Friday, July 4, 2014

Responding Jewishly to Terror and Grief - Balaq 5774

It was about 9 PM in Israel when I heard the news. My 13-year-old son and I were on Highway 90, just north of Beit She'an, driving south to Ben Gurion Airport for our 12:45 AM flight to JFK. He heard it several minutes before it came over the radio, because he was in communication with his friends via his smartphone. He announced, almost too casually, “Abba, did you know about the three kidnapping victims?” “Yes,” I said. “They found their bodies.”

I gasped audibly. So loudly, in fact, that he jumped. “Why are you so shocked?” he asked.

Why indeed? I must confess that this was not the outcome that I had expected. A living Israeli is worth far more to Hamas than a dead one. Gil'ad Shalit was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. I figured that somebody in the territories had masterminded a plan to get 3,000 or 5,000 more. But no – the original plan seemed to have backfired.  

My son further asked me, “Why do you care so much? You're not Israeli.”

“But I'm Jewish,” I replied. “I don't live in Israel, and about half of the Jews in the world do not live in Israel. But we are all one people. And when members of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, feel pain, whether they are citizens of the State of Israel or France or Canada or Argentina or India, we all feel that pain.”

“Oh,” he said, and that proceeded to think quietly about this revelation.

And while we continued to drive in silence and my thoughts went to the parents of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad, I could feel the tears welling up behind my glasses, threatening to obscure my view of Highway 90, which is a voluptuous stretch of highway with an eternally gorgeous view of the Jordan valley. Even at night, the mountains just across the Jordan valley, referred to as the Gil’ad (an ironic view for the piece of news which had just arrived) were distant, haunting, calling to me across an ancient river and a modern and much-politicized border.

What can we do in times of loss like this? Are we helpless?  How should our faith help us in times like these both spiritually and practically?  What is the appropriate Jewish response?

One answer is to gather solemnly to recite words from our tradition. I think the experience that many of us had this past Tuesday evening, when members of this community came to Ma’ariv to memorialize the three slain young men, was cathartic.  We need to be among our own, we need community, to surround ourselves with those who understand our grief, who understand why we are so personally moved by a tragedy so far removed from us physically.
As Oryah and I drove through the center of Israel Monday night, Israelis interviewed on the radio said things like, let’s let Tzahal / the IDF do what we know they can do - i.e. root out all the Hamas terrorists hiding in the territories and kill them as enemy combatants or round them up and imprison them.

Unfortunately, over the course of the week, the situation worsened. Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering very dark times. As of yesterday, the Israeli police had not declared who killed Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old resident of Shuafat who was murdered and whose body was desecrated following the revelation about the three Israelis, and I am really, really hoping that it was not one of us.

We are not a bloodthirsty people. We are not hooligans. We are not terrorists.

The response, ladies and gentlemen, should be to draw on key Jewish values. We cannot allow the purveyors of terror to pull us down into the swamp with them. We must abide by the law and our morals.  We should not ignore or forgive, but we should respond as Jews.   

On Thursday, I was on a conference call organized by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Brad Artson, who teaches at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, shared some thoughts about how we should respond to the tragic slaying of Naftali, Gil’ad, and Eyal. His position is that we need to reiterate our commitment to four general principles highlighted in the Torah. They are:

1. Ahavat Tziyyon, love of Zion and Israel.
2. Kevod HaBeriyyot, maintaining human dignity.
3. Tzedeq, Tzedeq Tirdof, valiantly pursuing justice.
4. Rodef Shalom, pursuing peace.

Ahavat Tziyyon. We are one nation, and we share a destiny with the State of Israel, built on the Land of Israel. We all agree that we have a natural, historical right as Jews to our own self-determination, and therefore our own state, which the world must acknowledge and support.

Kevod HaBeriyyot. The first time that the word “Torah” appears in the Torah (Ex. 12:49) is a statement that you shall have one Torah for you and for the non-Israelites in your midst. That is, everybody is subject to the same laws, the same equal treatment, the same rights, the same ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and that goes for all people between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Tzedeq Tzedeq Tirdof. We have an obligation to seek justice in all its forms. On a micro level, that means that murderers should be prosecuted. On a macro level, that means that we are obligated to protect ourselves when necessary, including taking out terrorist infrastructure. When we must go to war, the Torah is clear: we must go to war. But ultimately our goal is to arrive at peace, which brings us to…

Rodef Shalom. It is our obligation to seek peace, and we should work hard to bring it about. Working toward peace - treaties, security arrangements, trade, international borders, all of the thorny issues that this implies - is a positive mitzvah in our tradition. That does not imply that we merely have to roll over and be passive and give away huge chunks of land and security for peace. But it does mean that we are commanded to work towards peace tirelessly and wisely.

Peace must be just, must reflect our values, must include safety and security for all citizens, and must maintain human dignity for all.

Those are the four principles. But how can we put them into practice?

There are some in the Jewish world who feel that the only way to ensure that justice is served is through military engagement. Certainly, when there are rockets being launched from Gaza into Israel, the Jewish state has no choice. As I wrote this, the New York Times reported that Israel was massing troops on the border of Gaza, perhaps for some kind of “operation.”  This should not, of course, be understood as revenge, as some reports implied, but as security. Israel needs to make sure her citizens are safe.

We should be extremely careful not to allow our grief to cascade into angry calls for revenge. Regarding the use of force, we should always be on the defense, not on the offense. Great military minds may disagree; there are legitimate times when you must strike first. But the complicated nature of this situation calls for caution. At the negotiating table, however, we should leap into battle and not wait for something to happen. In my mind, that would strike the correct balance between the four values that Rabbi Artson raised.

We are a people that prays for peace daily. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom. And more “operations” will not bring us more peace. On the contrary, we need not only to pray for peace, but to work at it with all of our being. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli Chabad rabbi generally recognized as the greatest living Jewish scholar, suggested the following response:

It is true that we do have the right to fight in order to protect our lives, and to kill in a war of self-defense, as well as to punish the perpetrators.

But while revenge responds to a human need (however natural and normal the impulse), it is not in our hands: "Vengeance is Mine, and recompense," says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35)...

What, then, can and should we do?

We should do Kaddish.

In saying Kaddish over the dead, we promise to fill the gaps created by their passing, and to continue doing whatever we can so that "His great Name may grow exalted and sanctified."

But saying that is not enough: each and every one of us should also act as best he or she can in order to do Kaddish – by studying more Torah, by fulfilling one more mitzvah, by our physical actions or by giving of our time and money to those in need. Our acts do not serve to elevate the souls of these boys – for they are in a supreme spiritual level that needs no further elevation. Our acts elevate our own souls, curing all the lacks that were and still are in our world.

Rabbi Steinsaltz says that we should focus our energies not on revenge, but on returning to tradition, on improving ourselves, on elevating our souls. I would add that we should return to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, I would also add that we should draw inspiration from the prophet Micah, whose staggeringly-beautiful words we heard chanted this morning. The haftarah concluded with (6:8):

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.

We have to walk modestly with God, and not speak arrogantly of violence. We have to maintain our principles: Jewish nationhood, human dignity, justice and peace. And we have to seek to elevate our souls. As painful as this episode has been, we cannot call out for revenge. We need to take care of our people, to bring the guilty to justice, and seek a solution for all the young men and women of this world.

Am Yisrael Hai. The nation of Israel lives.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 5, 2014.)

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