WHAT DOES THE TORAH SAY ABOUT… CHEMICAL WEAPONS

With Rabbi Gary Wayland.

The Syrian civil war, which broke out in March 2011, has been long and protracted, claiming more than 100,000 lives, with countless injured and hundreds of thousands now refugees.

However, despite the huge human cost of this sorry saga, the Ghouta attacks last month, which claimed hundreds of lives and injured thousands, created a particular revulsion by the international community beyond anything previously expressed.

What is it about chemical weapons that affects us so profoundly? The prophet Zechariah, in the Haftarah of the first day of Succot, describes that prior to the final redemption, nations will gather against Jerusalem, capturing and destroying half the city. And, on the brink of destruction, God comes to save the remnants.

The description of that which follows resonates with many horrors we have experienced in our lifetimes: “The mountain will split… On that day there will be neither light not darkness… This shall be the plague that God will smite all the nations that rallied against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they will stand erect, their tongue will rot in their mouths…” Mountains splitting and the blackening of the sky conjures up images of nuclear weaponry; the rapid, internal decay reminds us of chemical or biological attacks.

This passage obviously discusses a Divine plague; however, I feel the terror of something invisible that destroys from the inside would be the same whether the source is God saving the Jews from ultimate destruction, or a spray released by terrorists on a subway or a canister fired from a rocket.

We humans are much better at dealing with enemies we can see or feel. The Gemara (Sukkah, 52a)  describes seven evolutions of the ‘yetzer hara’ – the evil inclination, and the final stage is known as the ‘hidden one’, because, as Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, the most sophisticated and deadly form of evil is one you cannot see.

There are two conflicting visions of the process leading up to the Messianic Era in Judaism.

One is the apocalyptic war described above, in which the survivors – Jews and non-Jews – emerge from the ashes to rebuild the world in the vision of God. However, the process can come through human action, removing evil ourselves through repentance and tikkun olam (human fixing of the world) rather than needing Divine intervention. And, just as we hope and pray for this to be the end of the script, so too in Syria, and every other conflict, we hope and pray for a speedy, peaceful end. Rather than being forced into action through traumatic horrors such as those we recently witnessed.

• Garry Wayland is Assistant Rabbi at Woodside Park United Synagogue.