Thoughts to Ponder 111

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The Jewish Tradition and the Intifada (1)

It does not take much wisdom to realize that since its establishment the State of Israel has never faced so many difficulties as at this moment in time. Israel has undergone many wars, lost many of its soldiers and lived from crisis to crisis. Still, the latest conflict with the Palestinian people is of a very different kind. While all previous conflicts were wars with Arab countries which took place on the battlefield, this time the war is taking place on the home front and Israel has to deal with daily terrorist attacks in the center of its cities in which Palestinians blow themselves up, killing tens of Jews and injuring hundreds.

Over the many years the Israeli army was able to stand up against mighty armies and succeeded in silencing them. While it paid a heavy price it was always able to be victorious. This time the Israeli army is confronted with an enemy that consists of a group of terrorists which in terms of numbers or power are no match for it at all. As such it seems to be child’s play. It would not take more than a few hours for the Israeli airforce to completely end this Palestinian mini-war. Not one Israeli soldier would get killed or injured. But while other armies have done exactly that, killing thousands of people including women and children in the process, the Jewish people have no such option. Its Jewish conscience does not permit them to kill people who are innocent (or even not so innocent) and as such, Jews pay a heavy price for being decent. At the same time, it is clear that no other nation would restrain itself in similar circumstances.

But there is much more. We all feel that there is something else going on which we are unable to verbalize. Somehow it is clear to Israeli Jews and many Jews who are living outside the land, that this time the situation is unusually serious. It not just the fact that the army has difficulties coping with the enemy, but there is a realization that the rules of the game have changed, that the sand is shifting, that the Jewish people are more vulnerable than ever since the establishment of the State and that above all Jews are losing their nerves and that the Jewish State may be losing the ground under its feet. There is an uneasy feeling that we Jews are no longer what we used to be, and that our 4000 years of survival capacity seems to be exhausted.

We realize that it is not only our army which is forced to reveal its weak spots, but that we are also dealing with a government, guided by one of the most experienced men in the history of modern Israel, which seem to be at a loss as to what it needs to do and what governing is all about.

While we were once a strong-minded people, capable of standing up against the largest empires in the world, today we seem to be confused. We have exchanged self confidence for (although limited) hysteria and we do not even know what happened to us. We do not know where to turn and how to start discovering some kind of response.

It is in the light of these facts that I humbly offer the following observations. But before doing so, it should however be clear that to interpret current events is a most risky undertaking. Who after all knows why things happen the way they do. Studies show how much the interpretation of history is mainly built on speculation and little consistency. We are not prophets and we surely do not have sufficient knowledge to fully grasp the problem.

As religious people we are asked to look for the deeper meaning of world history, since it is one of the foundations of our belief that God has a hand in the unfolding of history. To do so we are used to consulting biblical and Talmudic sources, examining them and drawing conclusions. This however is not done without serious danger.

Often these texts are open to a whole lot of interpretations, which not infrequently contradict each other leaving us in confusion. To apply these texts and to declare that we have unraveled “the ways of God” is not only dangerous but all too presumptuous. It could back-fire on us and the results may be disastrous.

Almost nothing is more dangerous than claiming to have definite insights into the world of God. This is arrogance and impudence of the first order, something to which religious people have frequently fallen victim bringing religion into disrepute.

On the other hand, these texts were given to us to make them relevant. If they are not, they become meaningless and ultimately lose their reason for existence.

As such we are left with only one option. We must study these texts as if they are relevant. We must above all try to reveal the moral lessons from these texts which inspire us to be better human beings and Jews. In other words it is our obligation to learn from these texts those matters which increase our moral consciousness without stating that they are unique or even an authentic interpretation. It may quite well be that these texts were deliberately written in such a way that they are applicable to several circumstances, while open to various interpretations without a definite meaning.

With this in mind, let us ask some questions. What could possibly be the reason why we find ourselves in this terrible crisis? As mentioned: As religious people we must look beyond politics and look for a deeper reason. What are the moral and religious implications? Saying it differently: What is God possibly trying to tell us? What are we as individuals able to do about it? What are our obligations?

Before we try to answer these questions, it must however be clear that the observations we will make could easily be misunderstood and above all be misused. It is for this reason that I beg my listeners to be most careful with the words I offer. My words are those of a humble man who does not want anything other than to help his people. As in every other case in which certain claims are made, the speaker has to take risks knowing that he may play into the hands of those who harbor bad intentions. And we can be sure that as far as our discussion is concerned, there are many who belong to that camp. Nevertheless honesty asks us to speak up. Even when it may make us unpopular with some of our listeners.

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Let us first look into a Talmudic narrative found in tractate Sanhedrin (91a) which tells about a legal claim which was pleaded by the descendants of the Canaanites, (the earlier settlers of Israel in the days of Joshua,) in the International Court of Alexander the Great.

