I study Torah and really enjoy its beauty and I try to follow its lessons as much as possible. There is one “detail,” however, which really bothers me. Why does the Torah mandate cruelty and war? Why do we have to “wipe out” Amalek and the Canaanites? Why administer capital punishment? Shouldn’t G‑d‘s message be one of love? What am I missing in the bigger picture? Thanks in advance for your insight.
You’re not missing anything. If it sounded okay, to you, then I’d be worried. The fact that it bothers you demonstrates a healthy neshama (soul).
The Torah is not all sweet. Reality isn’t all sweet. Even the most pleasurable faces of reality aren’t all sweet–on the contrary, they often come with an equal dose of agony. Beauty, viewed from too close up, can be as ugly as hell.
Torah is a deeper reality, the reality that focuses on the inner human being. And that’s a very muddy place.
In this case, you’ve pointed out something that has bothered me, as well, for over thirty years. One small incident provided me a sense of resolution–but I can’t truthfully say that I have made peace with it. I don’t know that I want to make peace with it–or that my Maker and the Author of this Torah (and this world) wants me to make peace with it. What kind of a world would we live in if we made peace with such things?
But some way to swallow it we need, and that’s what this incident provided me.
I was learning Tai Chi from a student of one of the great Chinese masters. A very peaceful, gentle man. One day, he came with his sword, just to demonstrate the sequence of motions that involves that instrument. Although he did it alone, and although it was exquisitely graceful, it was downright gory to anyone with sufficient imagination.
We asked him if it was necessary for Tai Chi to have such movements. In fact, even in the standard set of movements, there are some which suggest inflicting pain upon an opponent. Do these need to be there?
So he told us of an attempt by some American group to develop a “peaceful” Tai Chi, without any such motions. Yet, when his teacher got word of this, he expressed his disapproval.
He said, “Tai Chi is about balance and harmony. In all things in life there must be balance. A man must know to recede, he must know to attack. He must know to be a rabbit, he must know to be a lion. Only then is life balanced and healthy.”
His words echoed those of the wisest of all men, King Solomon in Ecclesiastes:
Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build.
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.
A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away.
A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
Life, true life, does not thrive at any one pole. Life, as with beauty and truth, must contain at least some small dose of each and all things.
I see this in Israel today–we need this balance. Without it, we cannot survive. We must be both doves and hawks at once, training our youth for both war and peace. And even in the messianic times promised by the prophets–true the wolf will lie with the lamb–but the wolf will be a wolf just as the lamb will be a lamb…