As Shabbat wanes
Vows and obligations (Radical Torah repost)

This week's portion: spoils


The spoils of war
were passed through fire
their history cleansed

but regarding the Israelites
tasked with destruction
our story is silent

they spared non-combatants,
women and children, but
Moshe's outrage overflowed

he demanded death
for those who had seduced us
into foreign worship

we sent their young sons too
beyond the veil
into the realm we can't know

how did our soldiers
emerge from this trial
this awful moment of power

was their compassion burned away
did their humanity
disappear into smoke

This poem was inspired by the combination of reading this week's Torah portions, Mattot and Mas'ei, and reading the Jewschool post Gaza soldier testimonials: Shoot and ask moral questions later, about the newly-released Breaking The Silence reports from Israeli soldiers about their actions during Operation Cast Lead. Reading the Biblical stories of warfare through the lens of the modern-day news can be both powerful and painful.

The image that prompted me to write this poem comes from Numbers 31:21-23: "Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, 'This is the ritual law that the Lord has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead — any article that can withstand fire — these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water.'" It's striking to me that there's a ritual of cleansing for the spoils of war... but what about the participants? How might the wholesale slaughter of the Midianites have affected them?

The Israelis of today are not the ancient Israelites of our scriptures, but for me the same question holds: what spiritual impact does violent warfare have on our souls? One difficult answer can be found in the new booklet of IDF testimonies released this week by Breaking the Silence.

Holy One of Blessing: may we someday read the stories in this week's Torah portion and not find any resonance with contemporary practices of war whatsoever.

(There's no recording of this week's Torah poem because I came home from my two weeks in Ohio and promptly came down with the same crud which half of the student body had last week -- I'll be fine, but you really don't want to listen to me reading poetry this week! Sorry, y'all.)

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