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We are now in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), and, as we move along towards the Torah's closing portions, we see a lot of material relating to the impending entry into the Land of Israel and the subsequent battles which will take place with the Canaanites. This week's parsha, Eikev, has an interesting little imaginary conversation which takes place between Moshe and the Jewish people:
"Hear, O Israel: you are going to pass over the Jordan this day, to go and possess nations which are greater and mightier than you, large cities, fortified up to the heavens....Do not say in your heart, when God has pushed them out before you, saying: it is because of my righteousness that God did bring me to possess this land, and because of the wickedness of these nations that God is dispossessing them before us. Not because of your righteousness or because of the uprightness of your heart are you entering to possess their land, but rather it is because of the wickedness of these nations that God is dispossessing them before you, and in order that he might uphold the word which God swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov."
These verses seem to deal with a difficult and still-relevant moral-ethical issue. The Jewish people are depicted here as not buying into a simplistic 'might makes right' understanding of the defeat they assume they are about to inflict upon the Canaanite nations. Rather, Moshe, theorises that the Jewish people are trying to understand, from a moral perspective, why God is supporting them and punishing the Canaanites; they are trying to formulate reasons for the military victory they will soon enjoy over these people. Moshe assumes they will see themselves as "righteous", and therefore deserving of this favored treatment on the field of battle. They also see the Canaanites as evil, and therefore deserving of the punishment they are about to suffer. Moshe corrects them: you are half-right. It is not your righteousness that lies at the root of the upcoming conquest. Rather, it is, as you suspected, the evil of your adversary that will be the reason for their downfall. Moshe goes on to explain how the Israelites are not righteous, and reminds them of the sin of the golden calf.
It seems to me that beyond this specific, historical lack of righteousness on the part of the Israelites, we can, perhaps, also understand Moshe's words this way: in war, no one can be seen as righteous. The nature of waging a war - perhaps the very fact of nationhood - makes "righteousness" a difficult, if not impossible, goal to achieve. Nations can not be perfect. They can, however, try to not be wicked. A nation can, and must - in general, and in the waging of war in particular - aspire to at least not be evil. The Canaanites, Moshe tells us, have failed in that. The Israelites, we hope, will understand that, as a nation, righteousness may be beyond their reach, but they, at least, must not sink to the level of wickedness of the Canaanite nations. In fact, it is this very wickedness with which they must do battle, and which they must, and will, defeat.
With the usual caveat about not making a one-to-one parallel between material in the Torah and in the news, let me say this: Israel may not be able - though we try - to be completely righteous in the war we are waging today, but given the nature of the terror we are facing, which targets innocent men, women, and children, we are certainly fighting evil.