Israel turns 70 years old this week. 70 years of independence. 70 years of “lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu” – of being a free people in our land. 70 years of inspiration to millions of Jews around the world.
Pirqei Avot 5:21* reports that 70 is the year of “seivah,” grey hair. As nations go, Israel is still fairly young, and for 70 she’s looking pretty good. Nonetheless, there are few 70-year-olds who can look back over their lives and see a perfectly-rosy picture of simplicity and wholeness. Life does not work that way. Democratic nations REALLY do not work that way. As with the grey hair, it’s mixed. But there is certainly much to be proud of, and to celebrate at this time.
A very curious news item crossed my desk this week. It was about the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who released a statement appealing to Jews and leaders of all religions to take a stand to help the Syrian people and prevent, in his words, genocide.
Of note, he referred to the Syrians as enemies, but that we need to help them anyway:
As Jews, we cannot be silent. Let the call come out from here: we cannot move on from genocide, not in Syria nor anywhere or with any people, even if they are not our friends… We are all human beings. I call on you, leaders from all religions—lift up your voices. Let each person use their influence. If this happens, perhaps we will be able to prevent such atrocities.
Now, as is the case with most of the world, Israel is reluctant to be involved in Syria’s civil war, and certainly the stakes are much higher for Israel than, say, France or the US.
But Rabbi Yosef’s point is hanging out there, staring us in the face. I do not have the time to explain the complexity of what is going on in Syria, but the most salient fact is that as many as half a million Syrians have been killed, most by Syrian government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, some with the chemical weapons that splattered across our screens this week. More than 5 million have fled what remains of that country and are living in Turkey, Jordan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. More than 7 million have been displaced within Syria.**
With all of that upheaval, with all of that killing and displacement, how can we in the West simply stand by and let it continue? There is a record number of refugees in the world right now, perhaps 60 million people, affecting the social and political landscape across much of the globe. It is not up to us to find a solution, but we are nonetheless obligated to make sure that we urge our leaders to do so. We cannot look the other way.
And, in particular, Israelis cannot look the other way as their neighbors slaughter each other. And they have not: Israeli hospitals have treated over 4,000 wounded and sick Syrian citizens, and supplied food, fuel, construction materials and other items to Syrian areas near the border.
Rabbi Yosef, whose theology and approach to Jewish law is vastly different from my own, used his position to take a moral stand on the value of human life. And all I can say to that is, “Kol hakavod.” (“All the honor to you.”) If rabbis in this world are not going to stand up for saving lives, then who will? (I refer you back to my discussion a few weeks back regarding the easy availability of semi-automatic assault rifles, and our responsibility vis-a-vis the prime directive of Jewish life, that is, the principle of piqquah nefesh, saving lives.)
What was most surprising to me, however, was Rabbi Yosef’s use of the word, “genocide,” in Hebrew, השמדת עם “hashmadat ‘am.” This is a particularly loaded term in Jewish life, and all the more so in the history of the State of Israel, because we do not take the term “genocide” lightly. Genocide requires an organized approach to killing, a systematic attempt to eradicate a people. The Nazis were guilty of genocide. The Turks attempted to kill all the Armenians in Turkey (and, by the way, the Nazis studied their methods). Tribal killing in Rwanda in the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am not sure that what is happening in Syria is a genocide (there is debate on this), but I am sure that it is not a word that Jews should use capriciously, particularly when critics of Israel egregiously apply that word to Israel’s ongoing struggle against Palestinian terrorism.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef has a point: the world needs to help Syria find a solution. Now, I have expertise in neither military strategy nor in statecraft, but the great powers of this world have many such experts. And regardless of our religion, regardless of who is at war with whom and for how long and over what piece of land, we need to try to prevent humanitarian catastrophe when we can.
But the even greater point, and the one that goes to the reason that we celebrate 70 years of the State of Israel, is that underneath his message is the essential Jewish imperative to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is a principle that (roughly) quotes a line from the book of Isaiah (49:6):
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃
God has said: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”
As with the principle of piqquah nefesh, the obligation to save a human life, which outweighs just about every other mitzvah, another Jewish value is in play here: the obligation to stand up for what is right. While immigrants and refugees are roiling European governments, while the United States argues with itself about our responsibility to needy neighbors, while Medinat Yisrael / the State of Israel herself struggles with the challenge of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the chief rabbinate of Israel stands up and speaks the truth. We may not be able to resolve Syria’s internal mess, but Israel could save even more lives by setting up dedicated field hospitals at the border, by sending in more aid. Crates of flour and chickpeas and cooking oil with huge Israeli flags proudly displayed on the side.
That is what it means to cast light in this world. That is what it means to be a Jew, to radiate some light in the darkness.
And yes, like the grey hair of the 70-year-old invoked in Pirkei Avot, reality is complex. Being a sovereign nation is difficult. Sometimes the light we cast is not pure; sometimes it is inflected with a touch of grey.
70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, we are still figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state and what that state looks like. But although it’s a work in progress, although we in the Diaspora continue to examine and re-examine our relationship with Israel, the good news is that, 70 years later, Israel is still strong, and her light will shine as a beacon to all the nations of the world.
Let’s continue to work to make the State of Israel better. And there are many ways to do that, but the best way by far is to go there, to learn about Israel and the land and all the people who live there. We are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday tomorrow evening with a Yom Ha’Atzma’ut program including a dance troupe from Karmiel/Misgav, sponsored by Derekh and the Federation. There will be food; come join us at 5 PM.
But even better than that, and also a Derekh project, in the Israel portal, is an actual trip to Israel for adults. We’ll be going there as a Beth Shalom group from October 28th to Nov. 8, and the goal will be to provide an Israel experience for the whole self, mind and body. It’s not a family trip (we’ll get around to doing one of those eventually), but whether or not you have been before, you should join us on this trip. (Click here to check out the itinerary!Click here to check out the itinerary!)
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/14/2018.)
* Pirqei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers”) is a book of the Mishnah, the earliest piece of rabbinic literature, dating to roughly the 2nd century CE in Israel. It is a collection of wisdom about how we should conduct ourselves, and emphasizes learning and teaching Torah as an essential imperative in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the consequent end of the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult and priesthood.
** Over 3,000 non-Syrian residents have been killed, and the vast majority of those have been Palestinians.