Some of you may not realize I used to own a Maserati. While thrilling to drive such a beautiful car, nothing could protect my Granturismo from the realities of the road once I had left the sheltered security of the showroom: the fellow who misjudged his skill at parallel parking and dented my front grill; the tree sap from the pine trees under which I parked; the reckless driver who sped through the red light and caused a fender bender involving my vehicle.
Okay, I confess; I never did own a Maserati . . . But I like to think that the ethical ideals of Judaism which I strive to practice are a spiritual equivalent. Yet ideals, like new automobiles of any make or model, are vulnerable once they are driven in traffic and have to contend with bad drivers and the unpredictable elements of nature. Reality has a way of eroding even our most cherished ideals.
Take Parshat Pinhas, this week’s Torah reading. This particular sedrah is top-heavy with descriptions of the special sacrifices made on Shabbat and each of the holidays, a group of sacrifices we collectively refer to as musafim, and the basis of the additional amidah prayers we recite on Shabbat and festivals.
One of the most interesting sacrificial configurations is connected to the fall festival of Sukkot. Unlike any other holiday, the sacrificial menu changed each day of the celebration — specifically the number of bulls offered on the altar decreased by one as the festival progressed. Thus, on the first day of Sukkot 13 bulls were sacrificed, on the second day 12 and so on, until on the last day of the holiday, only 7 were offered. The sages couldn’t help but notice the diminishing number of animals offered each day and came up with a beautiful explanation. Doing some quick math, Rabbi Elazar observed that the total number of bulls offered equals 70, corresponding to the ancient rabbinic notion that the world consists of 70 different peoples. As such, Rabbi Elazar maintained that on Sukkot Israel offered a sacrifice for the well-being of each nation — whether friend or foe, a worshipper of idols or the one God (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 55b). This is a beautiful and powerful expression of the strong universalism and respect for all humanity that pervades Judaism.
Yet fast forward to the time of Rashi, roughly 1,000 years later, and we’ll see that he focuses not on the universal ideal of praying for all of humanity, but on the diminishing number of bulls offered each day. He writes, “ הם כנגד שבעים אומות עובדי גילולים שמתמעטים והולכים סימן כליה להם . . . — This stands for the 70 idolatrous nations of the world (literally, “worshippers of filth”) who will dwindle and decline, a sign of their destruction.” Rashi certainly knew of the more positive midrashic spin on the sacrifice of the 70 bulls — why quote this one instead?
We can only speculate what prompted Rashi to convert a generous expression of universalism into its very opposite. It would not be far-fetched, however, to suggest that it could have been the First Crusade of 1066, which Rashi, living in northern France, witnessed toward the end of his life. The havoc wreaked by these marauders upon the Jewish communities of the Rhineland and the Danube was both extensive and devastating. Could anyone blame him for feeling angry at the events that scarred and embittered him? Yes, reality has a way of denting our ideals — sometimes only temporarily, in other instances permanently.
I, too, have ideals: I want to see peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. I believe a two-state solution is ultimately necessary, and would support a great deal on Israel’s part to achieve this goal, including the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital for both countries. But it doesn’t matter what I want, when those who wish to be our enemies prefer the path of death and destruction.
Israel must do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of her citizens. Whether it requires a ground invasion of Gaza, increased bombing from the air, the targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders or all three, there are times when the needs of the hour preclude us from having the luxury of pure ideals, which reside in a rarified world isolated from the reality of rockets being fired into the heart of Israeli cities. Undoubtedly there will be innocent Palestinians killed by Israeli gunfire, this is the reality. But it was not the Jewish State that escalated the violence by deliberately aiming missiles at the population centers of the Gaza Strip. And even in the midst of the violence, the IDF still calls families on the phone before firing upon civilian dwellings, and drops empty shells on rooftops as an advance warning. It is amazing how in the midst of war and death, Israel still manages to hold onto some ideals.
But none of this changes an essential fact — Israel must do what she must do, and we must support her at this hour because her children — our brothers and sisters — have a right to live in peace in their own ancestral homeland without running to bomb shelters morning, noon or night. And this right must be asserted and taken, not politely requested. To this end I urge you to participate in the emergency Federation appeal that is seeking to raise within our community $30,000 in aid within the next two weeks, as part of a $10 million campaign across North America.
