Ahavas Sholom – an Historic Landmark and Sacred Space

Newark's Last Remaining Synagogue born of the Great European Migration at the turn of the 20th Century

145 Broadway, Newark, NJ 07104
Phone: 973-485-2609 | Email: cahavassholom@optimum.net


Rays of Torah, March 1, 2024

Striving for Moral Clarity
Parasha Ki’ Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
by Rabbi Eliyahu (Elijah) Collins

On December 2, 1958, John Lyly released his popular work entitled, “All is Fair in Love and War.”  The book achieved amazing success.  This catch phrase resonated with the public to the extent that most of us have heard or recited it, although we do not know its origin. Almost all of us can think of a time in which our behavior was out of character or when we did the unexpected, because we were under the influence of love or the primal drive for survival. Interestingly, this slogan advanced from being a mere book title to being a mode of operation. It has influenced our interpersonal relationships, business dealings, and military campaigns. Could it be that we find this phrase so appealing, because it is a recusal of personal and public accountability for our conduct and the results.

There is a striking commandment in this week parasha in which G-d demands a ransom for souls. Moshe is commanded to exact a half shekel from all the men of military age, 20 years and up (Exodus 30:11-16). This ransom of a set value was to be paid in advance of a war. According to the venerable rabbi and scholar, Dr.  J. H. Hertz, ‘The technical expression for “ransom” occurs three times in the Torah. Each dealt with the death of a man, but because the crime was not intentional, he was permitted to pay a ransom. The soldier who is ready to march into battle is in the eyes of Heaven a potential taker of life, though not a deliberate murderer. Hence, he requires a ransom for his life” (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 352). So, this required offering preemptively absolved a soldier of guilt incurred while discharging his duties. We later read in Parasha Vayakel that the shekels collected were fashioned and used as hooks to join the curtains of the tabernacle to the pillars which served as the structure of the edifice. It seems that the intended purpose was to convey that the stability and endurance of the tabernacle could only be sustained through sacrifice and dedication. It also serves as a reminder that there is an accounting for the loss of life, even when in pursuit of a G-dly purpose.

The divine charge to construct a tabernacle for the Creator in accord with His explicit design is one of mankind’s most noble undertakings. However, the gold, silver, brass, and finery necessary to finance and fulfill the divine blueprint was acquired through “spoiling the Egyptians” during the great emancipation. Yet, we were obliged to never lose perspective of the massive loss of life. “On seeing the drowning Egyptians, the angels were about to break into song when G-d silenced them declaring, How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).  The Torah enforces this understanding through the commandment of “Pidyon Haben” redemption of the firstborn. As an eternal statute, we are commanded to memorialize the death of the first born of Egypt through redeeming our first-born sons (Exodus 13:13). This is a continual injunction that expands into the future for a deliverance that occurred many years ago. It signifies a debt to the Creator that can never be repaid.

Perhaps the underlying cause for the commandments of “Redeeming our Firstborn” and “Ransoming of Souls” was to prevent the Children of Israel from adopting a philosophy that it’s an acceptable practice to endorse violence or pillage to promulgate theology, to pursue acquisition of resources, or increase national wealth. History bears witness to the extent of suffering afflicted on others for the advancement of religion or military agendas. Most often, a depreciation for life occurs and it becomes increasingly challenging to maintain human sensibilities. Although nothing probably stretches one’s morality more than war, the Torah seeks to maintain a proper perspective through the institution of its own Geneva Code (The Geneva code are laws governing the conduct of the waring parties during war, established in 1948).

  1. Who can be enlisted and who is exempt from war (Deuteronomy 20:5-8).
  2. Seek peace and resolution (Deuteronomy 20:10).
  3. Prohibition against unnecessary destruction of nature, especially for the purpose of developing a military arsenal (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
  4. Laws concerning captives of war and prohibition against abuse of woman who survived (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14).
  5. Mandate to maintain ritual purity and sanitary conditions in the camp in order to acquire G-d’s presence and deliverance (Deuteronomy 23:10-15).

As Jews, we have always acknowledged that our success against formidable foes is due to divine aid and the G-d who fights for us.

Make no mistake about it, those with sinister intentions have placed Israel in a most precarious situation. It is incumbent upon Israel, her children, friends, allies, and those who love her to stand in her defense to uproot and bring to rapid cessation Hamas’s monstruous reign of tyranny. We must stand together to valiantly resist all who seek to deny Israel her sovereignty and right to exist.

Time and history have proven that “war is a necessary evil.”  However, as Sun Zu has stated, “all war is deception, and a battel is fought on many fronts.”  Therefore, we must consider not only the effects of war on the battlefield, but its impact on our values and morality, at home and abroad. One of the stalwarts of Congregation Ahavah Shalom, Mr. Len Sanders, once told me that his aunt cautioned him to “not allow Hitler to accomplish in death what he was unable to do in life.”  Contemplation of these words led me to consider that the battle wages on, even when the direct threat is extinguished, and the battlefield lies desolate. There is defeat in victory, especially if the adversary can get you to execute his agenda on yourself. The greatest loss is when we allow the actions of others to cause us to abandon personal values and morals.  

Extreme circumstances and war can pose a grueling challenge to maintaining moral clarity. The mounting loss, pain, and suffering might lead to a shift in our values and perception of what’s right and wrong. It is precisely at this time when we have the greatest opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the tenets of Torah. As learned from the commandments regarding the shekels, which held the tabernacle together, Judaism can only remain a thriving, unrelenting force on account of those who are fully dedicated and committed to it. There is an inherent danger in compromising one’s values and code of morality when confronted with difficult situations. In time, the constant vacillating, based on circumstances, blurs the lines between right and wrong. In the end, any value for which we are unwilling to suffer discomfort to maintain may be something that we truly do not value at all.

May we all be blessed to maintain moral clarity through these trying times.