The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

Shemot 5775 – Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God

When I was in college, I had an opportunity to attend a talk by the the famous Israeli author and peacenik, Amos Oz.  Something he said has stuck with me.  “I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor.”

The wisdom captured by this insight was on display in France this week.  Islamic terrorists, upset about cartoons that insulted Muhammad attacked the offices of the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people.

Ironically, it is the fanatic who is the funniest of all, and who most needs to be satirized.  It is the fanatic who most urgently needs to understand the joke, but on whom the punchline is lost.

Charlie Hebdo is a rude, satirical magazine that is an equal-opportunity insulter.  As Jews, we might get offended at how it depicts our coreligionists, but then again, when we consider that  Christians and Muslims receive the same treatment, perhaps there is something going on here other than antisemitism.

As we gather together this morning to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, to be together, and in a little while, to eat, we cannot help but also reflect on the terrible events of this week in France.  First, the murder of twelve souls at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  Then the shooting of a police officer.  And right before Shabbat, the taking hostage and murder of Jewish shoppers in a kosher grocery store.

The sad thing is that we knew this was coming.  The Editor of Charlie Hebdo even had a bodyguard, who was among the victims.  The Muslim terrorists who committed these terrible acts received training by Al-Qaeda in Yemen and were heavily armed.  It seems that there was really no stopping this tragedy from happening.

Consider other recent events around the world, including the beheading of Western journalists in Syria and Iraq, the killing of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan, the murder of a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, the taking hostage of diners in a cafe in Australia – all were committed by Islamic terrorists in the name of their religion.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Taliban, Boko Haram, and the list goes on.  It is impossible to deny that we are facing a global epidemic of Islamic fundamentalists whose interpretation of religion compels them to fight anything to do with the West: democracy, women’s rights, freedom of the press, religious pluralism, the list goes on.

How is it possible that religious people could have such a perverse interpretation of what God wants from humanity?  It is mind-boggling.  Comical even.  ISIS would make a fantastic comic book villain if it was not real.

How does religion become totalitarian?  This phenomenon is so antithetical to how our Jewish tradition would have us see the world.

This morning, we begin reading the Book of Exodus.  Parashat Shemot introduces us to the major characters in this drama: the Israelites, Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and of course, God.

The English title of the book captures what we usually think of as its major theme: Exodus.  In Hebrew, we refer to this event as Yetziat Mitzrayim, the leaving of Egypt.  This is our formative story as a people.  It is a story which is embedded into our consciousness individually and collectively.  We were once slaves.  God saved us with an outstretched arm.  Now we are free, and we are in a covenantal relationship with God that, among other things, requires us to care for the downtrodden.  We know this story well.  We tell it in our daily prayers.  We reexperience it every year during Passover.

It is not only our story.  Martin Luther King, Jr. used the story of the Exodus as a biblical paradigm BFranklinSealin the Civil Rights movement.  Abraham Lincoln turned to the Exodus for inspiration in the fight to end slavery.  Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Israelites safely on the far side of the Sea of Reeds while the Egyptian army drowns in its depths.  The motto surrounding the seal would have read: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

That is the other message of the Book of Exodus.  Pharaoh is a tyrant.  He is a fanatic.  He has no sense of humor.  Just as God brings the Israelites into freedom to convey a universal concern for human freedom, God also set out to overthrow Pharaoh as a sign to the world that despotism is never to be tolerated.

God’s problem with Pharaoh is not that he is an idolater.  In fact, the Torah is ambivalent with regard to other nations’ religious beliefs and practices.  The Jewish people are never commanded to rid the world of idolatry or to force the rest of humanity to worship God.

Pharaoh’s sin is that he, a human, claims to be divine.  And further, he allows for no possibility of anything else.

At the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh looks at his kingdom, sees the Israelites, and notices that they are different.  He cultivates a sense of fear among the Egyptian people, convincing them that the Israelites pose a threat to Egypt.  The regime of slavery begins, but Pharaoh’s paranoia only gets worse.  Still fearful of a rebellion, he orders the execution of all male Israelite children.

The Torah, in its wisdom, is articulating the steps of how a totalitarian dictator consolidates power by demonizing foreign elements.  It is setting the stage for God’s overthrow of a tyrant.

When Moses first comes to Pharaoh as God’s Prophet, he does not ask for freedom from slavery.  He asks only for a three day break so that the Israelites can go out into the wilderness and worship God.  Three days.  Pharaoh cannot tolerate even that.

What is he so worried about – three days of lost work?  No.  Pharaoh cannot accept that these lowly people refuse to acknowledge him as divine.  The worship of God is a threat to Pharaoh.  How does he respond – by increasing the workload.

