Is God a master warrior or master of compassion

Exodus 13:17-17:16

Judges 4:4-5:31

by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Amid the breathtaking grandeur of this week's parashah, I am pained to find one of my least favorite verses in all of the Torah. "Hashem ish milchama; Hashem shemo." — "God is a man of war; God is His name." (Exodus 15:3)

This year the verse is especially disturbing. The Shirat Hayam/Song of the Sea is our people's eternal song of faith, but also a song of vengefulness, a song of celebration over the defeat of our enemies. Perhaps worst of all, the poem imagines God as warrior, flush with victory, cheering over the demise of our foes.

But at least, I am in good company. There is some comfort in knowing that the ancient rabbis preceded me in wishing to soften, even subvert, this image of a militaristic, vengeful God.

Remember how differently we imagine God's reaction to the death of the Egyptians when we tell the story at the seder.

We dip our fingers into the cup, removing drops of sweet wine, insisting that our joy cannot be complete when God's creatures — even those who had oppressed us mightily — meet their deaths. At the seder table we may recall the midrash that imagines God chiding the angels who wish to cheer the destruction of the Egyptians. ("My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you sing a song of celebration?")

This piece of interpretation has become so ingrained in our sedarim that the image of God as vengeful warrior may actually have receded into the background of our consciousness. Actually, I think that is exactly what the rabbis hoped for. But now, to read the bibilical text unadorned by rabbinic interpretation, we are shocked by the characterization of God as man of war. Or at least, we should be.

I take heart from other examples of the rabbis' discomfort with the characterization of God as warrior. For example, one midrash contextualizes this description, to diminish its power. "At the sea God is revealed as a war-maker. At Sinai, God is revealed as an elder, full of compassion" (Yalkut Shimoni). This midrash is saying that any way that we may experience God is only a partial manifestation of the Divine Reality.

It contains a subtle warning, reminding us not to take any one of our images too seriously, not to confuse our finite images for the infinity of God.

Perhaps the midrashist is particularly uncomfortable with the metaphor of God as warrior. Could he have understood the danger that might lurk in glorifying this image of God as a force of violence?

Rashi, interpreting our verse, takes great pains to explain that the phrase "God is a man of war" means that God is the master of war, that is, above war, that God's real campaigns are not with ammunition but rather with the Divine Name. He continues, "'God is His name' — even when God fights and takes vengeance against enemies, God holds onto the divine qualities, to have compassion on God's creatures, and to sustain all those in the world. This is unlike human kings, who, when dealing in war, turn their complete attention there, and cannot do both (war-making and acts of mercy)."

Rabbi Raphael Gold interprets Rashi's words exquisitely: "God is the master over war, ruling over it, standing over the cruel manifestations of war; while really, even in war time, God is the master of mercy — HaShem is God's name" (Quoted in Itturei Torah, p. 127, vol. 3).

In these dark times for our people in Israel, we must be vigilant with the images of violence that arise from within our sacred texts, from the midst of our collective consciousness. With terrible acts of violence being committed against us, we must at times engage in acts of war. But we must never let acts of violence change our essence.

God may at times appear to be a power of violence and vengefulness; but really God is the master of mercy.

We may be forced to kill and destroy, but we must never compromise our essence as rachmanim b'nai rachmanim, people of compassion, children of people of compassion.