Ancient Hebrews 'chose life'; ISIS picks death

Last week I attended a bat mitzvah during which the weekly Torah portion was somewhere around Deuteronomy 16 or so. I happened to flip the pages ahead a little, and read about instructions for preparations and conduct for battle.
Almost on a weekly basis, we are disgusted to hear of atrocities committed by ISIS in their domination of their enemies and conquering of territories. But their actions seem to follow the commandments of our Torah literally word-for-word.
Did God give them the same instructions? Are the early portions of their book of worship based upon the same foundations as our Torah? Are they really us? I find this very confusing, and disturbing!
Thank you!
Carl S.
Dear Carl,
This is a question I have been grappling with for many years, how to precisely define the difference, in terms that we can understand, between what the Torah commanded us to do when we entered the Land as opposed to what ISIS and others like them have done and continue to do.
I assume that you are referring to Deuteronomy 20:10-18. In this passage, we are commanded to call out to make peace with a city that we are attempting to conquer and add to the Land of Israel. If they fail to agree to peace, we are commanded to kill all the adult males, and take the females, children and animals as booty.
This applies to cities outside the perimeter of Israel; the cities within Israel we are commanded to destroy completely, including all inhabitants, even the animals, and take nothing at all as booty.
It’s very difficult to read this portion and not to wince, to imagine kind, loving Jewish men who value life to have to take the sword to an entire city and leave no one alive; imagine the pain and difficulty they would have in doing so!
With this point I think we can draw a powerful distinction between what we were commanded to perform and what we find ISIS and their ilk involved in, when they go on their killing sprees:
We, as Jews, view Life as the ultimate value; when fulfilling a mitzvah, even as significant as Shabbos, when its fulfillment clashes with human life we break the Shabbos as preserve life. We love life and are commanded to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
One may wonder, why is it necessary to command us to “choose life”? Isn’t it quite obvious that, faced with life or death, we would obviously choose life?
I think the answer is, because there are many people out there, such as many in the Muslim world, to whom Death is the key paradigm, not Life! We need this commandment to make it clear to us that this is not, and can never be, the Jewish paradigm. We should never learn from our neighbors how to relate to life and death!
For this reason, whenever, sadly, there has been a case, albeit few and far between but even once is too much, that Jews have wantonly murdered Arabs, it became a time of national mourning, shame and soul searching. Leaders of Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu did recently, called a time of national introspection as to how it is possible that one of our own would do something so despicable.
Even when we have no choice but to kill our enemies in times of war, it is always met with sadness, as the Midrash teaches, based on the verse “by the downfall of your enemy be not joyous,” that the Jews did not rejoice and recite Hallel when the Egyptians were drowned at the Sea of Reeds.
On the “other side of the fence,” however, the murder of innocent men, women and children is a reason for national celebration! As we’ve all seen, it’s a time for women to hand out candies, shoot of fireworks, name streets in honor of the murderers, and engage in mass joy and partying.
Only God, as the Creator of the universe and all of mankind, can make the painful decision that certain nations have lost their lease on life and it is better for the world, and the Jews, that they cease to exist rather than continue their existence and bring anger to God. It was God Who had to make the decision to bring about the Flood and destroy all of mankind besides Noah and his family; a few times in history He decided the same applies to a particular nation.
If we were chosen to carry out His will in doing so, we will do so despite the tremendous pain and difficulty in this most difficult of mitzvos. The commentaries discuss what they needed to do in order that the Jewish warriors would not be affected adversely or become cruel people once they finished this task.
This has nothing at all to do with those who laud cruelty and death, training small children to cut off the heads of teddy bears to prime them to soon do the same to people, bringing praise and lauding death and killing. (This is without entering into the difference of the Jews being commanded by direct prophecy by God, and ISIS and the like making their own decision that this is the will of God. This is a separate subject of understanding the concept of “fatwa,” which perhaps we will discuss another time.)
May we soon have no need to understand this distinction with the ushering in of Moshiach, speedily in our days!

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