This guy takes himself way too seriously.  Pharaoh has no sense of humor, no capacity to see things from another’s perspective.  He is so stubbornly fanatic that he brings his entire nation down to hell rather than give up an inch.

God has two objectives in Exodus.  One is to free the Israelites.  The other is to demonstrate to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the other nations of the world, that Pharaoh is Pharaoh and God is God.  God clearly is on the side against totalitarianism.

The Book of Exodus is about the preciousness of freedom and the evils of arrogance.

This is a message that is sorely needed today.

What we are facing today is not a war between Islam and the West.  What we are facing is a totalitarian fundamentalism rooted in the Islamic religion that seeks nothing less than total domination.

To be clear, Islam is not inherently violent.  There are plenty of peaceful, tolerant Muslims.  But let’s not be naive and pretend that the numerous terrorist attacks all over the world committed by Muslims in the name of their faith are not part of a broader trend.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are fighting to create societies that are governed by Sharia courts.  Infidels must convert, die, or in some cases live as second-class citizens.  Moderate Muslims must convert to this extreme brand of Islam.  It is why so much of the killing in recent years has targeted other Muslims.  If this was really about a war between East and West, why is there so much Muslim on Muslim killing?

There may not be anything that we can do to change the minds of those who have already committed to Islamic fanaticism.  Force may indeed be the only way to defend ourselves from people without a sense of humor.  In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh is not capable of teshuvah.  The only outcome for this tyrant is total defeat.

But a ray of light emerged last week from a more contemporary Egyptian leader.  Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on January 1, which on the Muslim calendar this year coincided with the birthday of Muhammad.  In the audience sat leading Egyptian Muslim clerics, as well as the Minister of Religious Appropriations.  President Al-Sisi made forceful, honest comments about Islam that are the kind of words that could get him killed.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.   It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Notice a few things.  Al-Sisi specifies that it is not the Islamic religion itself that is so violent, but it is the way that it has been interpreted over the centuries that has caused so much destruction.

I agree.  Our Jewish texts have some brutal passages that, if taken literally, would make us fanatics as well.  But we have a more than two thousand year old interpretive tradition that has found ways to address those difficult passages.  Al-Sisi is calling for Islam to develop similar interpretive traditions.

Also, he does not claim that “Islam is a religion of peace,” nor does he state that the terrorists are not really Muslims.  Al-Sisi does not blame the West, or point his finger at colonialism.  He takes responsibility as a Muslim.

He calls for a change in the way that Islam is understood and practiced, and he acknowledges that it will not be easy.  Islam has been interpreted in fundamentalist, triumphalist ways for so long that those modes of thinking have become fully embedded.

But it does not have to continue that way.  Islam, he argues, is “in need of a religious revolution” that comes from within.  Who has to lead it?  Al-Sisi places responsibility where it belongs – on the Imams seated before him.  It is they who must take the lead on changing Islamic thinking about its role in the world.

Until that happens on a widespread and sustained global level, I fear, the clash between tyranny and freedom that our world is experiencing will continue, and this week’s events will be repeated somewhere else, sometime soon.

On this Shabbat, our prayers extend to the families and communities who lost loved ones this week.  We pray that more people in the world will embrace the core lessons of Exodus: that freedom is precious, and that tyranny is intolerable.  We pray for all those around the world who risk their lives to protect innocent people from terror.  And we pray for strength and offer solidarity to our Muslim brothers and sisters who are courageously raising their voices and calling for change from within.

Blinded by Fear – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (first day)

Today is the day when Jews around the world celebrate the new year, so it is a good time for us to take stock of how things are going around the world for the Jewish people.  Let us start with a place where things are great for the Jews – Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s closest allies.  In 1991, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the U.S.S.R., Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize it.  A community of around 10,000 Jews live there, with the Mountain Jews tracing their roots back 1500 years.  The Jewish Agency has had a school in Azerbaijan since 1982.  There is very little antisemitism, and Jews there are an important part of society.

Israel and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.  Trade connections are strong and growing.  Israel is one of the major providers of military equipment, and has helped modernize Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  They have cooperate closely in intelligence gathering and in the fight against terrorism.  If Israel ever has to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that the plan will involve the use of an Azerbaijani airfield.

In 2010, the Azerbaijani President banned the issuing of visas at the airport for visitors from every country in the world except for two, one of which was Israel.  The majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim.  So there is one shining example of sanity in our world.

