“Let My People Go:” Invading Egypt and Modern Iraq

Sermon delivered February 3, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

The amidah, the central portion of the Jewish worship service, includes nineteen prayers on weekdays, but only seven on Shabbat. On the Sabbath, we eliminate petitionary prayers, asking God for specific blessings. After all, Shabbat is a day of rest for God, not only for humanity.

Nevertheless, we do yet offer one prayer request on Shabbat. Even on the day of rest, we ask God to bring peace to our troubled world. A variety of explanations are offered, most of them claiming that Birkat Shalom, the Prayer for Peace, isn’t really a petitionary prayer. Methinks the Rabbis protest too much.

I would offer two other reasons why this prayer of petition is asked on Shabbat. First, Shabbat is considered to be a foretaste of the Messianic future. On this day of peace, we ask for a time when Sabbath peace will not end. Second, and more simply, praying for peace is so important that it overrides the Shabbat requirement to rest. Working toward peace, for us and for God, is too critical for either heaven or Earth to suspend it one day out of seven.

Though peace is primary in our tradition, Jews are not typically pacifists. Torah offers many cases in which God commands the Children of Israel to make war. In our post-Holocaust era, one would have to look hard to find the Jew – or any American, for that matter – who would argue that our nation should not have engaged in the Second World War. Though we may have misgivings about some Israeli military actions, we rejoice in Israel’s military successes, leading to the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948 and saving Israel from annihilation in 1967.

In our Prayer for Peace, God is praised as Oseh hashalom, the Maker of peace. Nevertheless, the Torah frequently depicts God as making war. In one instance, when the Children of Israel are attacked in the desert, God commands Moses to hold his hands high throughout the battle. As long as Moses’ hands are raised, the Israelites are headed for victory. When Moses tires, though, their enemies gain ground. Ultimately, Moses’ brother, Aaron, and a kinsman, Hur, hold Moses’ hands high for him. The Israelites are victorious. The clear implication is that the Children of Israel have won the battle, not because of their military might, but because of Divine power.

In the words of the Torah, God’s greatest military victory is the liberation of our people from Egyptian bondage. We are frequently told that God redeemed us from slavery “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” While the “outstretched arm” implies a loving God, shepherding the people to freedom; the “mighty hand” refers to God’s power. After the Israelites cross the Red Sea on dry land, and the water closes to drown the Egyptians in pursuit, Moses and Miriam lead the people in a unique song of rejoicing. While parts of the Song at the Sea are well known, other parts are not. We are told, “God has cast the horse and its rider into the sea;” and, most starkly: “The Lord is a Man of war; Adonai is God’s name.”

We might ask: How can God be both “Maker of peace” and “a Man of war?”

At times, one must make war, in order to build peace.

The Children of Israel do not live in peace in ancient Egypt. Slavery is an act of war, perpetrated upon the Israelites by Pharaoh. Pharaoh decrees the murder of every baby boy born to the Hebrews, an act of genocide, threatening to wipe out our people. God, then, can be compared to an invading army, attacking Egypt, making war with the intention of liberating people, building peace.

Surely, the Allies of World War II made peace, when they attacked a cruel and diabolical warrior and murderer, Adolph Hitler. In the Pacific, the Allies made war on a regime that was waging unprovoked terror upon its neighbors. Millions upon millions were killed, not only by the evil regimes, but also by the Allies themselves. One may surely question specific Allied acts, such as fire bombings and especially the use of the atomic bomb. And yet, the end result of the Allies’ war was peace. If we have cause for complaint, it would be that our own country waited so long to enter the war, and did not do so until our own soldiers and territory were attacked. Isolationist impulses, keeping America out of that war for so long, increased the suffering and the duration of the war. When our country finally did resolve to make war, the murderous tyranny of Germany and Japan was brought to an end. Both nations now live at peace, and in friendship, with their neighbors and former enemies.

