Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Will Wisdom Also Be Our Legacy?

It was about time.

It was about time for the people of the western Negev to unburden themselves from the relentless terror of tense daytime hours, and constant, sleepless nights.

It was about time to react to the terror of running to the bomb shelters while counting down those fifteen seconds from the first alert to the probable time of a missile’s impact.

And it was about time to stop living each day with its nerve-shattering present, and uncertain future.

And yet:

At the same time that Israel asserted her obligation – and her right – to defend her people – actions, by the way, that had earned the support of more than 80% of the Jewish population in Israel – I have to hope that each Israeli had in mind the exhortation of Hillel that we find in Pirkei Avot [1:12]: “Be disciples of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it; loving your fellow creatures, and bringing them close to the Torah.”

Last Wednesday morning I ran into an Israeli friend and I asked him about the mood of the people of Israel this week. His answer sadly, did not surprise me: “Militaristic,” he said. “Very militaristic!”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that even his admittedly left-of-center friends in Israel whom he called “haters of war and ferocious opponents of the West Bank settlement movement” support the Israeli government actions in Gaza. He quotes their statements about members of the American Jewish left: “What did they think, that we would just sit there forever, while Hamas fired rockets into our cities?”[1]

This is completely reasonable. Whether from the standpoint of employing the Jewish value of “din rodef,” or the ‘self-defense’ argument; or from the standpoint of international law and the United Nations charter, a country may act to protect itself and its citizens from danger.

And yet –

At this point, almost three weeks into the “Cast Lead” operation in Israel, we must have many doubts as to the wisdom of continuing the operation.

When the number of civilian casualties comes close to overtaking the Hamas combatants; when significant numbers of civilians are wounded and killed by the bombing of United Nations and humanitarian facilities even when they are shown to contain Hamas weapons caches; when press freedoms are curtailed in the name of “keeping the journalists safe;”

At the conclusion of it all, what will be our legacy as the children of Jacob, the people of Israel? What are going to be the values that we carry forward from these precarious times?

I bring this question forward in light of the Torah portion Vayechi, which we read last week. In this parashah, the Joseph saga comes full circle:

  • Joseph and a full entourage of Egyptian servants and counselors travel to the Promised Land to bury his father Jacob;
  • Joseph resolves his difficult relationship with his brothers;
  • And the descendants of Jacob establish their place in Egyptian society, setting the stage for the eventual exodus of Moses.
One particular vignette from this portion stands out tonight: the private gathering to which Jacob calls his sons prior to his death. At this solemn reunion, Jacob offers to all his children predictions as to their eventual fates.

And it is Jacob’s prophecy regarding Shimon and Levi that I think about on this night. In the context of the Torah portion, Jacob’s prophecy offers an insight that relates to the evil of Shimon and Levi’s past:

“Shimon and Levi are brothers, and their weapons are tools of lawlessness. May my soul not come to be counted among theirs; let my presence not be connected with them! In their anger they slew men; whenever it pleased them they maimed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is overpowering, and their wrath, because it is so relentless. I will divide them among the people of Jacob; I will scatter them throughout Israel.”

What earned them such a dire prediction? It was Shimon and Levi’s vengeful reaction to the rape of their sister Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. Jacob recalled for his sons how the people of Shechem, after the son of the ruler of Shechem raped Dinah, sought a bride-price “of any value” for Dinah. The perpetrator of the rape says, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Only give me the girl for a wife.” He was motivated by based instincts, and he apparently felt that this bride-price was a reasonable compensation for the crime of rape.

Jacob’s sons suggested at the time that the people of Shechem become one with the people of Israel, and every male in Shechem be circumcised. And the people of Shechem agreed.

However, Shimon and Levi were totally infuriated by this “compromise” solution reached by their brothers. And to exact true vengeance against Shechem and his people, Shimon and Levi snuck into the city of Shechem and slew all the males.

Jacob never forgot this act of senseless revenge, and fourteen chapters later we read in this week’s parashah that Jacob predicted – wished, perhaps – that his sons would suffer a fate of isolation and utter destruction.

In our day, and in relation to the situation in the Gaza Strip, the situation is very different from a biblical case of rape and revenge. Shimon and Levi were unable to consider the ethical dimensions of their situation; they simply acted, and dealt with the consequences later.

We Jews, on the other hand, have the capacity and the responsibility to consider a complex set of questions that go beyond legal rights and international standards:

When it comes to the specific actions that Israel has taken in Gaza, when should appropriate and legitimate assertions of self-defense give way to acts of wisdom and discretion and judgment?

When does the criterion for any course of action advance from a legal right to actions that are more wise, prudent and just?

The serious predicament in which Israel finds herself should compel every Jew to search for the answers to these questions.

For many of us, it is difficult to imagine the horrors of unexpected missile attacks; they are simply not part of our day-to-day experience. Even for those who have spent time in Israel, rarely do they feel the force of a concussive explosion, or a terrorist bombing.

Similarly, few if any of us can put ourselves in the place of the Palestinians of Gaza, where Hamas uses schools, universities, apartment blocks, gas stations, and other public places to carry out their operations of terror.

It was once the case that the Palestinians trusted Hamas, as Hamas delivered an array of social services. Social welfare, food, fuel, education, and many other public accommodations were once all distributed by Hamas, and the residents of Gaza were lulled into a false sense of protection and caring. Now, Hamas uses its resources to conscript the people of Gaza, against their will, and subject them to the same fates as those who pull the trigger on the missile launchers.

Hamas, of course, will not ponder its ethical considerations, neither now or at a time of calm. The Hamas Charter unequivocally calls for the destruction of Israel, and participants in the so-called “Islamic Resistance movement” have their marching orders: In their view, each Muslim is obligated to fulfill their prime directive at any cost, even their own lives.

I believe it is time to abide by the many calls for a cease-fire. This is the answer to the question of what is just and prudent and wise.

I do not know of a suitable Muslim equivalent, but when I think of peacemaking among the Jews, as I mentioned earlier, I think of Aaron, who is a direct descendant of Levi, the son of Jacob whose “weapons are tools of lawlessness.” Throughout the history of Israel and Judaism, the image of Jacob’s lawless son Levi was able, somehow, to morph into his descendant Aaron, viewed as a pursuer of peace. And we who have inherited this legacy of peacemaking need once again to think about what is wiser in this situation, and to work toward emulating a model of searching, and discovering the formula for peace.

[1] “On Gaza, Sense, and Centrism” The Forward, December 31, 2008.