Of course, much of what our people have experienced around the world has not been so positive.  Our brothers and sisters suffered through a fifty day war with Hamas this summer.  Incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise in Europe.  In Belgium a few months ago, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, by a suspected Frenchman of Algerian descent who had come back after a year fighting with ISIS.  Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an arson attack against a synagogue that was also firebombed back in 2010.

Two Muslim girls were recently arrested for plotting to blow up the Great Synagogue in Lyon, France.

A cell phone store in Istanbul recently posted a sign which read “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.”

European synagogues typically station armed guards outside for weekly Shabbat services.  If you visit the website of many European synagogues, you will see something like “To attend services, please bring photo identification or fax a copy of your passport.”  Jews in Europe are feeling less and less safe.  Perhaps that is why the rates of aliyah of Jews from Western Europe increased by 35% in 2013, and are continuing to increase this year.  It is too bad for Western Europe.  Historically, nations who expel their Jews tend to go downhill shortly afterwards.

So…  Did you pay more attention to the good news or the bad news?  Which evoked a stronger emotional reaction – Azerbaijan or Europe?  I am going to guess that it was the latter.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, one that blinds us to the blessings that stare us right in the face and often leads us to behave irrationally, bury our heads in the sand, or adopt fatalistic attitudes about the future.

If this is the time of year for taking stock of our lives, for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, then it behooves us to look both inward and outward with open eyes.  Accountants, after all, need accurate data to make their calculations.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fear leads to nearly disastrous consequences.  At Isaac’s weaning celebration, Sarah sees something that terrifies her.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son with Abraham, is playing with Isaac in a way that causes her to fear for her son’s future.  To ensure that Isaac will not have to deal with his half-brother, she demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  Although troubled, Abraham complies after God assures him things will turn out okay.  He gives the unfortunate mother and son provisions and sends them away.

When the food and water run out, Hagar begins to despair.  Thinking the end is near, she places Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die.  Then she bursts into tears.  She is despondent and passive.

The boy is also wailing, and his cries reach heaven.  God sends an angel to Hagar, who scolds her: Mah lakh Hagar?  Al tir’i – “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy by his hand for I will make a great nation of him.”  (Genesis 21:17-18)

Then God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water.  Ishmael survives and grows to become the father of a great nation.

How is it possible that Hagar could have missed a well of water that was right there all along?  In the desert, wherever there is water, there are signs of it.  Plants grow where springs bubble up from the earth.  How could she not have seen it?

And how could she not have seen her son’s greatness, his destiny to become the father of a great nation?

It was fear.  The angel recognizes it instantly.  “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not…”  Fear blinds her to the blessings that are in front of her.

This story presents two different responses to fear.  Sarah reacts to her fear by lashing out.  Hagar’s fear leads her to bury her head in the sand, abandoning her son in his time of need.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, once said:  “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

How much are our lives controlled by fear!  Fear-filled messages surround us.  They are so ubiquitous that we do not even notice them.  Here are a few examples.

The cosmetics industry.  The marketing of makeup, hair products, age-defying skin creams and the like, is based on the premise that we should be afraid of our bodies getting old, as if that is something than can be prevented.

The organic food industry is growing at a rate of approximately 14% per year, driven by fear.  We pay more money to ostensibly protect ourselves and our children from pesticides, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms.  Milk containers often include the following two contradictory statements:  “This milk is from cows not treated with rbST,” implying that rbST is something we should be worried about, and “The Food and Drug Administration has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rbST treated cows and non-rbST treated cows.”  So is rbST safe?  I have absolutely no idea… but am I willing to risk it for myself and my family?

Politicians are notorious for using fear-mongering to attract votes and raise funds.  To avoid setting off any partisan debates with a contemporary example, let’s go back fifty years.  The famous “Daisy” ad of 1964 features a cute little two-year-old girl standing in a field, picking petals off of a flower while she counts to ten.  As soon as she reaches nine, an ominous male voice starts counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”  The camera zooms in to the girl’s face and her eyes open wide as she sees something alarming in the distance.  When the countdown reaches zero, we are shown the image of a nuclear explosion and its billowing mushroom cloud.  Lyndon Johnson’s voice then warns, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then another voice summons us to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  The ad was only shown once before it was pulled, but it left its mark.  Fear attracts votes.

In reporting the news, it is accepted as an ironclad law that good news will not sell more papers, but a headline about the latest ISIS attack, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the most recent grisly murder in San Jose will.  The growth of the internet and social media, and the change in the news business, have only exacerbated this.  Information moves so fast, and there is so much competition, that those who hope to share information are pressured to use any means possible to get attention, and that means fear.

