Consider and reflect upon an astonishing thing: Everything happens in its time for the good. The [Torah] portions which we always read during the Three Weeks, Matos, Massei and Devorim, discuss the victory of Israel over the nations and the division of the [Promised] Land – the diametric opposite of the terrible events that happened during this time [the destruction of the Temple]. Sometimes we also read Pinchas during this period, which discusses all the holidays… related to the fact that in the future “these days will be transformed into joy and gladness and holidays” (Zechariah 8:19) – Shaloh Mesechta Taanit
As the Middle East enters a second week of war with Israeli troops expanding their operations in Southern Lebanon launching a ground assault against its sworn enemy Hezbollah – and our hearts and prayers go out to all innocent lives being lost – its hard to ignore the connection to this period in time when we remember the war destruction of Jerusalem two millennia ago by the Babylonians and then again by the Romans.
No one is disputing the fact that the Hezbollah attack against Israel – and indeed the entire existence of the Hezbollah – is founded on the principle of conquering Israel and is being fueled, funded and armed by Syria and Iran – the location of ancient Babylon, which at its height included the land that is now Syria and a large part of Iran (Persia).
Babylon of old attacked Israel. So did the empires of Assyria, Persia, Ptolemy, Rome, Byzantine, the Crusaders, the Arabs and Ottomans. And the same story is now being replayed in the same geographical area – is this a coincidence?
After 2428 years since the Babylonian destruction and 1938 years since the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple why is Jerusalem still burning?
And what can we do about it?
As we compare this most recent conflict with previous ones, striking parallels and differences stand out.
The most obvious parallel is the never-ending battle over this small piece of geography called Israel.
But what is far more striking – and disturbing – are some of the unique differences that distinguish the current battle from previous ones.
One of the most obvious issues today is the lack of strong leadership and clear moral direction. Yes, every normal person or country agrees that Israel has a right to defend itself from wanton attacks on its innocent citizens. But is that enough?
We still hear questions whether Israel is responding in “disproportionate” measure. For some reason, many people are questioning whether this is a justifiable war? Why? Would the same be said if, for instance, terrorists were launching unprovoked missiles from Algeria to France, or from Mexico to the United States?
Is it possible that Israel is being second-guessed because Israel itself is suffering from an identity crisis and lack of clarity? Yes, under attack all of Israel is united in the commitment to defend itself at all costs. But the haunting questions remains: The six million Jews living in Israel are surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims most of whom (if not all) do not want Israel there. If they had their way, and there was no military deterrent, a large number of them would actually support the elimination of the Jewish State (G-d forbid) and even those that may not go to war against Israel would not be greatly disturbed if Israel ceased to be.
In such a hostile environment what good reason is there for Jews to live in Israel, surrounded by millions of enemies? If you moved to a neighborhood with high hopes for a comfortable life and then the neighborhood deteriorates, what would most people do? They would move to another neighborhood.
Is it possible that many are wondering the same about the Jews in Israel? Do Israelis themselves have this question? And if they do, what is the answer.
Another unprecedented factor in the current battle is the new type of war being fought. Previous wars involved defined nations, with defined borders and clear targets. A war against terrorists – whether it is in Baghdad, Lebanon, Gaza, London or New York City – poses a new set of challenges: Whom exactly are you fighting? Where is the enemy located? This type of war requires new terms of engagement.
Why is it that Israel’s victory in 1967 against four major countries, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq took only six days, and now their battle against one upstart terrorist organization is already over 9 days old and far from ending?
Some would argue, that a war against defined countries is far easier to fight than one against terrorists embedded in tunnels and caves within a country’s infrastructure, hiding behind civilian shields, with arsenals dug in beneath hospitals and schools. Other may contend that the six-day war was A Divine miracle.
Another factor may be that it is far easier to win a war when there is strong leadership, and an army passionately motivated by a defined vision and goal – as it was in the war of 1948 and 1967. Does that passion exist today?
Years of slow-bleeding battles and relentless terrorist attacks have worn down many people. The ultimate question is this: Why in the first place are Jews living in a hostile neighborhood?
And even if you have an answer, what is the game-plan? How will this all end?
Questions abound. Many questions indeed.
But we are never abandoned in our questions and doubts. The Jewish people have been here before. Throughout their long history of persecution, their ultimate solace and strength came from the Torah, called the Torah of life – a blueprint to face every challenge in life.
During the Three Weeks of destruction we read in the Torah chapters that address the issues swirling around Israel and Jerusalem under siege – as the Shaloh writes in the opening quote of this article:
The [Torah] portions which we always read during the Three Weeks, Matos, Massei and Devorim, discuss the victory of Israel over the nations and the division of the [Promised] Land – the diametric opposite of the terrible events that happened during this time [the destruction of the Temple].
Barely a consolation, yet the battle over Jerusalem is not new. And by looking at the past we can learn much for the present and future.
This Shabbat we also bless the month of Av. Av consists of two letters: Alef and bet – an acronym for the two nations that destroyed the two temples: Adom (the Roman Empire) and Babylon.
Our troubles in the Middle East did not begin today. They are an extension of unresolved forces unleashed millennia ago – events that set in motion a series of conflicts that plague us to this very day.
