from the heart of jerusalem

Torah’s message of peace at home


The vision of what it would mean to command men was evaporating before my eyes. Two weeks after completing IDF Officer’s course, I had been looking forward to the challenges of mission control, decisions under extreme stress, and leading by example, but two young conscripts, one of whom had only recently completed his eight months of basic infantry and tank crew training, presented me with nothing of the sort. They were arguing over an ammo cartridge, each claiming it to be his, and with a gear inspection coming up in the morning this somehow became significant as neither wanted to fail the inspection.

It wasn’t even a case of one claiming the other stole it, rather, the cartridge had turned up behind a kitbag when they were getting their room in order for inspection and each was claiming it as theirs since each was missing a cartridge. The red magic-markered X which the owner had marked his gear with didn’t help, as they both had magic-markered Xs all over their gear.

Jewish law is pretty clear on the matter (tractate Baba Metzia, chapter of shnayim ochzin): If two litigants lay equal claim to an item and neither has any evidence nor possession, they split it. But it was clear to me that response would simply annoy them and seem like a cop-out.

It all seemed so petty. Here I was, an IDF Officer soon to be deployed to Lebanon, discussing a $5 ammo cartridge and how to resolve its ownership with two bickering soldiers who should have been embarrassed to be wasting our time with such trivialities. In fairness, they had not come to me, I had simply walked into their barracks and caught them in the middle of a heated argument, and now I was stuck with their expectation that I somehow resolve the issue.

This week, Yaakov is finally home, and all he wants to do is settle down. Indeed the name of the parsha, Vayeshev, means to settle or dwell. After fleeing from Eisav and spending 22 years navigating the cunning manipulations of his own father in-law, eventually escaping to confront Eisav and his 400 soldiers and then suffering the loss of Rachel, his beloved wife and the love of his life, and the apparent rape of his daughter Dina, Yaakov just wants to settle down. He’s had enough. But it was not to be.

Vayeshev, which begins with such promise, actually launches the darkest and bleakest period of Yaakov’s life, with the loss of his beloved son Joseph, the breakup of the family and the descent of the future leadership (Yehuda) into what seems to be an abyss as Yehuda leaves the family and even marries a Canaanite woman.

After the brothers present Yaakov with Joseph’s blood-soaked coat, the Torah relates that he “refuses to be comforted” (Bereishit 37:35); he’s determined to go to his grave in mourning.  How did Yaakov’s life take such a terrible turn? Rashi suggests a challenging explanation: “Yaakov yearned to settle in peace (shalva). “Says the Holy One: What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not enough for them? They crave peace in this world too? Immediately he (Yaakov) was confronted with the storm of the [story of] Yosef.” 

But what is so terrible about wanting to settle down? Hasn’t Yaakov earned the right to take a break? What’s wrong with a little peace and quiet?

In truth, Yaakov was awarded the additional name Yisrael as a sign of the value of struggle — “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael, for you have struggled with G-d and man and have overcome!” (32:28)

Perhaps we need to understand the shalva (peace? serenity? tranquility?) which Yaakov sought and which tradition seems to view as so problematic. King David speaks of yearning for “Shalom be’cheileich ve’shalva be’Armenotayich” (“Peace in your armies and tranquility [?] in your palaces”) (Tehillim 122:7).

Shalva is not peace on the battlefields, it is the peace and quiet in the palace; the peace of harmony at home.

King David was not challenged by the conflict against the Philistines and Amalekites; it was the acrimony and pettiness of conflict at home, in his own palace, that was his greatest pain. Indeed, it was the rebellion of his own son Avshalom that very nearly ended the Kingdom of David.

As King Solomon (Shlomo Ha’Melech) says in Proverbs: “Tov pat chareivah ve’shalva ba’, mi’bayit maleh zivchei riv” (“Better a dry piece of bread with [eaten in] peace [shalva], than a house full of feasting [in] contention” (Mishlei 17:1).

Perhaps Yaakov was weary of the bickering between his wives and the strife it led to amongst his children all of which seemed so petty. Where were the days of glorious dreaming of ladders and angels, and cunning strategy in overcoming Eisav and Lavan? Is this what we have become, wonders Yaakov — who gets the better coat?

Yehuda’s reaction to the pettiness and bickering strife of the story of Joseph is to “go down from his brethren” (ibid. 38:1). He leaves the relationships in his life, perhaps not wanting to deal with all the mundane rivalries and animosities. He marries a Canaanite woman, which about as far away from a relationship with his family as he can find. And the Ramban (ibid 38:2) points out he marries her because she is the daughter of a Canaanite businessman, so it’s not even a relationship of love and meaning, it’s simply a business transaction, a relationship without a relationship.

No wonder his son Onen sins by spilling his seed rather than have a meaningful relationship with the wife he has been given (Tamar). And Yehuda’s third son is born when Yehuda is not even present so his wife names him Shela (ibid. 38:5), which means deception or illusion. Perhaps she felt deceived by a marriage of convenience that never became a relationship. Indeed the verse tells us Yehuda was in Kziv, which means disappointment.

What finally brings Yehuda back? How does Yehuda become the scion of royalty whose seed will one day produce the line of no less than King David? This happens because he is tricked into a relationship with his daughter-in law Tamar.

Tamar is the abandoned wife of Yehuda’s two sons who died for their transgressions (perhaps because they were not interested in a healthy relationship). So, according to the tradition of the time (ibid. chap. 38), she is promised to the third son Shela, but Yehuda is apparently afraid to risk the life of his third son as his previous two sons married Tamar and died, so he delays the betrothal. Finally Tamar realizes she has been abandoned so she dresses as a harlot and tricks Judah (who does not recognize her as his daughter-in-law) into having relations with her. In other words, he will have sex as long as there is no real relationship!

But Tamar will not give up on a real relationship, finally confronting Yehuda with his seal and signet ring and in perhaps his greatest moment, Yehuda owns up to his mistake and takes responsibility for his actions — which is the foundation of any healthy relationship. And from that moment he never again abstained from knowing her! (ibid 38:26) which the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 10b) explains to mean he never abstained from relations with her.

Building the world begins with building our lives which is all about building healthy relationships. To build a healthy nation we need first to build healthy relations with each other.

We need to learn to respect our differences and understand each other’s petty gripes and needs and transform our bickering and arguments into a healthy dialogue and discussion.

As for those two soldiers and that contested ammo cartridge? Telling them to split it and walking away would have been the easy way out, and would have been because I was annoyed they were wasting all of our time with such a ridiculous argument.

But I realized this was an opportunity to get to know both of these soldiers and find out what was really going on, and it ended up being a learning lesson for me. It was the start of becoming an officer men could follow, rather than just a commander men had to obey. It’s something I’m still working on.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.