Thoughts to Ponder 112

The Jewish Tradition and the Intifada (Part 2) (1)
For the first part see Thoughts to Ponder 111 of last week
For the complete lecture see our website.

Let us speak for a moment about the Palestinians. Who are these people? How is it that suddenly they are making hell out of our lives? Is it not most remarkable that until only a few years ago nobody had ever heard about a Palestinian people and suddenly they became a central issue in world politics? Suddenly they appeared out of nowhere land without any real historical roots and instantly the world accepted them as a nation with considerable power.

And is it not most peculiar that since the Palestinians joined the stage of world politics, Jews surrendered to them the very first cities in Israel which God granted them in the days of Avraham and later under the leadership of Joshua in an attempt to make peace with them ?

These cities include Shechem, Chevron and Yericho as well as Judaism’s central city Jerusalem. It seems that we lose the land in the same order as we received it! The first cities we inherited are the first ones to go! How bizarre!

In a most unusual passage in Devarim (32) called “Haazinu” we read a song which was sung by Moshe at the end of his life. This song is one of the most difficult parts of all of the Torah to understand. Still some of the verses speak for themselves. Between many crucial subjects the misdeeds of the Jews are discussed and God informs us by way of this song of what the consequences will be.

And I (God) said: I will hide My face from them and I will see what their end may be. They are a generation of confusion, children in which one cannot trust. They have caused My “jealousy” with a non-god (i.e. trusting in other powers but God). They have “annoyed” Me with their nullities. And I will provoke them by a non-nation. Through a foolish vile nation will I provoke them to rage and resentment.”

Again we have to ask ourselves if these verses do not speak about our own condition in which a non-nation i.e. a group of people without historical roots or cultural identity, heaps terror after terror on us, driving us to panic while simultaneously bringing its own people to total ruin.

It also reminds us of an observation by Rashi when commenting on a part of Moshe’s farewell speech where he reminded the Israelites of one of their enemies, the Emorites:

The Emorites went out… and pursued you as bees do, they struck you in Seer, until Chorma.”(Devarim 1:44)

Rashi questions the meaning of the statement “like bees” and responds that just as a bee attacks a person, and immediately dies, so did the Emorites. Normally a nation does not contemplate attacking its enemy knowing that the enemy’s form of retaliation would leave no survivors. Only unprecedented and totally ferocious hatred leads people to the decision to commit suicide knowing that they are able to hurt and kill many enemies on their way down.

Hatred can have such power that it will get totally out of control, to the point that the person himself is no longer able to explain what the root of his hate is about. By that time hatred will rule him as he fell victim to it. In such a situation there is no point in offering him any favors or compromise and even total capitulation to his wishes will not be of any help. By this time his hatred has been completely disconnected from its original motive. It has become hate for the sake of hate.

It is this hatred which has overtaken the Palestinian people and just like bees they bring disaster and death on themselves. It is this psychological condition which we now witness in a people which we tried to help and even offered a large part of our heritage to. But hatred seems to blind them to such an extent that they can no longer see their own better future.

But let us understand this hatred not only from a psychological but also from a religious perspective. Again we are reminded of a verse in the Torah which again may relate to our circumstances:

In Shemoth (34:24) we read concerning the obligation of each male to come to the Temple on Pesach, Shavuoth and Succoth:

“Three times in the year shall all your males let themselves be seen close to the presence of the Lord God, the God of Israel.”

And when you shall do so, i.e when you will not only come to the Temple three times a year but also fully live up to the moral and spiritual condition of that holy place then:

“No human being will covet your land when you go up three times a year to the Temple(ibid)

This is a most remarkable verse. How can it be that when all Jewish males find themselves in the court of the Temple on these days, that the country will not be overtaken by the enemy? When no soldier stands at the borders of the country, how can the land be secured from its enemies? Indeed this is not possible under the normal condition of human experience. Such a situation is suicidal and such a biblical promise seems to be absurd.

Looking carefully into these verses we become aware of the fact that their message is not that our enemies will come to our borders and that God will stop them crossing over. What it does say is that the enemies will not even covet the land and will show no interest in entering or occupying it!

This is indeed most extraordinary. We are being told that the psychological condition of our enemies will drastically change once we behave the way we should. It seems to suggest that our behavior influences their psychological attitudes. Not just on a social level but on a metaphysical level. I am not prepared to comment on this other than to say that this issue is most striking.

