a dangerous neighborhood well before the Israelite conquest, with mom-and-pop tribes in constant warfare against each other. And though the conquest is often portrayed as ruthless, a closer look shows a somewhat more humane principle at work.

דברים פרק כ פסוק י

כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום:


When you draw near to a city to fight against it, you shall call to it for peace.

Maimonides includes this in his codification of halakhah and expands upon it:

רמב”ם הלכות מלכים פרק ו הלכה א

אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם עד שקוראין לו שלום אחד מלחמת הרשות ואחד מלחמת מצוה, שנאמר כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום, אם השלימו וקבלו שבע מצות שנצטוו בני נח עליהן אין הורגין מהן נשמה והרי הן למס,


Maimonides Laws of Kings 6:1

War is not waged against any person in the world until he is called for peace, whether it be an optional war or a mitzvah war, as it says “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, you shall call to it for peace.” If they make peace and accept the seven Noachide Laws that the descendants of Noach were commanded, not a single soul is killed, and they shall be a tributary.

I don’t want to sugarcoat this – those were brutal times, and being a tributary meant being subservient. If the city being attacked refused the offer of peace, if it was one of the idolatrous Canaanite nations it was to be  wiped out in a mitzvah war; for other nations, combatants were killed, women and children spared.  But the fact that peace is always offered first, under all conditions, is significant. One of the sources for Maimonides is the midrash halakhah Sifrei Shoftim (199):

ספרי דברים פרשת שופטים פיסקא קצט

וקראת אליה לשלום, … גדול שלום שאפילו במלחמתם של ישראל צריכים שלום גדול שלום שדרי רום צריכים שלום שנאמר +איוב כה ב+ עושה שלום במרומיו גדול שלום שחותמים בו ברכת כהנים ואף משה היה אוהב שלום שנאמר +דברים ב כו+ ואשלח מלאכים ממדבר קדמות אל סיחון מלך חשבון דברי שלום.


“And you shall call to it for peace,”… Great is peace, for even in the wars of Israel they required peace. Great is peace, for those who dwell above need peace, as it says “He makes peace in His high places (Job 25:2).” Great is peace, for the blessing of the Kohanim is sealed with peace. And Moshe, too, was a lover of peace, as it says “and I sent emissaries from the eastern desert to Sichon, the king of Cheshbon, with words of peace (Dt. 2:26).”

In the Gemara Yerushalmi Shevi’it (6:1) it says that Yehoshua, leading the conquest of the Land of Israel, followed this halakhah as well:

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת שביעית פרק ו הלכה א

רבי שמואל שלש פרסטיניות שלח יהושע לארץ ישראל עד שלא יכנסו לארץ מי שהוא רוצה להפנות יפנה להשלים ישלים לעשות מלחמה יעשה


Rabbi Shmuel said: Yehoshua sent three emissaries to the Land of Israel before they entered the Land, [with the message:] whoever wants to depart, depart; whoever wants to make peace, make peace; whoever wants to wage war, do it.

Only the Givonim, a sub-tribe of the Hivites, chose to make peace, and the peace was honored.

That peace always takes precedence is a relatively compassionate policy, but it is not just about coexistence. Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, in an essay in Orot, lays out a far-reaching vision of ideal relationship between Israel and other nations of the world:

God has been charitable with His world by not placing all aptitudes in one place, not in one person and not in one nation, not in one land, not in one generation nor in one world. Rather, aptitudes are scattered, and the need for wholeness, which is the most idealistic attracting power, motivates the pursuit of the most exalted unity, which must necessarily come to the world, “and in that day the Lord will be one and His Name one (Zech. 14:9).”


The eternal treasury of the virtue of Israel is hidden. But to unite the world with them in a general sense it is necessary that certain aspects of certain aptitudes be lacking in Israel, such that they be made whole by the world and all the noble ones of the nations. In this way there is a place for a receptivity in Israel to receive from the world. As a consequence the way is open for influence, though receptivity is external and influence is internal. This is to say that the innerness of life is whole in Israel, without need for assistance from any alien power in the world, and all power of dominion in Israel flows from the innerness of life, “from the midst of your brethren – from the most distinguished of your brethren (Baba Kama 88a on Deut. 17:15).” It is regarding the externality of life that it occurs that fulfillment is necessary specifically from the outside, “the beauty of Yafet in the tents of Shem (Megillah 9b on Gen. 9:27),” … From the flow of the innerness of life the Congregation of Israel only influences, never receives, “the Lord set him apart, and with him is no strange deity (Deut. 32:12 )” (Orot, 152).

In this passage, Rav Kook lays out a theology of international cooperation: that by divine plan each nation is granted certain aptitudes and certain deficiencies, so that by necessity nations must interrelate to develop a collective cultural wholeness. This necessary interdependence also applies to Israel and its place among the nations. Rav Kook is alert to the dangers of negative influence, but insists that if we have a clear understanding of the inner spiritual strength of Israel and our mission in the world, we can engage with other nations and cultures with confidence and solidarity and no fear of harm.

In a letter to the kabbalist Rabbi Pinchas HaKohen Lintop of Birzh, Rav Kook gives a further rationale for mutual sharing between Israel and the nations: not just as filling a deficit, but for the sake of cultivating a peaceful relationship among all nations that is spiritually enlightening:

Concerning the other religions I will state to your honor my opinion, that it is not the aim of the enlightenment that emanates from Israel to absorb or destroy them, just as it is not our aim to destroy the world’s different nationalities. Our aim is rather to perfect them and to elevate them, to purge them of their dross. Then they will automatically be joined to the root of Israel, which will exert on them an enlightening influence… (Letters, vol. 1, letter 112).

Rav Kook’s vision, based on the prophetic tradition, goes beyond coexistence, beyond mere tolerance, to a synergistic cooperation among nations. The mission of Israel includes promoting the interconnectedness of all peoples, purifying  and elevating the aptitudes of all nations in wholeness and holiness.  This is a mature vision of the place of Israel in the world.

The month of Elul that we are begining, in preparation for Rosh HaShanah, is about repair of relationships — between ourselves and HaShem, between each other, and with ourselves. It’s about shifting the dynamics of our lives in positive directions. The agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a positive shift. It’s called a “normalization,” but has promise to go further, to cooperation, and perhaps, with God’s help, can serve as first step and a model for transforming this suffering region of the world. May it inspire us all to recognize our brother and sisterhood, to educate not for hatred and violence but for friendship and mutual support, and to work together in peace for the advancement of all humanity.


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