“When the Bnei Africa (called by that name because at that time the descendants of the Canaanites lived in Africa) came to plead against the Jews before Alexander of Macedonia (Alexander the Great), they said: “The land of Canaan (Israel) belongs to us! As it is written (in the Torah of the Jews) “The land of Canaan with the coast thereof” (Bamidbar 34:2). “And Canaan was the ancestor of our people. (So we are the legitimate owners of the land and consequently we want it back!)” (After Alexander had told the Jews about this) a Jewish ignoramus by the name of Gebiha ben Peziza came to the sages of Israel and said: “Authorize me to go and plead before Alexander in favor of the Jews. Should they defeat me then you can say: “You have defeated an ignorant man of us”, but in case I defeat them, then say to them thus: “The Law of Moshe has defeated you”

So they authorized him and he went and pleaded with them. He asked: “From where do you deduce your proof (that the land is yours)?” And they said: “From your own Torah!!” “I too” said he “will bring you a proof from the Torah for it written in the story of Noach (after Noach became drunk and undressed himself and his son Cham (also called Canaan) came to see his nakedness and asked his two brothers Shem and Japhet to join him but the latter decided, in contradiction to Canaan, to cover their father’s nakedness) that Noach cursed his son Canaan and said: “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants will he be unto his brothers” Continued Geviha ben Peziza: “ (So you are our slaves since we are the descendants of Shem) And do we not have a rule which states that whatever is acquired by the slave belongs to the master, since the slave himself belongs to the master? ( Consequently the land belongs anyway to us even when your claim is correct! ) Moreover, you have not served us for many years!”

Then Alexander said to them (the Canaanites) “Answer him, (the Jews seem to have a strong claim!)” “Give us three days”, they pleaded. So he gave them a respite. However they sought but could find no response. Immediately they fled…………..”

Maharasha ( Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer ben Jehuda Halevi Edels, 1555-1631), one of the most important commentators on the Talmud, analyzes this Talmudic passage very carefully and asks some very penetrating questions.

How, he asks, could the Canaanites turn to the Torah as their proof text when, if they would just turn the page, they would clearly see that the land may have belonged to them but that God afterwards granted it to Avraham and all Jews? Were they not guilty of selective reading and ignoring clear facts which would not be to their liking?

Even more difficult to understand is the response of Geviha ben Peziza. Why did he turn to the story of Noach and his curse on Canaan to defend the Jewish claim? Why did he not use all the obvious biblical passages such as the promises to Avraham? Why was he using an argument which is a little far fetched and circumstantial?

Maharasha’s response is most revealing: In no way were the Bnei Africa guilty of selective reading. They were fully aware of all the passages in which God promised that the Jews would inherit the land, but they claimed that they were no longer relevant. Their argument was that they had fully understood the reason why they, the Canaanites, were exiled from the land. Their unethical behavior including violence and corruption had caused them to lose the land. So when the Jews came to inherit the land in the days of Joshua it was indeed the fulfillment of God’s promise to Avraham, Isaac and Yacov. It was legitimate. But such a claim would no longer apply. After all, the land was given on the condition that the Jews would live by the laws of the Torah and its ethical values. But, claimed the Canaanites, the Jews were no longer living by these values and just like the Canaanites before them were guilty of wanting behavior. They had desecrated the land and as such had also lost the right to the land. Once the Jews no longer lived by the covenant, they could no longer stay in the land and as such the land should be returned to the original owners namely the Canaanites. This, continues Maharasha, is also the reason why Geviha ben Peziza could not use the verses which tell us about the promises to Avraham. He was fully aware of what the Canaanites were saying, realized that they were just and therefore he could only bring a (problematic) proof from the story of Noach.

My dear friends. We have a great society and this society of Israel does a lot of good. Nowhere in the world is there so much chesed (kindness and charity) done as in our country. But do I need to elaborate? And who I am to do so? Still, let’s be honest. However painful it may be, we have an obligation to ask ourselves if this story does not reflect our situation today as well. Perhaps we are indeed losing this beautiful land because we do not live up to the conditions under which it was given to us. Perhaps a foreign nation who lived sporadically in this country before the new State of Israel was established, comes to remind us in all its ugliness that we need to improve ourselves if we want to hold on to this country? Indeed we cannot know for sure but do we not have an obligation to take this narrative seriously and at least draw the conclusion as if this story relates to our case?

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Let me quote a statement made by the great Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh HaYeshiva, dean of the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin. (1817-1893) Commenting on the verse: “The Rock is perfect in His working, righteous and straight is He”, (Devarim 32:4) he writes:

“ The meaning of this verse is to vindicate the judgment of God with the destruction of the second Temple in a generation which was perverted and twisted. While the people in those days were righteous and pious in their religious obligations, they were not straight in dealing with their fellowmen. They suspected anybody who did not agree with them in the way they served God and they called them apikorsim, heretics, and Sadducees. And it is because of this that there was shedding of blood and that the nation became divided, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. So Divine judgement came and allowed the destruction of the Temple since God is straight and does not tolerate such “righteous people”. He only protects those who are straight and not crooked even when their motivations are in their eyes done “for Heaven’s sake”. The main reason for this is that such behavior and attitudes destroy our social structure and our successful settlement in the land and the world” (Introduction to his commentary Haemek Davar on Bereshith)

Take, my dear friends, proper notice. Netziv warns us not so much about the violation of religious obligations such as Shabbath and Kashruth (however important they are), but in the way we deal with each other and how our inner fights ultimately lead to the destruction of our society. Should all of us, including myself, not be obligated to take these words most seriously especially now when we see our society shake?

To be continued

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1. The following lecture was given in Jerushalayim in the Jeshurun Synagogue on the 20th of Tamuz 5861( July, 11, 2001) and also in the Ner Yisrael community in London on the 8th of Av, 5761, July, 28, 2001 and in Amsterdam. The original title was: Are we losing the State of Israel? It was repeated on the 8th of Iyar, 5762, (April, 20, 2002) in the Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center in Jerushalayim. We offer it to our readers in two installment .

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