Rabbi Karen Citrin
July 11, 2014
Jewish tradition teaches, “Know before whom you stand – Da lifnei atah omed.” (Ex. 3:5; Brachot 28b) I like to think this means, know what you stand for. Know what it is important to you. Stand up. Take a stand.
Jewish tradition also affirms this week that when you go to take a stand, there is a difference between zealotry and activism. This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, contains examples of both.
Pinchas, Moses’ great-nephew, took his spear, charged into a tent, and with one thrust, killed an Israelite man and his Midianite woman. While Pinchas was zealously following God’s law, most biblical characters did not interpret it to this extreme. Zealotry can imply eagerness and ardor, but it can also imply suspicion, intolerance, and obsession, anger that is fierce, uncompromising, and all-consuming.
While our tradition eventually shuns this kind of extreme display of belief, our Torah portions affirms a different kind of display of standing up for what you believe in. After the incident with Pinchas, the five daughters of Zelophechad – Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – approach Moses with the claim that they deserve to inherit their father’s land since their father had died without leaving a male heir. At that time, land inheritance was for men only. The daughters argue that if they are not given the land, their father’s name will be lost. God informs Moses that their cause is just. Moses must transfer the land to them, provided that they marry within the tribe.
Because the daughters chose to bring their protest to the public square, they challenged and altered an unjust Torah law. This was no small feat. Standing up for their belief, they extended fair treatment for others for generations to come.
How can we read these stories in our Torah portion without thinking about the events that are taking place in Israel this week? What insights can these passages give to our understanding of what is happening? These past weeks have been difficult for the people of Israel and all members of our Jewish family across the globe. Following the brutal murders of three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian teen, we have watched from afar as Israelis are under siege by Palestinian rocket attacks and Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air strikes. This week I have heard from countless Israeli friends and colleagues who have heard sirens this week and had to move into shelters. Our hearts mourn for the bloodshed in Israel. And we are anxious and concerned for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel who continue to be shelled by Hamas extremists.
It is difficult to hear the news without knowing what is really going on in Israel. It is also hard to remain silent in the face of such terror. In a joint message from the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, Temple Israel, and Congregation B’nai Emunah sent earlier today, we shared this message: As missiles continue to rain down on southern Israel from Gaza, and with sirens heard as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Tulsa Jewish community expresses its unending support for Israelis living again under terror in their own midst. Joining the entire North American Jewish community, we stand with Israel during this difficult time.” We stand with the people of Israel.
While we absolutely affirm and support Israel’s right to defend its borders and citizens, we can and should also condemn zealous, fanatical acts of hatred. Going back to the daughters of Zelophechad, we come from a long line of people who passionately and peacefully stood up for what they believed to be important and vital. With Israel in our hearts and on our minds, I would like to reflect on the current situation, and to share several portraits of people who stand with Israel and who have taken a stand for peace. Perhaps their responses may provide hope in dark times. Two individuals especially come to mind.
Israel’s outgoing president, Shimon Peres, likes to remind people that he is old. He is 90 and has worked with 10 U.S Presidents. He also says that he has worked for four decades for peace with the Palestinians, and has not succeeded. “I am leaving the office, but I am not leaving the battle for peace,” Peres recently said. He condemned the murder of Abu Khdeir, on the heals of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, as “not just a criminal crises, but a moral crises.” “A mother’s tears have no color, he said, noting that the tears shed by the mothers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach were the same as those shed by Abu Khdeir’s mother. “The Torah tells us that respect for human life takes priority over all other considerations. Today the blood of all our brothers screams at us from the earth. Today, all four grieving families become one family.” (The Jerusalem Post, 7/8/14)
It is amazing to consider Peres’s undying commitment to the struggle for peace over the decades. Looking back on life, he recently said, “I think that the problem in life is not what to be but what to do.” (Washington Post, 6/24/14) Even in his retirement from the presidency, Peres will continue to work for peace.
I also think about Elie Wiesel, who was recently asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu, to become Peres’ successor as the next President of Israel. Wiesel, from New York, respectfully declined the position. I grew up on and was inspired by the writings of Elie Wiesel, who emerged from the ashes of the Shoah and devoted his life to preserving the humanity of others. Wiesel has spoken, “For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish is to recognize that every person is created in God’s image and thus worthy of respect. Being Jewish to me is to reject fanaticism everywhere.” (I Am Jewish, Judea and Ruth Pearl, Ed.).”
He has expressed a hope for the resolution of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It cannot go on,” he said emphatically. “It’s good for everybody – both Palestinians and Israelis — to have some peace at last and not be worried about rockets being fired at them and destroying their homes. It has to stop and because it has to stop, it will.”
Wiesel continues to advise humanity as a whole to heighten their sensitivity to others. “I think that is the greatest danger, ignorance, which leads to indifference and therefore to detachment. On a personal level again, if somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me. Nothing is worse than insensitivity,” he said. “People always ask me what I want my students or readers to take away from me. It’s to think higher and feel deeper. That is the motto always, in whatever you do. Think higher and feel deeper.” (USA Today, 11/20/12)
The messages of these two great leaders are inspiring. Both recognize the exhaustion and complexity of the ongoing fighting and conflict. Yet, both continue to hope and stand for peace. To return to our Torah portion, the stances of Wiesel and Peres reflect elements of Pinchas and Zelophechad’s daughters. When it comes to dealing with intense conflict, it is not an either or approach. At times, the situation calls for zealous defense, and at times, the situation calls for direct verbal advocacy.
To stand with Israel includes a range of emotions and responses – passion, anger, doubt, disagreement, pride, care, concern, love. Whatever your feeling and response, the Jewish community around the world is calling on us to stand with Israel. Israel needs our support now and always.
As Elie Wiesel said, “Think higher and feel deeper.” And as Rabbi Hillel preached, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot)
We especially hold in our thoughts and prayers members of our own Temple family are in Israel right now, four post-Confirmation teens who are travelling with NFTY in Israel. We’ve heard reports that all are safe and secure. And our hearts are with all of our family and friends in Israel.
I encourage you to stay informed about the situation in Middle East through various website and paper news – the Jewish Federation’s Israel resource page, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, the URJ, and ARZA. I encourage you to continue to support our nation’s leaders, who support Israel’s right to self-defense.
I also hope that we might learn from and be inspired by the individuals who have come before us who have stood up for what they believed to be right and just. May these individuals exemplify what it means and what it looks like to stand up for peace. Our tradition long affirms and guides us to stand up and speak out for the values and principles we hold dear. Know before whom you stand. Know what you stand for.
I pray for the safety of the people of Israel during this troubling time. Please join with me as we pray for more peaceful days to come. Shabbat Shalom.
[Read Prayer for Peace and Strength, Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar; Union for Reform Judaism]