Seeking a path in the Wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza

This week we read Parashat Bamidbar.  Bamidbar is the first Torah portion and the name of the 4th book of the Torah.  Bamidbar literally means in the wilderness, however its English name is The  Book of Numbers. These two names are almost opposite sides of the same coin.

Bamidbar, the wilderness, is the symbol of transition and confusion and on the other hand the name numbers points out the attempt to make some order in the wilderness.

Symbolically  for many of us, this past week felt very confusing, and maybe making some order could be helpful.

 

On May 15th The American Embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem. On that same day about 40,000 palestinians gathered at the border of  the Gaza strip, 62 palestinians were killed.

 

Allow me to start with the embassy.

I have had mixed feelings about the timing of the move. Was this choice a step that brings us closer to peace? We don’t really know. However on that day I was inspired by the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu.  He said: “You can only build peace on truth, and the truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state”.

I am a religious zionist; At the recognition by the world’s most powerful democracy  of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish People and therefore the capital of the Jewish state I feel joy and gratitude. I say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

 

Thank you G’d for giving us the opportunity of experiencing this unique moment.

Now let’s move 60 miles away from Jerusalem to the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians have been coming in big groups to the border for the last month or so. Now, to call what’s happening on the border  a demonstration, is a terrible misconstruction of reality!

Palestinians in Gaza live in a terrible situation, almost impossible conditions, and they have all the right to demonstrate; however as Rabbi Donniel Hartman eloquently expressed: “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”

 

Many of us believe that after the “Hitnatkut” , Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, the palestinians could have stepped up to the plate and worked with us on developing a bridge for peace, but instead they chose Hamas and we ended up with missiles in our southern communities and them with a partial blockade.  But even if we believe that they are absolutely responsible for the current situation, we can’t just decide to ignore them because, as PM Netanyahu said, peace shall be built upon truth and the truth is that these people are right there in our backyard. Unfortunately, the reality is that the painful complexity of what happens with Gaza disorients us. It sends us straight forward to the experience of the wilderness.

At the beginning of our conversation, I said that this week felt especially confusing.

I want to share why I felt this way;

I heard Jews celebrating the Palestinian Nakba.

I heard Jews saying that they don’t feel anymore a connection with the state of Israel.

I watched the news in some leading American channels and I was stunned by the alteration of very simple facts.

And I just didn’t know toward which fire I should run first…

As Matti Friedman well stated on his article in New York Times:

“The press coverage on Monday was a major Hamas success in a war whose battlefield isn’t really Gaza, but the brains of foreign audiences”

So I am particularly concerned with how this battle is having an impact on the minds of these foreign audiences, especially  on the Jewish American audience, those that as a result of these images feel a deep disconnection from Israel, as well as those who claim to have a deeper connection with Israel but are mainly expressing hatred toward Palestinians.

 

This week we will celebrate the Holiday of Shavuot. In shavuot, we commemorate the delivering of the Torah, which served us as compass throughout the journey in the wilderness.  We also remember that receiving Torah is not an easy task and it requires a certain level of readiness and determination. The first attempt of delivering Torah to the Israelites didn’t work out and ended up with the broken tablets…

There is a tradition in this holiday of dedicating special time to the study of Torah, “Tikun Leil Shavuot”  the rectification of the night of Shavuot. This is done in order to show that unlike the situation of our ancestors at Sinai WE are ready to receive Torah!

 

So actually on these days in which we feel deep in the wilderness it is time to study torah, to connect with our identity, to activate our moral compass, and to rectify.

 

With those that feel a rip in their connection with Israel we may read psalm 137

 

א  עַל נַהֲרוֹת, בָּבֶל–שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ, גַּם-בָּכִינוּ:    בְּזָכְרֵנוּ, אֶת-צִיּוֹן…..
ה  אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם–    תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי.
ו  תִּדְבַּק-לְשׁוֹנִי, לְחִכִּי–    אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי:
אִם-לֹא אַעֲלֶה, אֶת-יְרוּשָׁלִַם–    עַל, רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי.