Do not think that we Jews are above it.  Jewish organizations frequently use fear to garner support, whether we are talking about the the existential threats facing Israel, worsening cultures of antisemitism on college campuses, declining rates of Jewish affiliation, and so on.

The pervasive messages of fear that inundate us leave their mark.  Our world feels like a dangerous place.  The United States no longer has the influence and clout that it once enjoyed.  Our economic recovery is precarious.  Terrorism is on the rise, along with violence against women, human trafficking, illegal immigration, economic inequality, rising sea levels, pollution, drought, disease, war…  The list goes on.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that things have never been better.

Fact:  On a global scale, we are living in the safest, freest, most peaceful time in human history.

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that war is tragic, and violence produces real human suffering.  Nearly two hundred thousand people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and millions have fled as refugees.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram takes schoolgirls captive and terrorizes through rape and murder.

As a people, we know what it means to be the victims of persecution and discrimination.  It has sadly been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe, representing more than one third of Jews globally.  This cannot be minimized.  We must never trivialize the loss or suffering of anyone who has been the victim of violence, whether war, genocide, domestic, or other.

But speaking about humanity as a whole, we have allowed fear to blind us to the many blessings of our world.

Profesoor Steven Pinker, a Pyschologist at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he looks at actual data about violence throughout human history and finds that the twentieth century was the safest, most peaceful century in human history.  So far, the twenty-first is looking even better.

But what about World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Ukraine?  Conventional wisdom says that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most violent ever.  The problem with that claim, Professor Pinker points out, is that nobody who makes it looks at evidence from any other century.

Previous centuries saw wars with names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” and “The Hundred Years War” (which was actually 116 years).  Five hundred years ago, the Great Power nations typically spent about 75% of their time in a state of war with each other.  There has not been a Great Powers War since 1945.

Contrary to what all of the experts forecasted during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other.  Nuclear weapons were not used since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, the overall trajectory of human history demonstrates a falling likelihood that any given person would die a violent death.

Professor Pinker starts at the beginning.  Looking at the archaeological remains of prehistoric human skeletons around the world, it turns out that approximately fifteen percent of them show physical signs of having died by human caused violence.

In Europe and the United States through the entire twentieth century, including both world wars, approximately .6% of deaths resulted from violence.  Globally, during the twentieth century, violent deaths, including those resulting from man-made famines, account for about three percent of all deaths.  In the year 2005, .03% percent of deaths globally were the result of violence.

Violence within societies has also fallen dramatically.  A person living in England today has about 1/35 the chance of being murdered as his or her medieval ancestor.  This is true in every European country for which we have data.

Corporal punishment, once common, was outlawed in the United States by the 8th Amendment, which banned cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the US is the only country in the western world that has not abolished the death penalty, our execution rate is only about 45 per year in a country with almost 15,000 homicides.

Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades in both per capita and absolute terms in every single category, including murder, robbery, rape, assault, property crime, and so on.  Society is getting more peaceful.

Slavery was legal everywhere on earth until the middle of the 18th century.  As of 1980, when Mauritania abolished it, slavery is now illegal in every country on the planet, although it does persist as an underground problem.

Extreme poverty is also declining globally.  In 1990, 43.1% of human beings lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day.  In 2010, it was down to 20.6.  We still have a long way to go, but that is a remarkably fast improvement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average global life expectancy was 31.  In 2010, the world average was 67.2.

Globally, 84.1% of people fifteen and older know how to read and write.  Under the Millennium Goals, between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 74%.

Freedom is spreading also.  Approximately half of the world’s population now lives under some sort of democratic rule.

Women’s rights have improved dramatically.  While domestic abuse is still a problem, it is nearly universally condemned in the US today, as we are currently witnessing as the NFL is trying to address domestic violence by professional football players.

Gay rights have expanded at a very quick pace, with nineteen states plus the District of Colombia and the federal government now recognizing same sex marriage.

What has caused all of this improvement?  It is not because human nature has changed.  Pinker identifies several factors.  One is the expansion of international commerce.  It is in everyone’s best interest to have trade between countries, and that requires peace.  Literacy and education have also been huge factors.  The ability to read exposes a person to other ideas, other ways of living and believing.  And this expands what he calls “the empathy circle.”  If I can imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes, I am much less likely to take pleasure when I watch that person burned at the stake.

Societies comprised of people with more education tend to experience lower violence and less racism, and are more receptive to democracy.

Do not get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect.  There is still tremendous suffering, injustice, and inequality that requires a lot of focus.  Civil wars rage.  The spread of militant Islam cannot be ignored.  But as a human species, we must acknowledge that we have made incredible gains.  For vast numbers of people in the world, life has never been better.

