We are now seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah, and the theme of this period is rebuilding, of going from the sorrow of desolation and loss (Tish’ah Be’Av) to the joy of redemption and renewal.
Today is Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, a name referring to the opening word of today’s first haftarah of consolation, repeated twice (Isaiah 40:1-2):
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי--יֹאמַר, אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם. דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ--כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ: כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד ה', כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated, for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.
It is the first of the seven haftarot of consolation. Each of these is drawn from the book of Isaiah, and each seeks to provide comfort to Israel by reassuring that restoration is on the way.
This restoration is in the context of a remarkable historical turning point. Some scholars believe that he is writing around 538 BCE, about the time that the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire, and issued an edict allowing exiled peoples, like the Jews, to return to their native lands. This was roughly 50 years after the Babylonians had taken Jerusalem, destroyed the First Temple, and brought the Jews to Babylon, in what is today called Iraq.
But how did that restoration come about? How was the Second Temple built? Although Cyrus let the Jews return to Israel, not everybody was willing to pick up and move again. Fifty years is a long time - they had lives and businesses and were intermarried with the local population. Not many wanted to return; many Jews stayed in Babylon; some even moved instead to Persia, to the new imperial capital of the region. (It was in fact the events of the sixth century BCE that formed the basis of both the Iraqi and Iranian Jewish communities, both of which thrived into the 20th century.)
Rather, it was the initiative of a relatively small band (the book of Ezra says about 42,000) who returned to the Judean wasteland and braved Samaritan attacks to rebuild and rededicate the Temple, the Second Temple. It was a human endeavor.
On Thursday, I was preparing to speak about picking up the pieces of Operation Protective Edge, when I heard that Hamas had broken the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel. On Friday morning, I read that Israel had responded with airstrikes. So, sadly, this chapter continues.
However, this will not go on forever, and when the (temporary) quiet returns, we will be faced once more with the challenge of, “Well, what’s next?”
I read this week that Amos Oz, the noted Israeli author and outspoken leftist, supported Operation Protective Edge to stop the rockets coming into Israel, calling it “justified, but excessive.” This sheds some light on the depth and complexity of the problem at hand. And he is not alone: elsewhere, I saw a Gallup poll that indicated that 93% of American Jews were supportive of Israel in the last month, and the figure is about the same in Israel. You can’t get 93% Jews to agree on much of anything, really, so that is quite a sobering figure.
Whether we are at the end of this Gaza engagement or not, we have to consider the future now.
So here is the quandary that we are in today. Continued rocket-fire and reprisals notwithstanding, Israel has mostly completed Operation Protective Edge, entering Gaza and destroying terrorist infrastructure and killing enemy combatants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They mostly restored peace to Israel, so that nobody has to head down regularly into bomb shelters. They have rooted out and destroyed the 32 carefully-designed tunnels leading into Israel, thus foiling the apparent plan to infiltrate and attack Israel on Rosh Hashanah.
But what have they not done? They have not even considered any kind of negotiated settlement that will guarantee a long-term peace. And here is the problem.
Because, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, this will all happen again. And next time, there will be more rockets with a longer range, more tunnels, and greater danger to Israel. My son, who lives at Kibbutz Ein Gev up north, was not in range of Hamas’ rockets this time. Maybe next time he will be.
Unless there is not a next time. And I am afraid that the only way that this can be is if the international powers, in cooperation with Israel, can create a successful, de-militarized Palestinian-controlled territory. And here is where Amos Oz and I agree once again. (And some here will surely disagree with me.)
But I think that it is the lesser of two potentially bad futures.
Short of turning Gaza into a parking lot (which Israel is DEFINITELY not going to do; they are not genocidal barbarians, despite mob-driven protestations to the contrary), the only way that we have a chance for long-term peace is to create, if not a state, at least an independent, non-Hamas-ruled entity for Gaza.
Yes, I know that past events have suggested that trusting them will be fraught.
Yes, a major sticking point is that Hamas rules Gaza, and uses their own people as human shields and places rocket launchers in residential neighborhoods (BTW, did you see the video captured by the Indian television crew from NDTV of Hamas combatants building a makeshift rocket launcher next to their hotel, and then firing a rocket into Israel? Incredible!).
Yes, I know that multiple proposals for a two-state solution in the past two decades have failed for various reasons.
But remember: there is no other way out. The residents of Gaza, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus (Shekhem), and so forth are not going away. And they will not be absorbed into Egypt or Jordan.
(Aside: two years ago I was at a gas station in Ma'ale Adummim, the largest settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I was having trouble with the self-service pump, so an attendant came over to help me. He was a Palestinian Arab, and, noticing that the car was a rental, he asked me where I was from. I explained that I was American, and then he complimented me on my Hebrew. I asked where he was from. He said, proudly, “From here!” “You mean, Ma'ale Adummim?” I asked, jokingly. He merely smiled in response as we completed the transaction.)
No, they are not going away. And the terrorist element among them is not going away either, unless all the powers at the table find a way to neutralize them. And that would require there to be a functioning government in Gaza that serves the people of Gaza rather than the idolatrous god of terror.
Ultimately, we have to reframe this conflict not as Israel vs. Gaza, or Jew vs. Muslim, but rather as moderates vs. fundamentalists. (Remember, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states are quietly rooting for Israel here, against the Muslim Brotherhood.) This is not naïveté. It is, rather, the only sane way out of the current bottomless pit.
The path to rebuilding will be to return to the table. Remember that table? The one that is as forlorn right now as Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, as described in the book of Lamentations, which we read on Monday evening for Tish’ah Be’Av. We will have to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and nobody will like it.
But let’s face it. If you compare Gaza under Hamas with the West Bank under the PA, with whom Israel has been cooperating on certain things for a long time now, the difference is stark. Why, when there are terrorists based in Gaza, has the West Bank remained largely quiet? Why did it not erupt in fury over Protective Edge? Because Israel and America have been training Palestinian police forces in the West Bank. Because trade and investment in the West Bank is quietly increasing. Unemployment in the West Bank, while not small at about 20%, is much better than the 40% in Gaza. With more people working, with priorities placed on public safety and security, with greater emphasis on cooperation, we have a chance.
Without those things, there will be more anger, more frustration, more anti-Semitic mobs, and more rockets. Guaranteed. Think about it.
You know, as a rabbi I spend a lot of time speaking about comfort, offering comfort, helping others to comfort. I must confess that the events of the last month and a half have been not just uncomfortable, but downright painful: Israelis in and out of bomb shelters, the tunnels, the body count in Gaza, the utterly cynical media manipulation of Hamas, the angry mobs chanting anti-Semitic slogans all over the world. And through all of that, I have had to offer comfort to bereaved families who have lost a loved one, comfort to my son, who was rightfully scared to fly back into a war zone, and comfort to members of this community, who are wrought over the situation in Israel and unsure how to help and support, and comfort to my wife, who has taken it upon herself to valiantly respond to her friends’ anti-Israel and vaguely anti-Semitic postings on Facebook.
Well, I am just about used up. And I am sure that all of us are as well.
But as with the brave returnees from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple, it will take a great human initiative to begin this restoration.
We are going to have to steel ourselves either for more fighting, or to return to that deserted table. That is the choice before us.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/8/14.)