Let us recall it’s not only our brothers and sisters who are faced with danger at this moment. It is our own children, four of whom from this congregation are spending the summer in Israel: Michael Appel, Jenna Levin, Jenna Levine, and Micah Rubin. Yesterday morning, Micah’s parents, Perrin and Dr. Devon Rubin, went to Israel as originally scheduled. A week from tomorrow my own Susan will also leave for Israel. Am I nervous? A little. Am I supportive and proud? A lot. Reality may erode some ideals, but it only strengthens others. We cannot and will not bend to the thugs of Hamas.
I pray that our children will return to Jacksonville safe and sound. Of one thing I am certain. Having seen Israel and the Jewish world come together in this hour of crisis, having tasted the threat with which Israelis must live all the time, Hamas will have only succeeded in transforming our teens into even stronger and more passionate Zionists, young adults who will know more fully than even their parents the price that Jews must pay to have returned to their ancestral homeland.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Aaron’s grandson averts a violent plague among the Israelites by taking the law into his own hands and killing an Israelite prince, Zimri ben Saluh, along with his Midianite consort, Kozbi bat Tzur, both of whom engaged in licentious idol-worship brazenly and publicly. While the rabbis are ambivalent about Pinhas’ zealotry, the text of the Torah praises his action, and God rewards Aaron’s grandson, saying, “הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם — Behold I shall give him My covenant of peace” (Numbers 25:12).
The Ba’alei Mesorah, the sages of the early Middle Ages who standardized the way in which the Torah text appears in every scroll, codified the phrase “briti shalom — my covenant of peace” be written with a broken vav in the word shalom, i.e., a straight line broken into two discrete sections. By writing the word shalom in a defective manner, perhaps they sought to communicate the thought that a peace created by fanatics and zealots will always be broken and incomplete — an ironic commentary on shalom, which comes from the Hebrew root shalem, meaning whole.
The ideal of peace that many of us so deeply cherish has been broken, fragmented like the shrapnel of cluster bombs dropped on one’s enemy. Instead we can only hear the echo of Jeremiah calling to us from antiquity to eschew false promises of peace, to ignore those who call out, “. . . שָׁל֣וֹם ׀ שָׁל֑וֹם, וְאֵ֖ין שָׁלֽוֹם — “they who call out ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Yesterday afternoon before Shabbat I read a beautiful d’var Torah in Hebrew, written by my colleague Rabbi Mauricio Balter. He wrote about the agonizing moral dilemma of knowing that, despite all the precautions taken by the IDF, innocent Palestinian children created in God’s image no less than Israeli children, are being killed. I cannot condemn him for his nobility of sentiment; he lives in Beersheva, and runs with his neighbors, his wife and children to the bomb shelters each day, sometimes several times in a day. He made aliyah and put himself in a situation where he and his family face danger. I can only admire and marvel at the ongoing steadfast embrace of his ideals.
Yet I also cannot forget there are few, and quite probably, no imam anywhere in Gaza or the West Bank preaching such beautiful sentiments to their communities. I cannot forget that pure morality can only be achieved when one is willing to be killed in order to avoid killing. Writing more than 75 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi, the supreme hero of non-violent resistance who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among others, offered this advice to Jews the world over: “If I were a Jew and born in Germany, I would consider Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon. Suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy . . . “ And to Jews living in Palestine, he counseled, “They should seek to convert the Arab heart. They can offer Satyagraha in front of the Arab and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in their favor in their religious aspiration.”
With all due respect, Gandhi’s struggled against the British, not the Nazis or even Hamas. The British Empire possessed a sense of morality, even if warped by colonialism; the English played by a set of rules. If the West had employed Gandhi’s prescriptions for resistance against Hitler none of us would be alive in this room. Fascism would rule the world instead. And if the Jews of the Yishuv had done the same, there would be no Israel, just dead Jews.
Judaism teaches that morality is infinitely precious, but it does not outweigh the preciousness of life. And while we are forbidden to take another’s life wantonly or indifferently, we are told unequivocally that our lives are no less precious than anyone else’s. When someone comes to kill us, we must kill him first. Period. And so the violence of those who hate us must be stopped; and if our enemies will not stop it, then we must do so.
As human beings we can rebuild our ideals; but we cannot bring back to life the dead. We can only try to protect and defend our brethren and children as effectively as possible. It is a heavy burden to watch the erosion of one’s ideals, but this year we live not with the universal hope of the ancient rabbis who envisioned a world of peace, but with the midrash of Rashi, the prayer that our enemies be diminished one by one, that the rockets be stopped one by one, that the kidnappings end one by one.
And please God, perhaps next year, or the year after that, or even the one after that, may we be able to afford the blessing of ideals we cherish so deeply.