Torah from around the world #19

by Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director,

The Anita Saltz International Education Center

of the World Union for Progressive Judaism

Noam Chomsky (who I cannot stand), Elvis Costello (whose music I still like), and now shooting missiles into the Flotilla… What exactly is Israel thinking these days? We need a far more sophisticated response to our detractors…

So we barred the annoying anti-Israel activist Noam Chomsky from entering the West Bank. How in the world did this help us? Not a great move for our “Israel is a democracy” image. Elvis Costello (he is a rock ‘n’ roll singer for those of you younger than 40 and older than 58) has cancelled his show in Israel for this coming summer with the least cogent explanation I have ever heard (something about conscience). I hope he is also canceling his visits to the U.S. as that country has been pretty shabby on its own human rights front with their forces still in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now we have the Flotilla. These are times when Israel needs to articulate a vision of where it is going and to come up with creative and proactive solutions to those who wish to destroy or discredit us at every chance they get. It is not about being Left or Right any more, Israel needs to GET SMART.

I woke up this morning to the radio report about Israel’s Navy shooting missiles into one of the boats of the Flotilla that was making its way to Gaza. A group of “activists” have come into the waters off the Gaza Strip in order to bring in “humanitarian” supplies to the Palestinians living under Hamas rule. Now this is without a doubt a complex subject. First off I will be honest: I have no great love for these people who are running this Flotilla. I don’t trust them. If they cared so much about the Palestinians in Gaza why aren’t they bringing Egypt into the picture? Remember Egypt (not just Israel) is also blockading their Palestinian brothers in Gaza. However when Arabs violate other Arabs’ rights, for some reason it is okay, but when Israel does it, for some reason it is war crimes. And when the United States kills 100,000 Iraqis … well apparently if you sell enough iPhones no one will notice anyway. The IDF has every right to be concerned about what materials are going to be smuggled in along with this humanitarian aid. In the past, Palestinians have used pregnant women in ambulances as a way of  smuggling in material for suicide bombers to blow themselves up in Israel, and Hamas’s leadership hid under a hospital during the war in Gaza (so brave), so we know with whom we are dealing. Israel is all too aware that Hamas will use their people and put them in deaths way if they can build their military arsenal or win a publicity victory in the west. And it will not be surprising if we do find weapons.

So here we are once again: the people of Israel at the edge of the desert trying to figure out how to deal with our enemies. This is an age old dilemma that pits mustering up the necessary courage to act against ones enemies and acknowledging when it is simply more prudent to practice restraint. In this week’s Torah portion,

Shlach Lecha

, we have two stories that specifically relate to these dilemmas. Of course the most famous story is that of the spies: Twelve spies are sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land and report back on what they have seen. Ten of the spies come back depressed, overwhelmed and in need of Biblical Prozac. They scare everyone and exaggerate the challenges ahead when it comes to dealing with their enemies and break everyone’s spirit. Of course two come back (Joshua and Caleb) with a vision and a belief that “if you will it, it is no dream.”

The story of the spies has always spoken to me. Far too often we have dreams that are crushed before they even get started by those negative spies – both external and, even more important, internal. Moving to Israel six years ago, I felt like I not only read this Parsha… I lived it. We decided to move to Israel when the Second Intifada was still taking place. We made this decision on a practical level (I had a job offer) and with the understanding that on another level, there is always an excuse not to move to Israel. And so with that logic we moved to Israel; had we not, we would still be waiting in the desert today (the two spies were my wife and myself). So we made a “leap of faith” or, as Heschel would have said, a “leap of action.” Unfortunately the response from the Jewish community around us was that of the ten spies. There were apocalyptic forecasts and dire predictions of what would happen to us once we arrived in Israel. Of course when we arrived here, the Israelis said nothing along these lines…they just laughed at us (and so it goes). But that experience of not letting those ten spies detract us is perhaps one of the most powerful experiences in my life. And when I look back I am grateful we had the inner strength to resist the pessimists who said we would never make it to Israel and to those who said we would never make it in Israel.

However there is another story in this week’s Torah portion. After the incident with the spies, God is furious with the Israelites because of their behavior, specifically because of their panicked reaction vis a vis their enemies. So God decrees to the Israelites that they will now have to wander in the desert for 40 years. And more importantly the generation who panicked will in fact die in the desert and never make it to the Promised Land. After this message is revealed, the people of Israel are so upset they want to make amends by now going out to war and fighting these same enemies. In fact they go out and attack the Amalekites and the Canaanites. But Moses tells them, “Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the Lord is not in your midst.” (Numbers 14:42). And of course the children of Israel receive a shattering blow from Amalekites and the Canaanites.

Through these two stories, the Torah is teaching us that there are times when we need to take action even if the task before us is frightening. And yet we also need to learn how to restrain ourselves even if we are not scared at all. It is the wrestling match with which we as Jews in the 21st century must continually struggle. We as a people are still not sure where we are when it comes to powerlessness and power.  Personally I subscribe to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who writes, “Jewish powerlessness is absolutely incompatible with Jewish existence. But Jewish power is incompatible with absolute Jewish purity.” Indeed this is a difficult balance for Israel in a very tough neighborhood.

But for a state like Israel that is so creative and so inventive, we consistently respond to the conflict in the narrowest and most self destructive manner and it is going to hurt us in the end. Maybe we can learn from this week’s Torah portion that the answer is not about being overwhelmed by your enemies and frightened into submission. But neither is the answer to be found the IDF’s catch phrase “if force doesn’t work, use more force.”

Until Israel starts becoming innovative about the conflict and proactively seeking solutions, there will be more Noam Chomskys, Elvis Costellos and Flotillas. And suddenly it is at times like these that I miss my rabbi even more, Rabbi David Forman, for he was my moral compass. David passed away only three weeks ago. And if you ever read his articles and books you will see that Rabbi David Forman was neither Left or Right, he was just Smart.

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