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Bamidbar: May 19, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Donniel Hartman, the director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, this week, in his Times of Israel online column, cited as a philosopher and teacher, wrote about “The Moral Challenge of Gaza”.

He writes; “The inhabitants of Gaza have every right and reason to demonstrate against the tragedy which is their life. Not only do they live under unforgiveable and deplorable conditions, no one is taking responsibility either for their predicament or the path to rectify it.  … While Palestinians have every right to their narrative of Nakba, my people have every right to celebrate our independence and our victory in 1967, and to express joy at being home in our country, whose capital is Jerusalem. And we have every right to defend our rights.”  Rabbi Hartman sums up the situation clearly. This is a clash between two people who have very different views of the world.

Rabbi Hartman goes on to say, “What is happening on the Gaza border is not a protest against the reality of life in Gaza but an attack against the sovereignty of Israel and its right to exist. Palestinians have every right to view and experience the formation of Israel as their Nakba (catastrophe). They have every right to view the Six Day War and Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem as a deepening of their Nakba. When tens of thousands of people, civilians interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, march on our border with the intent to destroy it, and penetrate  into Israel and allow the terrorists to murder Israelis, it is not only NOT a peace demonstration, it is not a demonstration at all. It is a battlefield, where anyone who approaches the fence is a combatant.”

Rabbi Hartman goes on to remind his readers that when the Egyptians were in pursuit of the Israelites at the Red Sea, and when God saved our people from their army, by drowning them in the water, the Angels of heaven wanted to break out into song about the great victory of God. God, says the Midrash, silenced them by saying, “My creation is drowning in the sea and you want to sing a song of praise?”

And you wonder why we say that it is hard to be a Jew?

If this all sounds confusing, it is because it is a horrendous moral and ethical problem for Israel, for Judaism and for the world. Let me be crystal clear on one thing: Israel has done nothing wrong on the Gaza border. Ambassador Nikki Haley this week reminded the countries of the United Nations that no other country would have done anything different if a mass of people were attempting to storm their borders. A friend of mine, Rabbi Loren Sykes, who now lives in Israel and was called up to reserve duty in the Israeli Army and was sent to the Gaza border, wrote this week that every bullet fired at the border was personally supervised by army officers. Not one soldier was allowed to fire a shot without specific orders from his commanding officer. There was much that was done to keep civilians away from the border fence. There was much that was done to prevent more killing. There is no reason for any Israeli soldier, for any Israeli at all to bow their head in shame. As usual, Israel has done far more than any nation in history to limit the number of people killed. We should be proud of the soldiers who stood on the lines and protected our people from the wanton acts of terror that would be inevitable if the border would have been breached.

And yet, there is nothing to celebrate here. People are dying. God’s creation is dying. What are we prepared to do about it? There is no reason to sing. How do we prevent people from dying? How do we prevent having the Israeli army be our diplomacy of last resort? How can we Jews stay silent about a status quo that requires Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill on the border? This violence will not bring an end to anything. It will not make Israel safer and it will not resolve the demands of the Palestinians nor will it bring an end to terrorism.

The political forces in Israel are silent here. Who is there to negotiate a peace with? Is there a Palestinian leader who speaks for all the Palestinian people? Is there a Palestinian diplomat who is prepared to make the hard concessions so that Israel can make hard concessions and two people can find a way to end this conflict? Israel’s political leaders, and to a certain extent the people living in Israel, have come to the consensus that a few acts of terror a year that kill some Israelis is a price they are willing to pay to keep the status quo. They hope to discover tunnels before they are the conduit to allow terrorists to invade homes and kill Israelis in their beds. They hope to intercept the missiles before they can do damage to Israel’s cities. And if one gets away, well, we can hope to limit the damage by having the people prepared for any attack.

Israel did not create the large prison that is Gaza. The leaders of Hamas, through their actions have forced both Israel and Egypt to keep their borders closed. Because of the acts of terror in both Israel and Egypt, the only goods that can go into Gaza are humanitarian shipments of food and fuel. And while the people of Gaza suffer, the tunnel building and the deployment of missiles continue. Not because they fear an invasion, but because the Hamas leadership only wants to destroy Israel.

But Israel can’t wrap itself up in a security blanket and not worry about the rest of the world. If there is to be a solution to the killings on both sides of the border, there will have to be some kind of outreach. It is not enough to say that “there is no one to talk to” about peace. It is not enough to say, “We made an offer and they turned us down”. It is not enough to say that “They don’t want peace so why bother”. It is not enough because people are dying. Not caring, not trying, is not an option. It is immoral and unreasonable to have the army of Israel responsible for the deaths of so many people without any attempt at all to find a way to peace. Just because it seems impossible, well, Israel does all kinds of impossible things; it needs to find a path to peace no matter how difficult the path may be.

I don’t live in Israel. I can’t tell the people of Israel what to do and the government of Israel certainly does not seem to care what we in the diaspora think. It does not really matter. People are dying and we can’t just say, “Well, they are the enemy and we are forced to kill them.” Judaism certainly maintains that we are permitted to kill someone who pursues us with murderous intent. We have an obligation to save lives. We have a right to defend ourselves. But I never want us to see killing as a first line of defense. I never want us to get into the habit of killing people no matter what the justice of the reason might be. No matter if 100% this is not our fault. Killing God’s creatures is never a cause to celebrate and it will tear apart the very moral fiber of our being.

Rabbi Hartman concludes his article: “We do not need to take moral responsibility for the reality which is Gaza, but at the same time we cannot allow our humanity and moral conscience to be so inert as to sit down and drink, not to speak of dancing in our city squares, when we are causing, justifiably or not, death and chaos.  … I do not believe that our soldiers are violating international law, yet I am interested in a public discourse about what our soldiers on the front lines in Gaze are experiencing. I am interested in defending our soldiers from being placed in situations where their orders are not clear, and thus placing our soldiers in morally compromised situations. Gaza paralyzes me, because human beings are dying at my hands and I don’t know how to prevent it. Gaza frightens me, because it is so easy to forget it and sing. Regardless of what is happening there. Gaza challenges us, for it is in Gaza that our commitment to the value of human life is and will be tested.”

Rabbi Hartman is correct. If we believe that every problem has a solution then we must commit ourselves to a constant search for the end to this war. We are not responsible for the reality of Gaza but we need to be a part of the solution. No matter how many people we have to talk to. No matter how bloody their hands,  no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it costs we must never stop looking for the way to end this killing. God’s creatures are dying. There is no cause to celebrate. I will save my celebration for a just and lasting peace. May God bring it in our time, before it is too late, as we say Amen and

Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 19, 2018.


Sun, June 16 2019 13 Sivan 5779