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Fear Or Distress?

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The midrash tells us is that Judaism recognizes the existence of dilemmas. Despite the intricacy of Jewish law and its meta-halachic principles for deciding which of two duties takes priority, we may still be faced with situations in which there is great cause for distress. It was Jacob’s greatness that he was capable of moral anxiety even at the prospect of doing something entirely justified, namely defending his life at the cost of his brother’s.

That characteristic – distress at violence and potential bloodshed, even when undertaken in self-defense – has stayed with the Jewish people ever since. One of the most remarkable phenomena in modern history was the reaction of Israeli soldiers after the 1967 Six-Day War. In the weeks preceding the war, few Jews anywhere in the world were unaware that Israel and its people faced terrifying danger. Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian troops were massing on all its borders. Israel was surrounded by enemies who had sworn to drive its people into the sea. In the war, Israel won one of the most stunning military victories of all time. The sense of relief was overwhelming, as was the exhilaration at the reunification of Jerusalem and the fact that Jews could now pray – after 19 years – at the Western Wall. Even the most secular Israelis admitted to feeling intense religious emotion at what they knew was a historic triumph.

Yet, in the months after the war, as conversations took place throughout Israel, it became clear that the mood among those who had taken part in the war was anything but triumphal. It was somber, reflective, even anguished. That year, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem gave an honorary doctorate to Yitzhak Rabin, chief of staff during the war. During his acceptance speech, he said:

“We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.”

A people capable of feeling distress, even in victory, is one that knows the tragic complexity of the moral life. Sometimes it is not enough to make the right choice. One must also fight to create a world in which such choices do not arise because we have sought and found non-violent ways of resolving conflict.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”

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