Peace and Security – Hol HaMo’ed Sukkot 5779


There is one portion of the fifty-four in the Torah that receives little attention. It is the last portion of the Torah, read hastily on Simhat Torah when Jews are pre-occupied with the celebration of the completion of the Torah reading cycle rather than paying attention to the content of the Torah reading. Here is why this is a mistake.


Hans Morgenthau is hardly remembered today but he was a seminal figure in the development of political philosophy in the twentieth century. The son of practicing German Jews, he was educated in three major universities before taking up post-doctoral work in international relations in Geneva. With foresight he immigrated to the United States in 1937, eventually joining the faculty of the University of Chicago and then the City University of New York. In 1948 he published his magnum opus, Politics Among the Nations, which qualified him as one of the founders of what was termed “political realism.” He argued that countries always act to pursue their own interests which inevitably includes the projection of power.


Morgenthau further argued that countries pursue peace only when its serves their interests. Ententes and treaties are concluded not as articulations of the value of peace but as tools for furthering a country’s own interests. Peace is merely a chimera: it is a means to an end and never an end in itself. To many, Morgenthau’s observations were shockingly blunt; to others, deflating. The utopian vision of world peace was sacrificed on the altar of political reality. The residue of Morgenthau’s philosophy persists and largely characterizes the approach of governments today. Putting self-interest ahead of all other values has even won the American presidency.


From the perspective of world governments, security is contingent on the willingness of a rival to honor the agreements struck though knowing that those existing agreements might be forsaken when it is in the interest of that rival to do so. Alliances can shift. The politics of reality is the politics of uncertainty.


The blessing of Moses, however, contains an exception. Israel alone, says Moses, will dwell in safety (Deuteronomy 33:28). The popular medieval exegete, RaShI (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaq of Troyes, d. 1105) explains that what Moses is intimating is that there would never be a need for Israelites to join together in common defense against any external enemy, with the emphasis on the word “alone.” Every Israelite, he says, would dwell in isolated security. But given the nature of politics among the nations, this blessing is hardly a blessing at all. Given the fecklessness and perfidy of nations, this blessing would put Israel at risk, unless Moses’ words are read as a utopian prophecy. A different way of understanding the blessing of Moses is in light of Morgenthau’s observations. National self-interest may impel nations to subdue others making peace merely a cessation of hostilities. Thus, relying on other countries to enforce the peace is an error. Israel, unique among the nations, does not rely on other countries for its security but upon God. Peace for Israel resides in the assurances of God rather than in the guarantees of other nations.


While it is appropriate to anticipate the joy of the day, it is imperative to pay attention to the reason we celebrate: the teachings of the Torah include insights that should not be overlooked.





Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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