By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
King David started life as a shepherd but he came from a military family. I imagine his brothers coming home on leave, sitting at the dinner table, telling war stories to their red-headed little brother. Of course, David’s rise to the throne began on the battlefield, facing off against the giant Goliath.
Military tales were surely a part of Israelite culture, ranging from the Battle of Five Kings in the Valley of Siddim in the time of Abraham, to the conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua, to the struggle against the Philistines in David’s time. One theme that must have run throughout all of these tales was the role of God in each of these battles.
This tradition continues in modern times, as the stunning victories in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War are described as miracles. I once spoke with an old Israeli veteran who had fought in the Golan as a tanker in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when 160 outclassed Israeli tanks faced over 1,000 Syrian tanks. He told me how he was young and terrified but carried out his tasks until he was numb with fatigue, and then kept fighting on. A secular Jew, he described how he stumbled out of his tank in the morning and looked out over the Valley of Tears.
“We were firing blindly all night,” he said. “But what I saw in the morning was a vast field of tanks that had been crushed by the hand of God. There was no way we did that.”
Today, Israelies reassure each other that they have a holy Iron Dome in heaven protecting them from Hamas rockets which is even more effective than the mechanical version.
David’s oral tradition that kept alive the military exploits of previous generations, and God’s hand in them all, was his message in Psalm 44.
We have heard, O Hashem, our fathers have told us the deeds You performed in their time, in days of old. With Your hand You planted them, displacing nations; You brought misfortune on peoples, and drove them out. It was not by their sword that they took the land, their arm did not give them victory, but Your right hand, Your arm, and Your goodwill, for You favored them. Psalm 44:2-4
Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235), also known by the Hebrew acronym RaDaK, taught that the tradition that King David received accompanied the Jews into exile:
“Although the Jews who witnessed the miracles could not personally recount them to their descendants born centuries later, the Psalmist implies that the transmission of this tradition was not broken. This tradition was transmitted from father to son through the generations until it reached the generation that went into exile.”
Picturing David the warrior as the ancestor of the shtetl Jews of Europe can seem a bit incongruous, but the military tradition of the Jews is deeply embedded in their collective subconscious. The candles lit on Hanukkah are prominently displayed in order to advertise the military victory of the tiny nation of Judah against the mighty Seleucids.
Unlike other warlike nations, however, the nation of Israel has a higher purpose and a higher source for this military tradition. As David noted in graphic terms:
“You are my king, O Hashem; decree victories for Yaakov! Through You we gore our foes; by Your name we trample our adversaries; I do not trust in my bow; it is not my sword that gives me victory; You give us victory over our foes; You thwart those who hate us. Psalm 44:5-8
But what good is passing on a warrior tradition when in exile? Without a land or an army, the Jewish people have suffered horribly, reciting this psalm about God leading them to victory. Often, they had to resign themselves to that grim reality, while calling out:
Rouse Yourself; why do You sleep, O Hashem? Awaken, do not reject us forever! Psalm 44:24
Yet their warrior past was not lost with the Temple. It was this tradition, passed through the generations, that enabled them to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust and build an army that could stand against five Arab nations.
This warrior tradition was not limited to the battlefield, but also influenced the cultural and political landscape of the Jewish people. The strength and resilience they had acquired through their warrior past helped them to overcome numerous challenges and establish a thriving and sovereign nation in the modern era. Today, with the help of God, the legacy of their warrior past continues to inspire and guide the Jewish people in their quest for peace and justice in the world.