Taking Booty

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Holy and Secular – Chaim Tzipori was a battalion commander during the Six Day War. In the book “To Belong” which was published in his memory, Nachum Barnea (today a well known journalist who writes in Yediot Acharonot) tells a remarkable story.

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At the end of the war we were on the Golan Heights. The shooting had ended and looting had begun. The lust for souvenirs was so great that even threats of being shot for insubordination had no effect. The men took everything: straw mats, old bicycles, a sewing machine, and a huge radio receiver made of wood. All of this and more was hidden in our vehicles.

When we received our orders to return to Israel to be released from reserve duty, Tzipori decided to end the war with what appeared at first to be a sightseeing trip. It was a terrible day. Every so often a tire would blow up from the extreme heat and the entire convoy would grind to a halt. In this nerve-wracking atmosphere, Tzipori commanded the convoy to leave the road. This happened near Jericho. I thought that he wanted to show the ruins of ancient Jericho to us. It would be a good opportunity for an illustrated history lesson.

We climbed to an exposed hilltop from which we could look at the city. He told us to park the vehicles in a circle, with the men lined up in front of them, in military formation. When we quieted down, Tzipori took a copy of the Tanach from his pocket and began to read, slowly and carefully: “And the city (of Jericho) shall be banned, the city and all that is within it… Beware of the ban, lest you yourselves be destroyed… and you will cause the camp of Yisrael to be destroyed and make it ugly.” [Yehoshua 6:17-18].

And when Tzipori had finished reading from chapter 6, he continued with chapter 7, the affair of Achan. “Bnei Yisrael violated the ban… and G-d was angry with Bnei Yisrael” [7:1-2]. Even those who were not so wise began to understand that the commander was not giving a history lesson about the conquest of Jericho but that he was talking about his own men. He reviewed the awesome process of selection that Bnei Yisrael experienced until Achan, the guilty person, was found.

When he finished reading, Tzipori put the Tanach back in his pocket and announced that anybody who had any souvenirs should take them out and put them in the middle of the circle. Then he would check the insides of the vehicles. If he found anything, he would put the offenders on trial.

One by one the men turned around and climbed onto their vehicles. They took out an amazing collection of items, from weapons and ammunition to stools made of straw. Ever so slowly, the disposal of the booty was transformed into the equivalent of an ancient ritual.

At that moment I felt an irresistible urge to be part of the proceedings. In my pocket, I had an ID card of a Syrian soldier that I had found near his dead body. I went to the middle of the circle and put the card on the pile. All at once I felt at peace, at last I was part of the action.

Tzipori commanded us to separate the material into two piles. One, with military equipment, was returned to one of the trucks. He then commanded us to pour gasoline over the other pile. I had the feeling that we felt the same way that the faithful used to feel when they brought a sacrifice in the Temple.

Tzipori did not do any more searching. There was no need. In the fervor of the proceedings, people would have given the shirts off their backs. In any case, perhaps he did not want to spoil the great lesson that he had taught.

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I learned many things from the above story about Chaim Tzipori. One lesson is that true ethics can only be learned from one who struggled with a difficult dilemma (such as Yehoshua Bin Nun and Tzipori himself) and not from self righteous people who have never been put through a true test.

I also learned how true ethics is deeply ingrained in every single Jew, and how much inner good every one of us possesses.

I learned how right our sages were when they said that in today’s world there is almost nobody who knows how to rebuke others. If we all knew how to criticize like Chaim Tzipori did in the story, if we had his patience, his cunning, and his sensitivity, perhaps we would all be more successful in our attempts to rebuke others.

I also learned that the mitzva of eradicating evil from our midst must be performed without seething anger but out of a deep spiritual need to be pure before the Almighty.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il). Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to dan@zomet.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.