The situation of the current war in Iraq seems far more complex and confusing. Many of us feel compelled to oppose American intervention in Iraq for understandable reasons. We were told that we were going to war to rid the world of an unstable regime that possessed weapons of mass destruction. Those arms, it would seem, do not exist. Evidence points to faulty intelligence, with credible claims that politicians manipulated the work of the intelligence community.

Worse, we are subjected to repeated hints that deposing Saddam Hussein is somehow a response to the barbaric attacks of September 11. No evidence points to official Iraqi involvement in 9/11, and yet the two matters are frequently linked in rhetoric. No wonder many Americans are skeptical about this war in Iraq.

Moreover, we are justifiably disturbed by various aspects of the way that the war has been conducted. We wonder if enough troops have been committed to the effort, or if sufficient numbers of fighters were sent soon enough. We decry the lack of protective armor, which might have saved many of the American lives lost. We wonder if an all-volunteer force can offer our nation sufficient numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to win this war and defend our nation on every possible front. We bemoan the undue burden placed upon a narrow slice of our society – namely, members of our Armed Forces and their families – while the rest of us live comfortably. We are baffled at the diplomatic blunders that led us into war without more support from our allies. The list of our complaints and concerns about this war is endless.

Indeed, so many mistakes have been made; so much of the conduct of this war is morally questionable, that we may be tempted to forget or to soft-pedal the evil of the regime that America has deposed. Make no mistake: Saddam Hussein is a butcher. He is a tyrant. He is a murderer. Saddam Hussein was a dictator who made war for the sake of his own aggrandizement. He killed millions of his own people, burying them in mass graves. Whether or not he had weapons of mass destruction, he behaved as though he did. We can only conclude that he wanted the world to believe that he had such arms. However uninvolved in 9/11, Saddam Hussein constantly made war on his own people and his neighbors – and, less directly, on the entire world. Ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, like defeating the Pharaoh, was an act of war that, if executed correctly, would bring greater peace to the world.

Jews are commanded to be rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace. We seek peace with our prayers. We demand peace with our words. We make peace with our actions.

Our God has taught us – in the invasion of ancient Egypt, if you will – that one must sometimes make war in order to bring peace.

Surely, Slobodan Milosevic, the murderous despot of Bosnia, could only be stopped by military action.

Only acts that were not at all peaceful – targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and building a separation barrier – brought about a dramatic downturn in the rate of suicide bombings in Israel in the present decade. Admittedly, many of us, myself included, criticized those actions at first. Assuredly, these acts of war will not bring about a just and lasting peace, unless the Palestinian people are offered hope of a better future. And yet, without the willingness to make war, peace would not be possible without self-annihilation.

Despotism and tyranny continue in other part of the world. Iran and North Korea pose the greatest threats to the world today. These unstable and hateful regimes really do, or soon will, possess weapons of mass destruction. Only the lack of reasonable military options, with good chances for success, ought to prevent us from making war to build a future of peace, freed from the threats of these evil governments.

In Darfur, in western Sudan, the Sudanese military and other forces it supports has waged ongoing war on its own people, committing genocide like Saddam Hussein before them. The Pharaoh of this week’s Torah portion would be proud of the Sudanese, accomplishing the destruction of a whole people, a feat he was unable to achieve. Though the numbers are smaller, even Hitler was unable to exact the extent of genocide that has been wrought in the Sudan. The free peoples of Africa and civilized nations throughout the world, including our own, are obligated to act in Darfur, even making war, if necessary, to end the war that has been waged on innocent and defenseless men, women and children.

In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh, to demand: “Let my people go.” The exhortation is insufficient. Pharaoh is an evil man, wielding murderous power, with plenty of soldiers. Blessedly, in the end, neither his wickedness nor his troops are any match for the military prowess of God. Pharaoh is defeated, at a terrible human price, and peace comes to the Children of Israel.

Today, our Armed Forces battle in Iraq, because words failed to stop Saddam Hussein from his own mad murderousness. Let us pray that, when all is done, we will view the invasion of Iraq, like the invasion of ancient Egypt, as an act of peace.