Throughout the Torah, God appears in many roles — creator, ruler, lawgiver, redeemer, parent (both father and mother), healer, provider, and judge are just a few of them. And this week, in Shirat Hayam, the song at the sea, God appears in yet another role — Adonai ish milhama, God is a man of war.
This makes people uncomfortable. We prefer to think of God in connection with peace, shalom. We conclude the Shaharit Amida each morning with the blessing that begins, “Establish peace, well-being, blessing, grace, loving-kindness, and mercy for us and for all your people Israel.” This is followed by Kaddish, which concludes, “May the one who brings peace in the heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel.”
But, of course, these are prayers, hopes for the future, not descriptions of current reality. Peace is a goal; and the word for peace, shalom, is related to shleimut, wholeness, completeness, even perfection. True peace is more than the absence of war. True peace requires justice, even goodness. This means that peace cannot be achieved without fighting against evil.
It is in this sense that God is a man of war. Pacifism, which some argue represents a higher level of spiritual sensitivity, is, in Jewish tradition, not only not desirable, but unacceptable. We are taught to fight not only in self-defense, but also to defend others against aggression.
Asher Ginsberg, the early Zionist writer known as Ahad Ha’am, explained it this way: “If I practice love to the extent that when you smite me on the right cheek, I offer you the left also, I am thereby encouraging injustice. I, like you, am then guilty of the injustice that is practiced.” The Talmud in Sanhedrin states it more bluntly: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” And in the Mishneh Torah, Rambam wrote: “Every Jew is commanded to save a person being pursued for his life, even if it means killing the pursuer…but if the pursuer can be stopped by disabling part of his body, by striking him with an arrow, a stone, or a sword…then that should be done.”
This doesn’t mean that God desires violence and bloodshed. The prophet Isaiah describes the day when: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again know war.” But this is a description of the time of the Messiah. In fact, the Tanach teaches that the only reliable sign that the Messiah has come will be the end of all war and violence. However, until that time, until the entire world is redeemed and evil has been fully vanquished, God will be a man of war. And in this way, God means to teach us that we can never achieve true peace except by being willing to fight for justice and against evil.