Monday, July 14, 2014

Thoughts on Mattot and Israel

This week we will be reading from parashat Mattot. It tells us that after a long journey of wandering in the wilderness, nearly forty years, the Israelites now stand on the gates of Canaan. The land they have heard about for generations, the land they are poised to take to fulfill the promise, the covenant God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

However, just as they are about to enter, something quite curious happens. The tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses and state, "Bring us not over the Jordan" (Numbers 32:5). As Pinchas Peli writes in his book Torah Today[1], "They do not say openly that they want to separate themselves from the rest of Israel, who are heading towards the Land; all they want is to be exempted from the personal obligation of aliyah...

The reason for this request was because the Children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a great multitude of cattle. Or to put it another way, they had too much wealth invested in the country in which they now lived.

Moses responded with a sharp rebuke, "and therefore will you turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the Land which God has given them?!" (Numbers 32:7).

Moses was concerned that this act by Reuben and Gad would undermine the confidence of the rest of the Israelites. He was also concerned with the notion Reuben and Gad would not align themselves to the common defense of the Israelites. Only when they stated, "we will not return unto our houses until B'nai Yisrael have inherited every man his inheritance" (Numbers 32:18).

With these words, Moses was willing to agree to the terms set forth by Reuben and Gad. Only if they were willing to fight on behalf of all of Israel would Moses allow them to settle outside of Israel.

One of the central tensions for us Jews living in the Diaspora, meaning anywhere outside of Israel or New York City, is the question of how do we stand by Israel during her times of need?

We, unlike Gad and Reuben, cannot simply gather up arms to go and fight the good fight. And even more than that, we struggle with the question, as liberal Jews, as to, when there is human suffering, is it a ‘good fight’ to begin with?

In 1948, in 1967, and in 1973, there was no doubt that Israel’s very existence was at stake. We collected millions, and Jewish-American servicemen went over to provide military knowhow, experience and expertise to this fledgling nation.

Today, Israel is a technological and military giant in the region. Israel will soon be sending us money to help Jews in the United States remain Jewish. Clearly, Israel needs something else from us. As Jews, I feel it is our new responsibility to help others understand what is really going on during this current crises. It is easy to point blame at Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the victim. That narrative plays out well, especially in many media sources.

And yet, it is a narrative that overly simplifies the complexities of what is going on. We know that Hamas is a terrorist organization that uses its own people as human shields. We know that if Hamas stops the rockets, Israel will stop attacking Gaza. But there are certainly many out there who do not grasp this narrative. And it is imperative for us to use our voices through conversations and social media to help explain this core notion. There is plenty of blame to go around on both sides, and the fault does not merely lie with Israel as too many would want us to believe.

But at the same time, we still need to maintain a sense of compassion towards all of those who are suffering. People with dreams, hopes, and aspirations are in pain because of the failures of their leaders. This is especially true in Gaza where terrorists have placed their weapons of evil next to homes, schools, and mosques to bring about mass causalities. They are deserving of our compassion even if we cannot comprehend the purpose of their cause.

We learn from Mattot, the importance of standing beside Israel, just as Reuben and Gad did, even though they, like us, were in the Diaspora. We also learn that Israel needs us to work to change the narrative of the current conflict to one that is more balanced, recognizes nuance, and also contains context. But we should also be doing this with a sense of compassion and a sense of hope. This conflict will eventually come to an end. There will be quiet in the land, at least for a little while. Loved ones will be buried, and cities will be rebuilt. And we will continue to be here to stand by Israel until the day that true peace reigns just as Gad and Reuben stood by Israel in the days so long ago.

[1] Peli, Pinchas, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, Washington D.C., B’nai B’rith Books, 1987, 189-191.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thoughts on Israel

Less than two weeks ago I sent a note eulogizing the three Israeli teens: Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad, who were brutally murdered. Our community gathered together, like so many others, to mourn this horrific act. Sadly, as we now know, violent acts, often times, beget more violent acts. In response or retribution, a young Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was burned to death in an act of revenge.

The world mourned and decried this act of violence. The response was almost universal condemnation, which was interesting because the deaths of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad, though horrible, did not garner as much attention. It is as always, the world expects Israel to show restraint, while accepting violence as a legitimate tool to be used by groups such as Hamas. The hypocrisy of such thoughts is maddening. All of their deaths are tragic and needless. And all perpetrators should be brought to justice. It's justice for all, not justice for some. 

Hamas in turn has been launching hundreds of rockets into Israel. Iron Dome has intercepted many including one or two that were aimed at the Dimona Nuclear Plant in Southern Israel. As an aside, a nuclear accident doesn't just stop at the borders of one country, but could have devastating effects across the entire region. Just ask Japan and Russia.

Israel in turn has responded with aerial bombardments of known and suspected missile sites, tunnels, terror leaders and the like. Israel has done this while trying to use restraint by warning and limiting civilian casualties. This is a challenge exacerbated by how Hamas has a propensity to hide behind civilian shields.

When I think about what is going on in Israel, I remind myself that if Hamas stopped launching missiles into Israel, Israel would stop responding. However if Israel were to stop responding, Hamas would not stop with their missile attacks.

It is a case of you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There are experts for more knowledgeable than I who can point to things like the most recent failed peace attempts, or to the ongoing occupation of the Occupied Territories. But, lest we forget, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, and this is how she has been repaid for her actions. Also, I look forward to the day when one of our U.S. Presidents makes the peace process a first term priority and not a second term priority, which has been the approach of both Republican and Democratic presidents.

I will admit that I am biased. I am biased for a vibrant democracy that values human life. I am biased towards a country that actively pursues peace even with partners who fail to recognize her sovereign right to exist. I am biased towards a country that is far too short of friends and all too often misrepresented in the media. Israel is not perfect, but she certainly has and continues to have my undying support.

According to our partner organization in the Associated, we can:
·       Make a contribution to our Israel Emergency Relief Campaign. Your donation--large or small--provides care for children in shelters and critical services to those affected.
·       Visit and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay updated on the current situation, share/retweet our posts and send photos showing support and solidarity using the hashtag: #BaltimoreStandsWithIsrael.
·       Send messages to our friends and family in Ashkelon on the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership Facebook page.
·       Send a personal card to the children in Ashkelon by emailing Amalia Phillips at the Macks Center for Jewish Education. 

We can also give to organizations like the JNF, the URJ, and so many others who are reaching out to provide support to our brethren suffering in Israel.

More than that, if you are planning a trip to Israel, you should still go. If you are in conversations with friends and family via social media, demonstrate how you stand up for Israel. Keep yourself informed.

And if you need a little levity, just follow Benji Lovitt on Facebook who recently posted, The IDF has asked us not to reveal where the rockets hit as to not give Hamas data to improve their accuracy. I am sorry to say I won't be doing that. Hamas, I know for a fact that some of them landed in Idaho, Manchester, and Alpha Centauri. Godspeed.

And as always, a prayer for peace never hurt either. Maybe one day the blessing of peace will be found in the land.