As Israelites, we are Hashem’s priests, His ambassadors, His soldiers, His labourers, His children, and His caregivers. Everything we do, no matter how mundane or how exalted, reflects upon Him. We have duties to Him in our daily lives to represent Him and make a good show of it. We also have duties to one another as citizens of Hashem’s Holy Nation. What are those duties and how seriously must we take them?
Hungarian Jewish women at Auschwitz
Compare the cover image of this article, women training in the Haganah in what would become Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), with the image above of Jewish women in Aushwitz.
Duty to Defend Life
In Judaism, life is sacred. All life is sacred. Hashem tells us that we are not to kill in hate, that is without justification. Although there are quite a few crimes which call for the death penalty, we know that there were courts established under Torah, that at least two eye witnesses had to testify to the crime, and that the punishment must fit the crime. All of this due process meant that few people would be executed. In fact, there are very few examples of the death penalty being applied in our scriptures or later recorded history. The greatest gift Hashem has given us is a life to defend. In Karaite tradition we understand that since Devarim (30:19) tells us to “choose life” by observing the law, that Torah observance should not harm or endanger one’s life. Likewise, the purpose is to protect and enhance our lives.
If someone comes to do harm to you, someone you love, or even someone in your community it is your duty to defend life if you can. Obviously, this should be done wisely and with a priority toward your own safety and that of your family. The Holocaust is a prime example. When the Germans came to liquidate the ghettos, it was the duty of the Israelites therein to resist. It is the duty of an Israelite to rush the aggressor. The first man or woman may die, possibly the second, but eventually the aggressor will go down. An Israelite will take his gun, and use it. Perhaps this brave Israelite, too, will fall. The few cannot oppress the many where the many rise. A few Israelites may die, but in time several will be armed and the conflict will be more equal. There is an oft cited Rabbinical dictum which teaches that if someone rises to do you harm, rise before him to defend yourself. What happened in the Holocaust when Jews did resist?
In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, about 220 lightly armed Jews wreaked havoc on local German Army units. Support from the Polish Resistance, who tried to smuggle in weapons, and even from the Communists was light and of little help. Yet, the Germans had to pull an entire army group from the Eastern Front with the Soviet Union to defend against their fears of a general uprising of the Jews in captivity in German-occupied lands. This contributed in no small way to the war’s ultimate result.
Now, let us consider the Haganah (defense) and Irgun (organization – short for “The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel”), which were two important military forces in the British Mandate of Palestine during the 1920’s and 30’s. These groups fought to protect Jewish lives and settlements from occasional attack by Arab factions and from the unfortunate policies of the British government of the time. In 1947 and 48 these groups rose up, ultimately united, and formed the State of Israel, a land in which all Jews are welcome and in which Jews may defend themselves from attack. Jews have a duty to defend ourselves, our families, and our communities; to defend life.
We should whenever possible and legal, arm ourselves and make ourselves wise in the ways of firearms and defensive hand to hand fighting. We should not allow ourselves to become victims. In the book of Esther we learn of Jews who carefully and methodically maneuvered themselves into a place wherein they could adequately defend themselves from attack. They did not plunder or despoil their attackers nor did they attack others not engaged in attacking them; they limited their actions purely to the defense of life.
Duty to the Truth
The Torah commands us not to be false witnesses and not to pervert justice or allow wickedness to remain in our midst. Implied in this commandment is the affirmative commandment to be a witness to the truth. If we see, hear, or perceive things that are true as we understand them, we must come forward to speak this truth. If we are witnesses to a crime we must come forward and speak the truth. If we have testimony to contribute to a legal dispute or family law situation we must speak what we know. We must be honest and objective, making certain that any opinions are expressed as such and separated from facts as we understand them. We must act. To allow justice to go astray because an individual did not come forth to speak is criminal; it makes the individual so refusing to testify an accomplice, in a way, to the crime itself.
Duty to our Neighbor
In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:1-4 we are commanded that if we see our neighbor’s donkey where it should not be, or fallen beside the road, we may not turn away. We must return the donkey or help our neighbor lift his animal. We cannot lead the blind man astray (Devarim 27:18). These are examples of a general principal expressed in many ways in the Torah: if we can help others then we must do so. If you know that your neighbor is abused, you must help to rescue them. If you can offer assistance do so.
We must also be aware of the Rambam’s (Maimonides) axiom that if you give a man a fish he eats today, if you teach a man to fish he eats for life. In order for us to help someone they must be willing to accept that help. If a person is malfeasant in life and deliberately eschews efforts to aid them, then there is nothing we can do until they genuinely seek our assistance. Neither should we cause our children to go hungry to help those of another. Charity and generosity are the purview of those who have enough to sate themselves, as Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) suggested when discussing proper fasting (58:7):
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
The righteous man or woman is one who seeks to observe the Law as best he or she can. To the best of our ability we should serve one another, care for one another, and protect one another. We are Hashem’s people, a light unto the nations. When possible, we should join with His righteous among the nations to aid in the general effort to improve global conditions.
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 12:13-14:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter from Fear YHVH and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For YHVH will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”