What about in the Jewish world?

Again, I do not want to deny the seriousness of the threats facing Israel, nor of Jews in Europe who are dealing with often violent antisemitism, nor of the oppressive culture on many college campuses.  But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In his 2010 book American Grace, based on a massive survey of Americans’ attitudes about religion, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reports that Jews are the most admired religious community in America.  A 2009 study by the Anti Defamation League found “anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews.”  (http://forward.com/articles/133047/robert-putnam-assays-religious-tolerance-from-a-un/)

Reacting to the good news, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL, said that “…the significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them.”  (http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/5633_12.html#.VBn32Uu7uoo)

Can’t we just be happy that they like us?

As Abba Eban once said, “Show us a silver lining and we will search for the cloud.”

I am sure that you have probably received dozens of emails listing all of Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments.  Let me mention just a few to make the point.  Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any country on earth – by a lot.  It has the highest concentration of high tech companies in the world outside of Silicon Valley.  Israel is number two in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.  It is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.  It has developed dozens and dozens of life saving medical devices, not to mention all of the other high tech innovation.  Israel is a leader in solar power and water desalinization technology.  Israel has more museums per capita and is second in books published per capita.  Israel is the one country in the Middle East in which Christianity is growing.  It is the only country in which women can travel freely without the permission of a male guardian.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-steven-carr-reuben-phd/imagine-a-world-without-i_1_b_5706935.html)

And so on…

But isn’t Israel a dangerous place?  That is a question that people ask me all the time.

In 2013, the rate of violent deaths per capita in Jerusalem was slightly less than that of Portland, one of America’s safest cities.

In the more than 100 year history of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there have been 70,000 fewer deaths than in the Syrian civil war of the past three years.  In 2013, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, about the monthly murder rate in Chicago.  (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide)

Even in this summer’s fighting, the enormous lengths that Israel undertook to minimize civilian deaths on both sides of the border were extraordinary.  Can you imagine how that war would have gone if any other country had been in Israel’s position?

Some will call it naive, but Israel is doing pretty good.

But in the words of the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “Who remembers the blessings?  I have received so many.  I remember those who did not bless me.”

As we celebrate the beginning of the year 5775, let us start to look for the blessings.  Let us recognize and be thankful that we live in one of the most diverse, tolerant, and affluent communities in human history.

Let us look with open eyes at this world that God has created.  Where have things gone well?  When have we reached our fullest human potential?  How have we made life better for each other?  What problems that used to cause suffering are now solved because we pulled together?  It should be a long list.

Then, when we look at the persistent challenges facing us today, let fear not cause us to hide, nor to overreact.

One hundred years from now, what global challenges of today will our descendants look back on and wonder why it took us so long to fix: rising carbon emissions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, income inequality, lack of treatment for those with mental illness, oppression of women in the developing world, lack of universal access to safe drinking water?

Which challenges facing the Jewish people must we address?  There are communities in which our fellow Jews are struggling, where synagogues, because of real threats, station armed guards 365 days a year, not just on the High Holidays.  At anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe,  people shout “Death to the Jews.”  At some college campuses, 18 year old Jewish students must walk by people screaming at them as “baby killers” on their way to class.  Israeli children live under the threat of rocket attacks.

What are we doing to support them?  Not enough.

Fear gets in the way.  A sizable portion of the Jewish community responds by burying its head in the sand.  Why be tied to the fate of a people that constantly faces existential threats?  Another portion of the community responds with bellicosity, stifling debate and branding anyone who disagrees a “self-hating Jew.”

Where is the community solidarity that we demonstrated in the movement to free the Jews of the Former Soviet Union; the willingness of Jewish communities across America, including this one, to welcome refugees into their homes?  We need to bring the best of what Judaism offers to the challenges facing our people, and the challenges facing our world.

As Jews, we have learned much about building caring communities based on the values of Torah, passing Jewish tradition down to our children, and keeping our identity while engaging positively with a surrounding non-Jewish culture.  We have learned to succeed in science, medicine, art, politics, finance, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice.  As Jews, we have a lot of accomplishments.

So instead of always asking, “what is wrong with the world,” this year, let us ask “what is right with the world?”

L’Shanah Tovah.

Our Conveniently Dark Past – Masei 5774

Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement at Kiryat Arba, in Chevron in the West Bank, issued a halakhic ruling this past Sunday, July 20, with regard to the killing of civilians during war.  He was asked the following question.

…what is the halakhic position with regard to attacks against a civilian population that does not have a direct connection to the terrorists in the area?