Let us however not make the mistake of thinking that this frees our enemies from their responsibility. It does not say that they will lose their faculty to decide between right and wrong and that they are compelled to attack our country like a preconditioned robot. What it means is that it will be harder for them to resist those subconscious elements calling for downfall just like in the case of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh. (2)


To come back to our earlier thesis, it is most important to realize that most of these verses and their rabbinical interpretations emphasize the need for supreme ethical behavior by the Jewish people. While it is definitely true that the observance of religious laws such as shabbath and kashruth are of the utmost importance, it is most clear, as can be especially seen in the observations of Neziv, that it is the “mitzvoth ben adam lechavero” the laws between man and his fellow man, which seem to be crucial when the land needs of securing. This should send us a most clear message.

It is possible to live a so called religious life without being religious and society will not be able to function and will surely disintegrate when the observance of shabbath, kashruth and other rituals are celebrated, but our relationship with our fellowmen is wanting.

We are reminded of a most important and profound observation made by the great sage Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen from Dvinsk (1843-1926) in his monumental commentary on the Torah: Meschech Chochma. (Shemoth 14:29)

Here Rabbi Meir Simcha draws our attention towards a most unusual and problematic statement by the Torah concerning the cause of the flood of Noach. In Bereshith (6:11) we read:

“And the earth was (tishachet) corrupt before God and the earth was filled with (chamas) violence.”

Rashi, ad loc, comments: “Corruption” (Haschata) means sexual immorality and idol worship and “violence” (chamas) means robbery.

He then continues and makes the following comment based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108): “The divine decree (to bring the flood) was sealed because of robbery.” In other words it was not the violation of sexual immorality or idol worship which ultimately caused the flood but robbery.

This argues Rabbi Simcha Meir is most strange and seems to contradict Jewish Law. One does not become liable to the death penalty because one has robbed. According to the Torah, robbery is punished by financial penalties, never by capital punishment. Secondly the prohibitions of idol worship and sexual immorality do ask for capital punishment! So how could God have brought the flood on all of mankind because of robbery? If anything it should have been due to sexual immorality and idol worship. This matter is specifically so intriguing because one of the great principles of Judaism is that God Himself is obligated to act by His own rulings! (See Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1,3a))

Rabbi Simcha Meir responds by disclosing a most unusual concept within Jewish Law which is not a little surprising. By doing so he lays down a major principle with far reaching consequences.

It is true, he argues, that individuals are liable to the death penalty when they are involved in sexual immorality or idol-worship. But this is only true when the vast majority of their fellow men are not. In such a case the individual should have known better. After all his fellow man made it abundantly clear to him that such behavior is unacceptable. But what happens in the case when all of mankind gets involved in these practices? In such a case, argues Rabbi Meir Simcha, the death penalty no longer applies! The reason is obvious: When all men are involved in such acts, nobody knows any better! Once it becomes the norm and has turned into an accepted practice by all, one can no longer make anybody liable. To do so would be entirely unjustified. From where would the individual know that such practices are forbidden when all of mankind has accepted them as legitimate lifestyles?

However this is only true is such laws which deal with the relationship between man and God, such as idol worship or sexual immorality ( in which both parties out of free will have consented to such a relationship). In these cases God may forfeit His personal honor and forgive the offenders.

But this is far from true in the case of robbery. It is impossible to argue that since all men are robbers, robbery is permitted and that the offender would not have known better. After all, the result of robbery is to be seen by all. It results in the breakdown of all of society. Nobody could argue that he did not know and considered robbery to be a norm.

In fact, argues Rabbi Meir Simcha, with the increase of people robbing, the transgression worsens. While one or two robbers can only do limited damage, in a case where all of society starts stealing, the damage is so much greater. Consequently the normally required monetary penalty will be insufficient. After all it is no longer robbery which people are guilty of, but the total destruction of society. Such a collective transgressing demands a much stronger punishment as it undermines all that society stands for.

This, argues Rabbi Meir Simcha, is the reason why the generation of the flood became liable to capital punishment, because of robbery and not because of idol worship or sexual immorality. They had completely destroyed society. It was as if they had committed social suicide. Would they “just” have violated the laws of idol worship or sexual immorality, God would not have brought them the flood since they would not have known better and such behavior would have been considered to be the norm.

Proof can be brought from a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah,, chapter 1,mishna 1) “In the generation of King David there were only righteous people, but because there were informers among them, they, the righteous people, fell and died in war. But in the days of King Achab, many were involved in idol worship, but because there were no informers among them, they were victorious.” In the last case the verse: (Vayikra 16:16)“He (Divine providence) will (still) dwell among them in their contamination” applies but in the case of the informers it says: “He will be exalted above the heavens” (Tehilim 57:6).i.e. Divine Presence will no longer find Itself among them. In the first case people violated the moral code as far as their fellow men were concerned and therefore God was no longer prepared to have His divine indwelling stay with them although there were many righteous people. In the second case while being idol worshippers the people behaved properly to each other and the Divine “indwelling” consequently remained with them, however terrible their “religious” transgressions may have been.

