When We ‘Go Out’: Reflecting on Afghanistan

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we look at what happens when we go out to war. There we read, ” Ki Tetzei -When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives.” (Deuteronomy 21:10) Inevitably one things to another and more bad things come to pass. In the Midrash we see:

“When you go out to war [against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive].”(Deut. 21:10:) Our masters have taught , “[One] good deed/commandment brings about [another] good deed/commandment, and [one] transgression brings about [another] transgression.” (Avot 4:2) “And when you see among the captives a woman of pretty form [whom you desire to take for a wife. And you shall bring her into your house,] where she shall shave her head and do her nails,”(Deut. 21:11-12:) so that she will not find favor in his eyes…

Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1:1

This midrash explains the flow of the Torah portion. Going to war leads to taking a war captive as a wife. This in turn leads to a man having two wives, one loved more than the other, which leads to having “a defiant and rebellious son.” Just a good deed leads to another good deed a bad deed leads to more bad things happening. Nothing good will come from going to war.

This language of Ki Tetzei – going out got me thinking about the similar language we see at the start of Vayetze, when Yaakov went out. There we read, ” Yaakov left Beer-Sheva, and set out for Haran.” ( Genesis 28:10). On this Rashi opines:

AND YAAKOV WENT OUT—It need have written simply “And Yaakov went to Haran’’; why then does it mention his departure from Beersheba? But it intends to tell us that the departure of a righteous person from his city makes an impression. As long as a righteous man is in his city he is its glory and splendor and beauty; when he leaves it, there depart also its glory, its splendor and its beauty. This, too, is the meaning of (Ruth 1:7) “And she went forth out of the place”, stated in reference to Naomi and Ruth (Genesis Rabbah 68:6).

Rashi on Genesis 28:10

I was thinking about this recently with American’s ‘going out’ of Afghanistan.

US exit from Afghanistan - The Frontier Post

Everyone is quick to criticize Biden for leaving Afghanistan at all or for leaving too quickly. Both are interesting in this context as it paints the United States with a false sense of righteousness. It is as if Kabul like Beer-Sheva is hurting because Yaakov left her.

I was thinking about this when reading a great piece written by my old friend Daniel Silverberg recently in the Atlantic. There he writes:

Biden faced a set of bad options. He ultimately made the difficult but necessary choice to preserve American lives. That decision will have devastating consequences for Afghanistan, and we will learn more in the coming days regarding how the administration might have executed its plans better. But as I saw for myself in 2017, and as many others had also observed, the government we supported never truly controlled the country it governed. Biden did not decide to withdraw so much as he chose to acknowledge a long-festering reality, one accelerated by the previous administration’s withdrawal announcement.

The Atlantic

To be clear there are horrible things happening in Afghanistan that should not be happening. Regardless of why we are in this situation we must do our part to help people currently in pain. And I am not sure anyone really knows why we ‘went out’ for this war in the first place. As see see in our Torah portion, bad deeds lead to more bad deeds. War is horrible and will only lead to more bad things. I am sure in the weeks and months to follow people will explore how this exit was mismanaged. For this Biden’s administration is responsible. But we should not pretend that we are so righteous in being there in the first place. It is hard to place the blame for that on the Biden administration. Many others are responsibility for our ‘going out’ to this war 20 years ago.

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