Rabbi Lior begins his one page reponse with this:

The Torah of Israel guides us in all walks of life, private and public, on how to behave during war and also how to keep moral standards.

As a halakhic precedent, he cites the Maharal of Prague, from the 16th century.

The Maharal from Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew – A.K.), in his book Gur Arye, clearly writes that… in all wars the attacked people are allowed to attack fiercely the people from whom the attackers came from and they do not have to check if he personally belongs to the fighters.

He bases this on the story in Genesis in which Shimon and Levi massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing three hundred men, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah by the chieftain’s son, Chamor.  Rabbi Lior concludes:

Therefore, during war the attacked people are allowed to punish the enemy population in any punishment it finds worthy, such as denying supplies or electricity and also to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army minister and not to just simply endanger soldier’s lives but to take crushing deterrence steps to exterminate the enemy.

In the case of Gaza, the Minister of Defense will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza so that the south will no longer suffer and to avoid harm to our people who have been suffering for so long from the surrounding enemies.”

Any kind of talk about humanism and consideration are moot when speaking of saving our brothers in the south and in the rest of the country and bringing back quiet to our country.

For the last several weeks, we in the American Jewish community have been praying for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  But not just in Israel.  We have seen protests in cities around the world, especially Europe, turn scarily to anti-semitism.

It has been so frustrating for us to observe media outlets that do not seem to understand or care about aspects of this war that have been so important to us.  Specifically, the great care that the Israel Defense Forces have given to minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza.

As Jews, we have been proud of the Israeli government, its soldiers, and its citizens for doing their best, amidst the chaos of war, to protect Palestinian civilians.

I have personally given several Divrei Torah and written an article adressing this over the past few weeks.  So that is not what you are going to hear from me today.

The legal ruling by Rabbi Lior points to minority attitude that exists amongst the Jewish people.  I would imagine that his endorsement for not just ignoring civilians, but even targeting them, might offend many, but he brings up somthing that we ought not ignore.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Masei, God provides some details for Moses to tell the Israelites regarding how they are to settle the Promised Land.

First, they are told to disposess all of its current inhabitants.  The Israelites must destroy every last trace of idolatry, including idols, figurines, and sacred shrines.  Then, the Israelites are to divide up the land amongst themeslves, apportioning tribal territories by lot.

God warns the Israelites that they had better clear out all of the current inhabitants, because any Canaanites who are left behind will continue to harrass them.

Next, God describes the borders of the country which the Israelites are about to invade.  The Bible has several different accounts of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Parashat Masei‘s version has the land of Israel extending south into the Negev, travelling up the entire Mediterranean coast (including Gaza, by the way) all the way through Lebanon and over to Damascus.  The Eastern border follows Lake Kineret down the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, hearing your aged leader Moses giving you these instructions after he has successfully led you through the wilderness for the past forty years.  What is he telling you to do?

The word used is l’horish, “to dispossess.”  The commentator Rashi explains that it means that the Israelites have to expel them from the land.

Deuteronomy is even more extreme.  It gives explicit instructions to utterly wipe out idolatrous towns, killing all of the inhabitants and burning their possessions.  The Israelites are not allowed to make peace with them or allow them to surrender.

In modern parlance, we would call this ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Does this sound like Judaism?  It certainly does not align well with the maxim of “love your neighbor as yourself” that we like to repeat so often.  But it is in the Torah, our holy book.  What are we to do with it?

When admitting out loud that our sacred scriptures advocate holy war, Jews today, myself included, typically explain why those texts do not reflect Jewish tradition.  Our Sages, even in ancient times, were uncomfortable with what the Torah seems to be saying.  It not only violates common moral sense, but it also seems to go against the spirit of so many other mitzvot mitzvot telling us to give tzedakah, to treat our employees properly, to care for the strangers living among us, to enforce the law fairly for both citizens and strangers.  When we talk about Jewish ethics, those are the kinds of ancient laws that we highlight.

So the Rabbis feel a strong obligation to do away with holy war.  It may have applied back then, when Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel, but it is no longer relevant. Here are several justifications that are typically offered.

One.  They never actually did it.  It is apparent from later books in the Bible that the idolatrous nations of the land stayed right where they were, living side by side with the Israelites.  Of course, we did annihilate the Midianites in last week’s Torah portion.

Two.  The Torah is really concerned with the immoral influence of idolatry.  The only way to remove idolatry is to completely eliminate its practice in the land.

Three.  It is a practical warning that as long as the Canaanites remain in the land, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites.

Four.  We have to understand the Torah in light of its historical context.  This is how war was conducted in the ancient world.  If it was written today, it would have been written differently.

