יום חמישי, 25 ביולי 2013

The illusion of strength

My strength and the might of my hand

Pinchas Leiser

The renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, and even more pointedly, the establishment of the State of Israel, reacquainted the Jewish People with the need to use force (not taking into account, of course, the armed rebellions on the ghettoes of the Holocaust period).  The establishment of the State of Israel in a territory which - despite one of the false slogans attributed to Lord Balfour, "A land without a people to a people without a land" – was partially settled by members of another people, created a situation of national conflict that grew violent through the years and has yet to be resolved.

In this connection it is interesting to note that the Haredi rabbinic world opposed the Zionist movement and the project of establishing the State of Israel before the Messiah's arrival.  This approach was given its sharpest expression by the Satmer Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, principally in his book, VaYoel Moshe and in an essay he published following the Six Day War, titled Al HaGeula Ve'al HaTemura.

In his writings, and especially in VaYoel Moshe, the Satmer Rebbe basis his absolute rejection of Zionism upon the midrash of the "Three Oaths" which he understood as giving halakhic instruction that opposes any struggle for the creation of a Jewish state.

The midrash is based upon three verses from the Song of Songs:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse love until it please. (2:7)

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse love until it please. (3:5)

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem; why should you awaken, and why should you arouse love until it please?(8:4)

The midrash on these verses takes the traditional exegetical approach to the Song of Songs, interpreting it as an allegory for the relationship between God and the Jewish People:

What are these three oaths?
One - that Israel not ascend the wall,
and one - that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world,
and one - that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the nations of the world not to oppress Israel overmuch. (Ketuvot 111a)     

Rabbis and religious thinkers who supported Zionism, or who at least did not oppose it on theological grounds, contended with the Satmer Rebbe's theological arguments in various ways.  Some of them viewed the "Three Oaths" as a midrashic dictum lacking halakhic force.  Others claimed that the oaths had been annulled, since they had been transgressed by the nations of the world.  Some rabbis held that the expression "ascend the wall" refers strictly to the building of the Temple and does not prohibit massive aliyah and the founding of a state.

In 1925 a Jewish movement called Brit Shalom was founded by a group of Jewish intellectuals.  They strove to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence by abdicating the right to establish the Jewish national home in the Land of Israel which had been recognized in the Balfour Declaration.  They favored the creation of a bi-national autonomous body under the rule of the British Mandate in which Arabs and Jews would enjoy full equality of political and civil rights.

Among its members and supporters could be found Arthur Ruppin, the philosopher Martin Buber, the philosopher Shemuel Hugo Bergman, the kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, the educator Ernst Simon, and Yehudah Leib, the first president of the Hebrew University.  Other supporters included the businessman Shlomo Zalman Schoken and the British statesman Herbert Samuel.  The movement became a marginal factor within Zionism after the majority of the Zionist Congress rejected its views and sought the creation of a sovereign Jewish state, freed of the British Mandate's authority.  The Arabs were also unwilling to collaborate with the movement and it was dissolved in 1930.

It is not my intention in the context of this devar Torah to evaluate from an historical perspective Brit Shalom's arguments against the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.  The State of Israel is an existing fact and we should be glad for it, but there is no doubt that these streams within Jewish thought brought up dilemmas which cannot be ignored.

It is interesting to turn to our parasha in order to see to what extent the Torah warns us against the moral dangers that we are likely to contend with upon entering the Land of Israel. 

In chapter 8, verses 11 through 20, Moses points out one such problem:

First Moses tells the Israelites that, the Lord your God is bringing you to…a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates…in which you will eat bread without scarcity…and you will eat and be sated.  Satiation brings its own dangers: Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments…lest you eat and be sated…and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…And then: you will say to yourself, "My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me."  And if you forget:

And it will be, if you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods, and worship them, and prostrate yourself before them, I bear witness against you this day, that you will surely perishAs the nations that the Lord destroys before you, so will you perish; since you will not obey the Lord your God.

This powerful statement identifies the attitude of My strength and the might of my hand with you forget the Lord your God.  It is an attitude which leads the People Israel to ruin, leaving it to a fate not different from that of the idolaters who had lived in the Land previously.

Later, Moses mentions another danger awaiting the people upon their entry to the Land (Devarim 9:4-5):

Do not say to yourself, when the Lord, your God, has repelled them from before you, saying, "Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land," and [that] because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you.  Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The People Israel enters the Promised Land at the same time as other nations pay for their sins by being expelled from it.  The Israelites might deceive themselves into thinking "It can't happen to us" because we are better.  In the verses just quoted Moses warns the people against this dangerous illusion: You are not any better than the others.  The peoples who inhabited the Land were banished because of their deeds and the Land was given to you because the  Holy One blessed be He made a covenant with the patriarchs.  However, the Land of Israel is a land upon which the Lord your God sets His eyes; it is sensitive to the behavior of those who dwell within it.  It will vomit out those who practice injustice, and if you act in the same manner as your predecessors, your fate will be similar to theirs.

Some will say that these words were spoken by Moses as the will and testament of a leader who knows that he lacks control of future events.  The is no doubt that the passages of rebuke in the Book of Devarim give human and literary expression to the understandable worries of a leader who knows his time has past.  These passages are rife with pain and many midrashim describe the difficulty with which Moses accepted his imminent death and the fact that he would never enter the Land of Israel.

However, can we be satisfied with this literary and psychological reading, which makes the passages of rebuke into nothing more than part of Moses' ancient biography?

I think that it is possible for us to apply some of Moses' concerns and warnings to every situation in which an exiled nation finds itself re-establishing a sovereign and independent society on its own soil and must contend with new challenges and dilemmas which it had not encountered while wandering in the "wilderness."  Wealth and plenty can be taken for granted; achievements in various areas (security, science, technology, sport, and economics) can cause moral blindness.  After the Six Day War (as the songs of victory bear witness) we became intoxicated with power and many of our leaders – and not necessarily the stupid ones – thought that "time is on our side."  I think that many of our leaders and a significant portion of the citizenry eventually understood that this illusion might stem from the mindset of My strength and the might of my hand.

Unfortunately, voices can still be heard in the style of, "Let the IDF win," reflecting from the belief that all of our problems can be solved through force, "And whatever can be solved through force can be solved by more force."  Even the Second Lebanon War did not raise any doubts in such people's minds regarding the limits of power. 

In addition, the attitude of Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me can still lead us today to the feeling that we are always justified in everything we do.  This arrogant attitude sometimes blinds us to the injustices we perpetrate.    

Do I live with the illusion that the time has come to abandon the considered use of force in dealing with genuine security problems?  Unfortunately, we have not yet arrived at such a time, but I think that at the mature age of 60 years we can allow ourselves - and perhaps we are obligated - to stop turning a blind eye to authentic moral dilemmas.  We must appreciate the reasonable use of certain means without glorifying them or turning them into an ideal, as the prophet Zachariah (4:6) put it: 

Not by valor and not by power, but by My spirit,' says the Lord of Hosts.

 And Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra explains: Not by valor and not by power – As when I saw the oil coming into being of its own account and burning, so the Temple shall be built – not through Zerubavel's great power and numerous troops, but rather through the Lord's spirit and assistance.

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