Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who chose us from amongst the nations and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.
These blessings must be made before we study “Masechet Milchemet Simchat Torah,” the bewildering topic of the Simchat Torah War and the upheaval that has since gripped our world. We must study the war through the prism of G-d’s Torah, including the narrative sections that deliver perspective and understanding of world events and our own history. The gift of Torah that was celebrated on Simchat Torah provides us with the needed framing to sort through and rise above the jumble of confusing thoughts and feelings that have engulfed us since. This task will not be achieved by inspiring vertlach, micro-ideas that make for elegant and uplifting homilies. It requires identifying basic principles that underlie the Torah as a whole. Let us consider three of those ideas.
1. Why does the world not get it?
The distortion of the narrative around Israel has been downright maddening. World leaders take Israel to task for defending itself from a barbaric enemy, the media obsess over Israel’s obligation to protect civilians while providing hostage takers with a free pass, and all cite “context” to push forward visions for the future that ignore past and present. A fleeting moment of moral clarity in the wake of the horrors of October 7 quickly gave way to equivocation and self-righteous lectures on humanitarianism. We are shocked and infuriated by this, but we should not be.
G-d chose us from the nations and gave the Torah exclusively to us. “He shared His word with Jacob, His statutes and judgments with Israel. He did not do this for any other nation and did not inform them of His judgments.”1 While instinctively we may imagine the restriction placed on sharing Torah with the world as limited to the intricacies of those mitzvot reserved for Jews, it applies no less to the profound lessons of the Torah’s equally revelatory historic narrative. As Rashi2 taught us in his introduction to the Torah narrative:
Rabbi Isaac said: “The Torah which is the law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2): ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6): ‘Ko’ach ma’asav higid l’amo, He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e., He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.’ For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, ‘You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,’ Israel may reply to them, ‘All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He chose, He gave it to them, and when He chose, He took it from them and gave it to us.’”
The nations will accuse us, yet G-d’s response is directed not at them but at us, higid l’amo. They are not students of Torah and therefore are not expected to understand the G-d of history. The initial flash of moral clarity following Simchat Torah could be grasped by anyone, as those acts of brutal horror violated the basic standards that G-d taught the entire world, the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach (the Seven Noahide Laws). But only the Jewish people were taught the next-step view of the broader context of history and how to properly perceive world events. Our task is therefore to double down on that Torah of Bereishit, to immerse ourselves in the knowledge of the G-d of Creation and the mission with which He tasked mankind and ultimately focused on His Chosen People. We need to constantly reflect on the ramifications of how that choice has advanced our national history, including both our privileges and our obligations. We must cast aside our blinding fury at the world’s failure to understand this Torah of history and focus instead on deepening our own understanding of that Torah and how it must guide us.
Core Principle I: Ko’ach ma’asav higid l’amo: Replace fury with study.
The Torah is the source for both our values and our story, such that a genuine understanding of world events as they impact the Jewish people relies on the gift of revelation that G-d granted us when He gave us His Torah. As is the case with every aspect of Torah, this perspective is not self-evident. Yagata umatzata ta’amin.3 It is especially in the areas of Torah on which our emunah, our very faith, depends that we must work to discover, comprehend and claim it for ourselves. We must not expect that the world at large will simply “get it.”
2. Was this attack really unprecedented?
Two weeks after Simchat Torah, I had the privilege to visit with a group of IDF rabbis who were charged with the task of bringing the remains of the murdered to proper Jewish burial. This group of approximately thirty seasoned Torah scholars had spent the previous weeks witnessing and tending to the unimaginable as they handled and buried the remains of more than 1,000 Jews brutally killed in a single day. They saw with their own eyes and felt with their hands the cruelty, barbarism and sadism of Hamas. The trauma of that experience is inconceivable, yet as we sat together, they were composed and focused.
It was immediately apparent that to these outstanding individuals, our national story is not an abstraction. As they cared for the remains of those brutally massacred, they were holding Jewish history in their hands, damim b’damim nagu.4 The brutalized corpses they were handling were shockingly familiar and recognizable to them. The charred remains they were tenderly wrapping in cloth were the victims of the Churban and the Crusades, of Chmielnicki and the Cossacks, and, of course, the Nazis.
The Jews’ strategy for success in battle is simply this: We fight for each other and not with each other.
They understood that what they were experiencing was part of the history of netzach Yisrael, the eternal Jewish people who had traveled this road before and were continuing nevertheless on their mission forward. This knowledge helped them absorb and integrate the horrors they were seeing within their personal identity and sense of national mission.
Ramban5 considered the entire Book of Bereishit—not just its first chapter—as the extended story of Creation, with the Biblical narrative establishing and foretelling the recurring patterns of history for all time:
I will tell you a principle by which you will understand all the coming portions of Scripture concerning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is indeed a great matter which our rabbis mentioned briefly, saying: “Whatever has happened to the Patriarchs is a sign to the children.” It is for this reason that the verses narrate at great length the account of the journeys of the Patriarchs, the digging of the wells and other events. While one may consider them unnecessary and of no useful purpose, in truth they all serve as a lesson for the future: when an event happens to any one of the three Patriarchs, that which is decreed to happen to his children can be understood.
Ma’aseh Avot siman l’banim. The student of the Torah of Bereishit who has absorbed the revelation of G-d in history will never speak of the “unprecedented.” That student will invoke “never again” solely as an expression of fierce commitment to avoid repeating historic mistakes but never as a prediction or as a gallant claim of invincibility.