 

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…….

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,may my right hand forget its skill.

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy

 

Even when it is far from being perfect, the state of Israel is the most important miracle that happened to the Jewish people after 2000 years of exile. It is the guarantee of our Jewish existence. We can and should criticize Israel as we commit to work for the better. If you exclaim that we are no longer connected, you forget Jerusalem, you are forgetting who you are.

 

With those that celebrate the Nakba we read from Proverbs 24:17 and 25:21


Proverbsמשלי 24:17

בִּנְפֹל אויביך (אוֹיִבְךָ), אַל-תִּשְׂמָח;    וּבִכָּשְׁלוֹ, אַל-יָגֵל לִבֶּךָ.

Do not be glad when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,

 

Proverbs משלי 25:21

 

כא  אִם-רָעֵב שֹׂנַאֲךָ, הַאֲכִלֵהוּ לָחֶם;    וְאִם-צָמֵא, הַשְׁקֵהוּ מָיִם.

 

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

 

You are so concerned about all the existential threats to the state of Israel but you ignore the fact that to rejoice in the fall of others is an existential threat to the essence of our people.

 

Remember the words of Job 31:

כט  אִם-אֶשְׂמַח, בְּפִיד מְשַׂנְאִי;    וְהִתְעֹרַרְתִּי, כִּי-מְצָאוֹ רָע.
ל  וְלֹא-נָתַתִּי לַחֲטֹא חִכִּי–    לִשְׁאֹל בְּאָלָה נַפְשׁוֹ.

 

29″Have I rejoiced at the extinction of my enemy, Or exulted when evil befell him? 30″No, I have not allowed my mouth to sin By asking for his life in a curse.

 

We should pray for peace, we should rejoice with love, we should try to find empathy  even when it is truly challenging…

 

With those that ask for truth we read from Psalm 85

יא  חֶסֶד-וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ;    צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ.

 

11 Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

 

Back to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s idea that peace shall be built upon truth. As he said, our truth is that Jerusalem is our capital. The truth is also that we have been involved in a terrible conflict with our neighbors for already too many years. And it is also the truth that our neighbors are right there, next to us, and not going anywhere. So we can’t ignore their existence, and it is, as should be theirs, our best interest to try to dialogue with them, hopefully to create a two-state solution, and to live peacefully and sovereignly separate.

 

When we talk about the generation of Bamidbar we talk about a generation that perished in the wilderness, those who could never make the switch and move toward the promised land. They were so deeply connected with Egypt, with the place of oppression, that they were never able to imagine themselves coming into the promised land. And therefore they never made it there.

 

As the psalmist says:

Psalm 95

 

י  אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, אָקוּט בְּדוֹר–    וָאֹמַר, עַם תֹּעֵי לֵבָב הֵם;
וְהֵם,    לֹא-יָדְעוּ דְרָכָי.
יא  אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי בְאַפִּי;    אִם-יְבֹאוּן, אֶל-מְנוּחָתִי.

 

 


10 For forty years was I wearied with that generation, and said: It is a people that do err in their heart, {N}
and they have not known My ways;
11 Wherefore I swore in My wrath, that they should not enter into My rest.’ {P}

 

We can’t allow ourselves to be the generation of Bamidbar, a generation that is so connected with the images of the past that it can’t envision a better future.

We are daily faced with the choice between staying in the wilderness or moving toward the promised land. We express that choice in the hallway, on our FB feed or wherever we are. We should choose to remember who we are and where we want to be. We shall remember that we can and must walk toward a time of peace and well-being for the Jewish people and therefore also for our Palestinian neighbors. We should work toward the encounter of truth and mercy, we should build a house for righteousness and peace. But more than anything else we need to believe that a better future is possible and that we have the responsibility of walking toward that future.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

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