For the fifth explanation, we turn to Maimonides.  He qualifies the Torah’s instructions by saying that, in fact, a pagan town must first be offered the choice of renouncing its paganism.  Only if it refuses must it then be destroyed.

Maimonides acknowledges that it is indeed obligatory to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations, and one who has an opportunity to kill a Canaanite but fails to do so has violated a commandment from the Torah.  It is a moot point, however, as Maimonides concludes, “but their memory has already been lost.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:4)

He bases this on a passage in the Mishnah that declares that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came along at the turn of the seventh century b.c.e. and scattered all of the nations of the land of Canaan.  (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)  Conveniently for Maimonides, and for us enlightened twenty-first century Jews, it is now impossible to fulfill the Torah’s command to commit genocide because the people we are supposed to kill on the spot do not exist any more.

The problem with all of these explanations is that none of them address the core moral issue.  We sit back, confident of our own uprightness, absolved of any responsibility for our the actions of an earlier generation.

We, in 2014, have an ancient connection to the land of Israel.  It was promised by God to Abraham four thousand years ago.  As a people, we inhabited the land autonomously for hundreds of years during the First Temple era.  In the Babylonian exile, we wept as we longed to return.  Then we built the Second Temple and inhabited the land for another five hundred years.  After it was destroyed by the Romans, we went into exile for nearly two millennia, always keeping Zion in our hearts.

But if we go back to the beginning, the entire notion of a Promised Land is founded upon a violent conquest that took place more than three thousand years ago.

Do we bear any responsibility?

What about the modern State of Israel?  In his new book My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a left wing journalist, writes with full honesty about the home that he loves.

He describes a well-known writer, Israel Zangwill, who travels to Palestine in 1897.  While most of the early Zionists see only a barren land devoid of inhabitants, Zangwill sees what is really there, and he speaks about it.  In 1905, Zangwill delivers a speech in New York City in which he reports that Palestine is populated.  Then he points out that no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  Therefore, he tells his audience, the sons of Israel must be prepared to take action, “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zangwill is rejected as a heretic by the Zionist establishment at the time, but his ideas persist.  A couple of decades later, he writes that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. ‘To fold their tents and silently steal away’ is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now… We must gently persuade them to trek.”

According to Shavit, Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership knew that for Israel to be viable, the majority of the Arab population would have to be relocated.  While there was no explicit policy of forced population transfer, there were numerous examples of Jewish forces encouraging Arab villagers to flee.

It seems that the legacy of the Torah’s commandment to our ancestors to conquer the land by force and eliminate the inhabitants is not as distant from us as we might like to think.

Let us not get embroiled in arguments about who is at fault or who has a more legitimate claim.  We all know it is complicated – and highly emotional.  I bring this up because I believe that it is important for us to be honest about our past.  We ought to at least acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy in our lives today sometimes come at a cost that was paid by innocent suffering extracted by others.

Today, we all benefit from the free, open, and prosperous society in the United States.  But how did we get here?  Our nation’s founders had to wage a brutal war of independence against Great Britain.  Before that, of course, European colonialists had dispossessed, by force, the former inhabitants of the land, killing 95% of them through war and disease, and shutting the rest up in reservations.  We must not forget that the Native Americans had come from somewhere as well, and fought their own wars againt rival nations.

As Israel Zangwill said in 1905, no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  In a similar vein, Mao wrote in his Little Red Book that without violence, “it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development.”  I fear that they may be right.  I challenge us to name a nation that was not formed by expelling or subjugating the local population and/or defeating the former rulers by force.

We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, so it would seem to be inevitable.  If this is simply the way of the world, then what is wrong with Rabbi Dov Lior’s call to protect Jews by ending the restraint and demolishing Gaza?  After all, this is how human societies have protected themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Torah challenges us to become holy by overcoming our DNA, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Our world is a messy, morally ambiguous place.  Good people are often forced into situations in which they have to make difficult decisions.

As justified as a young soldier may be in fighting to protect his family and his country, war leaves a permanent mark on a person’s soul.  I say this presumptuously, as someone who has thankfully never had to go into battle.

We are challenged in every aspect of our lives to be holy: in how we do business, in how we support members of our community, in how we eat, in how we love, and yes, in how we make war.  We honor those who have fought on our behalf in the past and who do so today when we open our eyes and admit that the things in our lives that we count as blessings sometimes have been accompanied by the suffering of innocents and the sometimes difficult moral struggles of people who tried their best to live good lives.

