Question. What is the Jewish approach to the “I was only following orders” excuse used by soldiers (and others) who commit abuses?
Answer. In Judaism the first instance of the problem arises in regard to Abraham, to whom God says,
“Your descendants will be strangers in a strange land and they will enslave and oppress them (but) the people who enslave them will I judge” (Gen. 15:1-14).
The question is, if the suffering is ordained by God, why should He punish the Egyptians for bringing it about? Couldn’t the Egyptians retort,
“I had no say in the matter”?
Maimonides (Hil’chot T’shuvah 6:5) says that there is a difference between the individual and the nation. Though God said that the nation would oppress the Israelites, individual Egyptians could have opted out of the evil-doing, even though resisting orders might have made life difficult for them.
Nachmanides asks a different question:
“Why did the Egyptians persecute the Israelites – because of their own evil policy, or because they knew this was a Divine destiny? If it was because of their own policy, they had no right to blame God.”
The Nachmanides view seems to say that if the troops acted cruelly because it gave them pleasure, they deserve blame; if it was merely because of orders from above, the higher officers who gave the orders should be blamed.
According to the Maimonides approach, if the troops could have refused to act, regardless of the difficulties this might have caused them, they should have opted out and left the framers of official policy to face the music.
JERUSALEM IN THE SHABBAT PRAYERS.
Question. On Friday evening the “Hashkivenu” blessing ends with a praise of God who spreads His canopy of peace over us, the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Why mention Jerusalem?
Answer. Shabbat is the day of peace, and “Jerusalem” means “city of peace”. When the world learns the true status of Jerusalem it will be a world at peace, and life will be like a Shabbat for everyone. In the meantime Jerusalem itself needs God’s protection.
What a pity it is that there are unfriendly voices that keep insisting that the city needs to be divided again, presumably with barbed wire and barbed words. If only the world realised that Jerusalem is poetry, not prose; spirituality, not politics.
BLESSINGS FOR ETHICAL ACTS.
Question. I know there are blessings for ritual acts, but how about ethical duties like charity?
Answer. There is a distinction between commandments between man and God, such as hearing the shofar or wearing t’fillin, and commandments between man and man like giving charity, acting justly, etc. The first group require blessings, the second do not.
One explanation is that we carry out these acts as God’s agents. We are doing God’s work; in a sense it is He who is carrying out these acts, not ourselves. The principle is,
“As God is compassionate, so must you be compassionate”.
Commandments between man and God, on the other hand, are being done by us for the sake of God.
According to another view, Torah commandments between man and God are unique to Jews and require a blessing. Jews read Hallel, but not non-Jews; Jews kindle Shabbat lights, but not non-Jews. All cultures, however, have ethical standards, so being just, truthful, charitable, etc., are not unique to Jews. We do not say, “You commanded us” in relation to these duties, as all peoples are obligated to perform them, not just Jews.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.