God as a Man of War or as The Compassionate One?

I remember the day that Osama bin Laden was killed. It was two weeks before my graduation from rabbinical school at JTS. When I heard the news I also heard people dancing in the street. There was going to be a celebration at Times Square and for a moment I thought about going. Then I realized that the loss of life, even of one of our sworn enemies, is not something to celebrate.

For those who did celebrate the death of Osama, or of others who have sought to do us harm, there is a justifiable basis for it. After all, we say a prayer every morning and in today’s Torah reading about a celebration after a people was destroyed. This prayer is Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea that Moses and the Israelites sang after Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Sea of Reeds.  I would like to focus on the third verse of the song: ה איש מלחמה ה שמו, “Adonai is a man of war, Adonai is his name.”  When I hear this verse, I often think of Man O War, the winning horse from the 1920s, but I also think of God as a warrior, leading the troops into battle.  This image of God does not sit well with me, as while I am far from a pacifist, I am more inclined to think of a God who loves all of humanity, rather than allying with some and fighting others.  What do we do with this difficult image of God?

Rashi, an 11th century French biblical commentator, is not bothered by God leading the Israelites into battle but rather with God acting like a human general, plunging into battle with sword and spear.  Instead of this, Rashi states that God fights for the Israelites by God’s name, using as evidence that the statement “Adonai is his name” which follows “Adonai is a man of war.” Furthermore, Rashi points out that David said to Goliath “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of Adonai of hosts.”  For Rashi, this statement indicates that God’s name itself is a weapon which can be unleashed against the enemy and which is more powerful than human weapons.

It is Rashi’s second explanation, however, that piques my interest.  In this explanation, Rashi alludes to the idea that different names of God correspond to different attributes of God.  Elohim is God’s stern, judging side, and Adonai is God’s forgiving, merciful side.  Rashi says the use of Adonai here indicates that even when God is fighting on behalf of the Israelites, God has mercy on his creations and feeds everything in the world, unlike human kings, who when engage in war turn away from all other things.  This demonstrates both that God is the multitasker par excellence and that God continues to have compassion for people even when they do not act as God wants them to.  Perhaps this why we refer to God as אל רחום וחנון the merciful and compassionate one, before we take out the Torah on festivals.

Rashi’s comment reminds me of a Midrash found in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One Blessed be He said, ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you chant hymns?’”  God created the Egyptians just as God created the Israelites, and they are God’s children just as the Israelites are.  This Midrash puts into question the idea of the Israelites rejoicing at the Song of the Sea, as how can one creation rejoice at the downfall of another creation?  It also shows that there is a difference between being thankful that our ancestors were saved from the hands of bondage versus rejoicing at the downfall of other human beings. In addition, this is a reason why we recite half hallel instead of full hallel at the end of Passover, as our joy is diminished from the Egyptians perishing. It is also why we pour a drop of wine from each of our cups when reading the Egyptians’ suffering from the 10 Plagues at the Seder.

This is extremely poignantin our lives. There is still much slavery in the world. The fact that one person can be denied the basic human right of freedom by being held in bondage to another, just as our ancestors were enslaved to the Egyptians, is horrifying.  There are also world leaders, Bin Laden, Saddam Houssein, Ahmadinejad and most recently Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who have preached the importance of wiping modern day Israel off the map.

We need to pray for both the downfall of slavery and of demagogic rulers who seek to do us harm.  However, we need to remember not to lose sight of our ultimate goal: that there will be peace throughout the world and in Israel. Rather than rejoicing at the death of our enemies, we can actively work towards a peaceful future. It’s easy to dance at the deaths of our enemies-after all they hated Jews. However, celebrating their deaths is in my opinion not the answer. Rather it is to work towards ensuring that leaders such as these don’t come into power in the first place.

As we hear the Song of the Sea, let us envision God as both defeating our adversaries as well as providing them with food to sustain them during their lives.  May we be like God, both fighting those who strive to harm us and recognizing that as terrible as their ideologies are, they are humans who are made in the image of God.  As the Midrash in Sifrei Devarim states, “Just as God is called the merciful and compassionate one, so shall you be merciful and compassionate.”  Also, as Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, said in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Berachot 10a, ‘Let sins cease and there be wicked no more,’ pray that they (the sinners) repent and be wicked no more.  May we be compassionate; praying not for the destruction of our enemies but for their repentance, which God willing will bring us closer to a time of peace.

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