On War and Redemption

Chazal (Megillah 17b) say that war will herald and be the beginning of the Redemption (milchamos aschalta d’geulah).

To detour a bit, we commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash on the ninth rather than the tenth of Av because, even though the Beis Hamikdash actually burned down on the tenth, it was set afire on the ninth, and the beginning of the Retribution makes the greatest impression (Taanis 29).

Why is the beginning so pivotal? Perhaps because the beginning of a historical cataclysm shocks us into realizing that the world we have been used to suddenly belongs to the past; things will be different from now on.

Real change in a person usually takes time — one rarely becomes a different person, a tzaddik, overnight — but a turning point of history can occur overnight, and the demarcation may be etched in the consciousness of a generation as a red-letter date on a page of history.

Yet it doesn’t take long for changed conditions to mold our perceptions; in a short time we begin to adjust to a new reality, and this adjustment need not be a protracted process — it can happen quickly.

Thus, overnight, one already grows used to the idea that the Beis Hamikdash is no more. The unimaginable horror of it is somehow diminished by the very fact that it has occurred. It no longer plays upon the imagination; the question of if and when no longer disturbs our days or robs us of our sleep. Dread gives way to dreadful fact. The wondering part is over; the wandering part begins. It holds its own horrors, but we are already inhabitants of an era of destruction, getting to know its ways.

And so we fast and mourn davka on the ninth of Av, the beginning of the end.

This kind of transition would seem to be equally applicable to Redemption as it is to Retribution. When Redemption comes, the dividing line in history will be apparent to all.

In the image given to us by Harav Chaim of Volozhin, we will be going about our usual mundane activities. When we inquire why the cup of coffee is getting cold on the table we will be asked, “Haven’t you heard that Moshiach has come? That’s why everybody is out in the street.” Moshiach! In a second everything will seem upended.

In the language of Chazal, Moshiach comes in a moment of distraction, when we are not thinking about him. A moment before, the Redemption was unseen, it did not exist for us. Now we see it, and everything has changed.

But why should the beginning of the Redemption be war? One might have thought that the Redemption would be the culmination of a peaceful process, of Torah and teshuvah.

Chazal say that all the words of admonition of the 48 prophets did not have the effect produced by the simple act of the handing over of the ring of Achashverosh to Haman and the very real threat of genocide.

The savagery and chaos of war have unique potency.

For war, of all human activities, exposes the limits of our control over events. It represents the failure of government to succeed in pursuing the national interest while preserving the peace. Whether dictatorship or democracy, no system has found a way to solve the world’s problems without recourse to war at some time or other.

Moreover, war itself, once unleashed, is largely beyond the control of the would-be masters of war. The most elaborate strategy often gets tossed out once the shooting starts and the battlefield turns out to be profoundly different from what the generals anticipated. Fogginess caused by incomplete or erroneous information about the enemy’s disposition or capabilities, and even those of one’s own forces, is a characteristic of war. The most sophisticated command and control systems, aided by unmanned air reconnaissance and computerized simulations, have not cleared away the fog of war.

In the war with Hamas, we witnessed over and over again just how limited is our control over events. There is little doubt that Israel sought to avoid a military incursion in Gaza. Yet it was unavoidable. The brutal kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers initiated a massive search for them and their captors that led to the arrest of many Hamas operatives. This led to retaliation by rocket fire, which led to Israeli air force raids, then more rockets, and the entry of the army into Gaza. At every step, Israel’s leadership hesitated (or practiced restraint), and accommodated the calls for ceasefire which, in each instance, turned out to be unilateral and unsustainable; and so the war continued and escalated.

The self-styled omniscience of the defense and security establishment has once again been revealed to be considerably less than advertised. Despite claims that they knew all about the kidnappers and their modus operandi within 24 hours of the abduction, they could not find and still haven’t found the perpetrators. Also, the vastness of the network of terrorist tunnels appears to have caught them by surprise.

Such are the experiences of war. They teach us how little we control events. As the Midrash says, it is “I [Hashem] who makes wars.”

That and one other realization prepare us for the Redemption. The second realization is that the unity of the Jewish people in this time of trial is essential. If we can act on the realization that we are one People who depend for our very survival on Avinu she’baShamayim, then the war will have served its purpose, and Moshiach can come. Speedily, may Hashem will it.