How to Make Peace in Hebrew? | Parashat Ki Teitzei

Recently, I listened to a song ‘Asiti’ (‘I Made / I Did’) of Israeli performer Jimbo J. The opening line of the song was ‘What does it mean ‘I served’? I did the army!’. This song showed how strong is the influence of English language on Hebrew. In Hebrew we find a long list of not-used verbs, replaced by a pair of “do/make” and an appropriate noun. So many Israelis do the army (and don’t serve in it), do the Jerusalem marathon (and don’t run it) etc.

In the very same way, those of Israelis who still seek for peace with our neighbors, speak in terms of ‘making peace’ (la’asot shalom), although Hebrew has a special verb for it – l’hashlim.

This word we can find in our portion ‘Ki Teitzei’. In addition we find two more forms which use ‘peace’ – to call for peace (likro’ l’shalom) and to answer with peace (la’anot shalom).

“When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace (v’karata eleiha l’shalom). If it responds peaceably (v’haya im shalom ta’ankha) and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender (tashlim) to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it; and when the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword.” Deuteronomy 20:10-13

Somehow, the literal meaning of the verb l’hashlim is to surrender. Only surrendering could mean peaceful ending of potential war in times of the book of Deuteronomy. But today the word ‘peace’ – ‘shalom’ has another meaning. And the word’s use in the Torah can enrich the meaning of peace in our time and maybe help us in seeking a way for achieving it.

The Book of Deuteronomy is the first book in the Bible, which explains the basic principles of a Jewish state. Well, it’s not completely Jewish, more a state of the people of Israel. Look on it. The State [of the People] of Israel. So besides plenty of moral rules and commandments, we can also find laws of appointing judges, police and kings (like in the previous Torah portion). And I deeply believe that we can learn from the book of Deuteronomy also about how to rule a Jewish state in our days.

Ki Teitzei starts with the rules of war. “When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1). In ancient times many authors tried to describe the rules of war. One of the prominent books in ancient Chinese literature was Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. War in the ancient world was an issue of – either you win or you lose.

In modern times the new approach was developed. The authors tried to describe the processes which happened in a society during a wartime. They looked for complicity and thought that in war even if your state wins, you may lose. For example, in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, the author tried to see personal perspectives behind the people. Through these perspectives we can find different people from both sides, and we can see many unhappy people even on the winners’ side.

Coming back from the books to the reality, the 70 years of the existence of the State of Israel taught us that even a justified war had many difficult consequences. In our days even a war followed by surrender does not mean peace. In Hebrew, the word ‘shalom’ has the same root as the word ‘shalem’ – perfect or complete. That is why in every pursuit for peace we need to call for ‘shalom’ – to call for complete existence – and to achieve a peaceful answer – completing both sides to have the whole picture of life of peace – ‘shalom’.

About the author:

Binyamin Minich is a student in the Israeli Rabbinic Program at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. You can follow him on facebook here.