We must say to Rabbi Lior that what he advocates does not represent Judaism.  God asks more of us.  Although it is often not clear, may we discern the path of holiness in this difficult world, and may our striving to be holy one day soon bring us to peace.

Staying Strong in Israel’s War against Hamas

This is a speech that I delivered at the Silicon Valley Solidarity Gathering for Israel on July 22, 2014.

The Jewish State of Israel distinguishes itself among the family of nations to the extent that it is governed by middot, the positive attributes of our Jewish tradition.  When we make decisions, as individuals and as a nation, that embody the values of our ancient faith, we bring light into the world.  Unfortunately, the world is not always ready to be enlightened.

In Pirkei Avot, we read Eizehu gibbor?  Hakovesh its yitzro.  Who is strong?  One who conquers one’s inclinations.  Usually, we use this teaching to emphasize that true strength is not about physical might, but rather the ability to control our passions.  While Israel has indeed demonstrated its physical prowess in the present war, we are strong in the fullest sense when we remain focused on our goals while maintaining our values.

When we see how our brave soldiers have comported themselves these last three weeks, we can only be proud of their strength, both in their success on the battlefield, and in maintaing their humanity while pursuing the military goals.

What are those goals?  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated it clearly in an interview this past Saturday night: “…restoring quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period while inflicting a significant blow on the infrastructures of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,”

Specifically, that means eliminating the thousands of rockets and other weapons and destroying the network of tunnels that Hamas uses to transport arms and personnel.

But there is an ethical principle at play as well: to minimize civilian casualties – on both sides of the border.

While voices around the world shout about the massacre of innocent civilians, pointing to the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian deaths like a scorecard at a sports game, the truth is quite the opposite.  In every war, sadly, civilians are killed.  Did you know that, because of the IDF’s preoccupation with protecting innocents for decades, the ratio of civilians to militants killed has been lower by far than in any other conflict around the world.

How does Israel protect civilians?  On the Israeli side of the border: by building reinforced bomb shelters, by operating an incredibly sophisticated early warning system so that Israelis have time to find cover before the rockets fall, and by developing, with the United States, the Iron Dome, which has prevented most rockets from landing in populated areas with a remarkable 90% success rate.

Because every life is treasured as an olam kattan, a small world, we are committed to doing absolutely everything to keeping our people safe.  We see this in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion and loss whenever there is a death or injury.

But what is truly remarkable is the way that Israel has gone out of its way, at the expense of military success, to protect the people of Gaza.  The IDF calls cell phones and drops leaflets to warn civilians in advance before destroying a target.  Then it launches a small projectile to “knock” the roof of a building as a warning to get out before the real missile is launched.  Did you know that Israel has been providing Gaza with humanitarian supplies while the fighting is taking place, and that the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border to care for wounded Palestinians?

These life-saving acts are unique to the IDF.  No military force in history has gone to such measures to protect the civilians of its military opponent.

Let us not be so condescending as to expect the other side to be grateful.  After all, there have been more than 600 Palestinian deaths in the last few weeks, many of whom are innocent civilians.  I would expect them to blame Israel.  How could they not?

But who is really responsible for the suffering in Gaza?

Hamas deliberately places its rocket launchers and weapons in locations like schools, hospitals, private homes, mosques, and even UN facilities.  When Israel tells civilians to flee so they will not be harmed, Hamas orders them to stay, to serve as human shields.

So far in this war, there have been two calls for temporary cease-fires for humanitarian purposes.  Israel accepted both of them right away and stopped fighting.  Hamas used those temporary lulls to immediately launch more than 70 rockets against Israeli civilians.

Hamas has used many tons of concrete that Israel has allowed into the Gaza Strip not for the construction of buildings and infrastructure that will improve lives, but for underground tunnels to carry on its relentless pursuit of death.  Hamas commanders are now using those tunnels to hide, safe from attack.  But are the underground bunkers made available to civilians?  No.  They are left above ground to fend for themselves.

What does Hamas want?  Death.  The death of Israeli civilians, and the death of Palestinian civilians.  Because they know how those images are perceived around the world.

In 1969, Golda Meir said, “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”  What a perverse reality!

This is not a war that any of us want.  But while it continues, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel’s Defense Forces.  We pray for the millions of Israelis living under the constant fear of terror from above.  And we pray for all those who suffer in Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of the young soldiers who have been killed defending the Jewish people.  We mourn for the civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim, who have died.  Our hearts go out to their families.

And we pray for both kinds of strength for Israel’s leaders, its soldiers, its people, and Jews everywhere: the strength to be victorious, and the strength to maintain our humanity in the face of chaos.