Core Principle II: Ma’aseh Avot siman l’banim:6 Nothing in Jewish history is unprecedented.
Jewish history necessarily repeats itself, following Biblical patterns. We must study that history to correctly understand our experiences and place them in their broader context. We are never traveling in uncharted waters. We have been here before.
3. What are we fighting for?
Shortly after the outbreak of this horrible war, the seventh floor of an office tower in Tel Aviv was transformed into an operations center for efforts to rescue the hostages. In one room one could find piles of freshly printed posters with images of the captives to be used for public awareness campaigns. In another, political and diplomatic strategists huddled together, exploring new strategic avenues for negotiating the freedom of the hostages, while in another, a hi-tech team scoured film footage for additional information on their whereabouts. In yet another larger room, family members milled about, finding company and some comfort in each other while awaiting news and opportunities to do something—anything—to advance the cause of their captured loved ones. Volunteers from across the religious and political spectrum came to visit, to feed and to embrace the families.
That office suite radiated intense energy, tragedy and, at the same time, beauty. It served as a perfect illustration of the Jewish credo of the battlefield and of life itself: Avraham heard that his brother had been taken captive and he went to war for his freedom. The first war waged by a Jew serves as the paradigm for all the wars we have had to wage throughout our history. Securing and preserving life is our objective in battle and, as in the case of Avraham, is our mission on the home front, driving a nurturing culture of kindness and care. It defines the ethos of the Israeli army, which operates with the singular goal of saving lives while doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties, and it is the spirit of Am Yisrael that has rallied around all those affected by this war: hostages and soldiers, the wounded and the murdered, the uprooted and the traumatized, and—in every case—their families.
A story has circulated about a Chareidi man and a group of his friends who arrived at an army base, bringing fresh warm meals for the soldiers. While the Chareidi man was serving a soldier, the chayal asked: “Eich korim lecha?” “What is your name?” He responded, “Korim li Am Yisrael,” “My name is Am Yisrael.” That endearing response says it all and encapsulates the ray of light in the dense darkness of this period, the fusion of battlefield, home front and the entire Jewish world in an overwhelming blitz of ahavat Yisrael, pushing back on the shocking level of internal discord that had been plaguing our people for the previous nine months.
The Jews’ strategy for success in battle crafted for us by Avraham Avinu is simply this: We fight for each other and not with each other.
Ma’aseh Avot siman l’banim. That has always been the winning strategy. It is as true now as it has been throughout history. The Midrash7teaches that the four kings against whom Avraham waged war were representative of the four kingdoms that constitute the span of Jewish history. Our battles with them needed to be approached exactly as that original battle was fought by Avraham. What could drive Avraham—the paragon of chesed whose kindness was extended to every wandering stranger, who prayed to G-d to spare the evil city of Sodom—to go to war? Avraham, who treasured life and giving, waged war to save life, not to destroy. He went to battle to rescue Lot, to sanctify Hashem’s Name by standing up in defense of the oppressed.8 That is what drove him to battle and that is what made him successful. We, too, will win battles and wars only when we are driven by care and concern for others.
That is how Moshe emerged as the leader to triumph over Egypt. Whereas Pharaoh sought to kill Jewish babies, the Jewish midwives—Moshe’s mother and sister—risked their lives to save them. Moshe was a defender of people, emerging as an individual to save an afflicted Jew and Midianite, and ultimately tasked as a leader with saving the entire nation. He destroyed Egypt—he had to destroy Egypt—to save the Jews the Egyptians were intent on destroying. The current conflict with Hamas is a replay of this recurrent conflict, a battle of life against death. More than a war over sovereignty or territory, it is a basic clash of cultures and values. And the values we fight hardest for are care and life.
Core Principle III: Vayishma Avram ki nishbah achiv:9 We fight for each other and not with each other.
“Avram heard that his brother had been taken captive.” Compassion is the driver of all true Jewish warriors, the descendants of Avraham. We must be unconditionally loyal and committed to each other. Lot was not literally Avraham’s brother, and his move to Sodom demonstrated his choice to reject Avraham’s value system. None of that mattered. Avraham went to war to gain Lot’s freedom. That is the paradigm for all the wars we have needed to wage throughout our history and is the strategy for success in our every battle.
The Sages taught: A potential convert who comes to a court to convert during this time when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: “What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them?” If he says: “I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so,” they accept him immediately.10
This is the story of the Jewish people. It is punctuated with tragedy. We have been insulated from it for a while, but as Mashiach has not yet come, we were reminded with a jolt that this remains our story.
Yet, since the day of that horrific tragedy, we have been reminded as well of the privilege of belonging to this remarkable nation. Watching how Jews everywhere awoke to fight death with life and cruelty with kindness, we recognize that while our story is filled with sorrow it is defined even more by meaning and purpose. We are so grateful to be a part of it.
Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, Who gave us a Torah of truth and implanted eternity within us. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.
1. Tehillim 147.
2. Bereishit 1:1.
3. Megillah 6b.
4. Hosheia 4:2.
5. Quote is from Ramban’s commentary to Bereishit 12:6. Note, as well, his introduction to Shemot.
6. Bereishit Rabbah 48:7.
7. Bereishit Rabbah 42:4.
8. Bereishit Rabbah 43:2, Yefeh To’ar.
9. Bereishit 14:14.
10. Yevamot 47a.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.