Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit – May, 2018
After spending a couple of months probing the book of Leviticus and the many challenges that that text brought forward we return once again to the journey of the Israelites as they move through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Our new book and our portion is called Bamidbar and we find the Israelites on the first day of the second month in the second year encamped in the Sinai desert. In Hebrew the book is named after the desert or wilderness, but in Greek and English the series of censuses that God enjoins – led to the more familiar name of Numbers. As our potion begins, God tells Moses to count those men over 20 capable of bearing arms.
As we will soon learn if we haven’t already, the Israelites march will take them through hostile environments both natural and human. To meet those dangers the people must be organized into a military camp in preparation for the battles that will be necessary to reach, conquer and maintain their presence in the land that their ancestors had left many years prior.
It seems as if our Torah portion is once again in sync with our headlines, as modern day Israelis, particularly its military, is forced to grapple with the challenge of maintaining security in the land, amid people who hate our guts and don’t want us to be there. The split screen images this week of celebration and pageantry as the American Embassy opened in Jerusalem and the Israeli singer Netta Barzalai won the Eurovision song contest (the latter to the average Israeli probably more significant) both juxtaposed against the death of Palestinians along the Gaza border fed once again into the narrative that Hamas leaders wished to show to the world. Israel’s military, made up primarily of twenty year olds, cast as the Goliath in the confrontation.
To be sure the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have every right, indeed a sacred duty, to defend the borders of their country. Had the residents of Gaza been allowed to cross the fence that separates them from Israel, many Israelis would have died, soldiers kidnapped and Israeli property would have been destroyed or looted. The question people are asking is whether the border cold have been defended differently and should those celebrating both the embassy and the singer better have acknowledged the suffering of that which is Gaza.
The Rabbis of old in their wisdom — also had a split screen. “Im Ba L’hargeikha Hashekm L’hargo – If someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill them” (Sanhedrin 72a). But then those same rabbis – remind us that the angelic voice reprimanded the Israelites for celebrating as the Egyptians died: “Maaseh yadei tovin bayam v’atem omrim shirah lifanai, My creation is drowning in the sea and you rejoice before me” (Talmud Sannhedrin 39b).
They reminded us that even in self-defense, one must defend the moral high ground. Those who caught in the conflict who lost their lives whether in ancient Egypt or present day Gaza were people we must hold our hearts. Ours is a tradition that cherishes every innocent life even when our enemies do not.
Today we can rejoice over the redemption of the Jewish people in Israel, and we can celebrate further recognition of our national sovereignty by having nations affirm the capital that has long been a fact in the eyes of most every Jew. We can even celebrate secular song contests – but we must never fail to mourn any loss of life and express concern to our leaders over this violence, urging them to find a better.
There are good reasons to heed Israeli Rabbi Donell Hartman’s words posted last week “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.”
The journey of the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land took them through not just the wilderness of Sinai, but to the Mountain of Sinai as well. Tonight and tomorrow as we celebrate the Festival of Shavuot we are reminded that before they got to Israel the people needed to make a pit stop at that mountain where they would receive the Torah — the text that would introduce the values and the laws that would guide them, not just in the Bamidbar, in the wilderness but in the land of Israel and in the societies that they would build as well. And that is what we acknowledge and celebrate not just on Shavout – but each and every day.