A similar point is made by the sages when they asked which destruction of the two Temples was worse, the first destruction or the second one. The answer is most striking. The second! The reason why the first Temple was destroyed was because of idol worship and sexual immorality, the second one was destroyed because of “meaningless hate” although many used to learn Torah in those days. Surprisingly, it took only few years before the second Temple was built, which means that the punishment for idol worship and sexual morality was limited. But once the second Temple was destroyed, no third one, throughout all the thousands of years, was ever built, clearly informing us that “meaningless hatred” between fellow Jews was considered much worse in the eyes of God than the violation of idol worship and sexual immorality. (Yoma 9a,b)

In other words there is overwhelming evidence that on a national level the commandments dealing with the relationship between man and his fellow man are absolutely crucial.

While we cannot be sure, as mentioned before, that the different biblical and rabbinical texts apply to our precarious situation in the land of Israel at this hour, we should at least draw the conclusion that it is our duty to inspire ourselves and our fellow Jews to increase our efforts to take all these texts to our hearts and try to create an even better Jewish society. It cannot be denied that there are few places in the world where so much kindness is done as in Israel. We are blessed with charity organizations of every possible kind, unheard of in other countries. As has been shown in the latest “Operation Defense Shield” Israeli soldiers implement standards of moral warfare which no other nation in the world will even contemplate. In their utter frustration, these nations have now turned against us because they cannot bear the knowledge that their leadership and armies are so far removed from such moral standards as displayed by our soldiers. This is our fate and we should be proud of it.

Still there is much to do. Israel should start a major national campaign to advance the commandments between man and fellow man. By creating outreach programs throughout the country via radio and television broadcasts, websites, email, Cd’s and educational videos, it would be possible to reach hundreds of thousands of people. We should flood the Israeli society and the Jewish world at large with the most uplifting literature which is presented in an attractive way to inspire people to show the utmost sensitivity to the feelings of our fellow man. Advertisements on billboards at bus and train stations and in shopping centers sponsored by major industries, should call on its readers to be more patient with their fellowman, to smile and say hello to any bypasser, to show courtesy, to help wherever possible and make it a matter of honor and pride to be a real “mensch”

This can be done in highly effective ways without the need to preach and without becoming too “sweet”.

Because of its many wars Israelis have been afraid to show their emotions and of being called weak and compromising. Anybody acquainted with Israeli society knows that underneath there is a subtle soul looking for ways to help and serve one’s fellow Jew.

Religious Jews have a most important task in all this. By their exemplary behavior, they must be able to strike a light in the hearts of other Jews. Religious Jews must realize that they have to become a light to their own nation before they can be a light to other nations. There cannot be any mediocrity. This will require that religious schools, seminaries and yeshivoth will have to go out of their way to give more time to teaching and discussing the commandments between man and his fellow man. There is no point in suggesting stringencies in the laws of shabbath and kashruth if they are not accompanied by similar, if not stricter stringencies in our relationships with our fellowman. This is indeed the great challenge facing religious Jewry and its leaders at this hour.

Dear friends. Once more I want to make the point that all the above verses may apply to our crisis but there are no guarantees that they actually do. Nobody really knows. But still, I think we all agree that we should draw the necessary conclusions and act as if they do. Nothing is more uplifting than having an even better society.

In fact, we should make the point that in case these verses do indeed discuss our situation then they carry a message of great hope. After all what do they suggest? They submit that our future is first of all in our own hands and not in the hands of our enemies. This, I might suggest. makes the problem much more easier to solve. All we need to do is put our house in order. It is not our foreign policy which will solve the problem, but our interior conduct which will make the real difference. This is possible. There is little doubt that with a lot of effort we will be able to change Israeli society for the better. This is especially so, since this society clearly carries the seeds for such exalted behavior, as has been proven over and over again in its short history.

The unprecedented feeling of unity at this hour is most striking. We witness how the religious and non-religious are able to work hand in hand. We can testify that there is a common recognition of brotherhood between Sefardim and Ashkenazim, between rich and poor. This should wake us up. Every crisis is also an opportunity. Without denying or in any form belittling the terrible tragedies in which so many people have been killed and hurt in the last few months, this crisis may one day turn into a blessing and function as a catharsis towards a better future. Let us work and pray that it will.

May the God of Israel grant us mercy and may we soon see the day in which tranquility will return to this great country.

I thank you.


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