Edom (Rome) is the Western, Christian world – descendants of Esau. Babylon is the Eastern, Arab, Muslim world – descendants of Ishmael. All global confrontations are a result of the strange bedfellows created back in the home of Abraham (see Abraham’s Vision).
So what does all of this have to do with current events? How do historical roots help us deal with our present challenges?
The three chapters we read during these Three Weeks contain some answers:
Pinchas – Healthy Passion
Pinchas is the only zealot ever condoned in the Torah. Pinchas took a stand against a public atrocity and killed the perpetrators, consequently saving thousands of lives. Pinchas is subsequently rewarded with the “covenant of peace.”
What does this teach us about modern day zealotry and its dangers? Haven’t we learned our lessons over history of the grave destruction perpetrated in the name of G-d by religious extremists?!
As discussed at length in a previous article (Religious Violence), Pinchas was the ultimate model of a peaceful warrior: When confronted with cruelty some people shy away in fear, others become morally ambivalent and yet others become radical zealots, mercilessly killing innocent people in the name of (distorted) faith.
Comes Pinchas the man of peace and tells us that there is another option: No extremes, no bringing in your own personal prejudices and feelings of aggression or passivity, violence or comfort zones. Pinchas teaches us simple selflessness to protect and defend innocent lives. Zealousness – but in peace.
What we learn from Pinchas is the exact opposite of killing in the name of religious zealotry. Violence against other people, especially innocent ones, can never be tolerated – no matter what its cause. Any justification of violence, whether it is in the name of religion or in the name of fighting for a cause, is unequivocally deplorable and goes against the laws of G-d. Anger and murder resulting from religious feelings is perhaps the most dangerous of all, because the “holy war” helps mask the venting of personal aggression.
On the other hand, Pinchas teaches us, just because religion has been abused and used to perpetrate atrocities we shouldn’t fall to the other extreme of not fighting for any values. We must never lose sight of right and wrong, but at the same time we must learn from the past how to fight for it with selfless passion.
What is needed today is passion – but guided by humility. G-d – but guided by love and compassion. We need a zealot today. A true Pinchas that will rise and defy conventional thinking. Not a murderous zealot but a zealot of peace.
Today we are called to join forces in a zealousness and passion against all forms of extremism and violence, including those perpetrated in the name of religious zealotry. To counter the passion of misguided souls ready to blow themselves up, we need to zealously defend and promote the Divine principles of justice and peace – and all in the spirit of unity and love fueled by selflessness.
Matos-Massei – Fortitude in the journey
“Matos” (in Hebrew) are stiff, firm rods. “Massei” are journeys, referring to the forty-two journeys of the Israelites through the Sinai Wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
Life is a journey – a series of journeys – toward the Promised Land. Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov explains that each of us goes through 42 journeys in our lives.
The journey toward the Promised Land (even when we may be living there) is a difficult one – as witnessed time and again throughout history. We therefore need the “Matos” in our “Massei” – an unwavering fortitude, based on deep faith that gives us the relentless power to forge ahead regardless of and despite the adversary.
Life can be difficult, very difficult. The only power to counter all our hardships and enemies comes from a profound, unwavering, connection to knowing the purpose of our lives and knowing without a shred of doubt that our fight is just; an absolute, unbending (“Mattos”) moral certainty in our calling, and the resulting absolute determination to see the journey through.
Where do we get this fortitude? From-
Devorim – Divine words
“These are the words which Moses spoke…”
The fifth book of the Torah documents the words that Moses spoke to the people in the last 37 days of his time on Earth:
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah over against Suph, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.”
Moses was the ultimate leader. Knowing that he has a short time to live, and recognizing the difficult challenges laying ahead, Moses – as a true leader – delivers his final words in order to imbue the people – then and in all generations to come – with the strength and confidence to forge ahead and tackle every possible issue. Moses examines the events that occurred over the last 40 years since they left Egypt, he discusses the relationship the Jews had established with G-d, G-d’s instructions to them, and he encourages them to carry on these teachings for the generations to come.
More specifically, Moses reviews the difficult journey of the Jewish people toward the Promised Land and reaffirms the reason for their journey – to forge an invincible bond with G-d that will empower the people to transform the material universe into a Divine home. Moses offers the Jewish nation strong words of encouragement and direction that by holding on to their connection to the Divine they will be able to face any challenge, no matter how difficult.
Moses’ words live on forever. Especially in time of war and challenge we need the powerful, unwavering words of Moses to infuse us with hope, courage and direction.
Above all, Moses’ words state the ultimate – and only – justification for the Jewish presence in Israel today:
“Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which G-d swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their seed after them” (Deuteronomy 1:8).
“Israel, listen to the laws and rules that I am teaching you to do, so that you will remain alive and come to occupy the land that G-d is giving you (4:1). Safeguard and keep them since this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations (4:6). Only take heed and watch yourself very carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes saw. Do not let [this memory] leave your hearts, all the days of your lives. Teach your children and children’s children” (4:9).
And the end game?
“G-d will then bring back your remnants and have mercy on you. G-d will once again gather you from among all the nations where He scattered you… [and] bring you to the land that your ancestors occupied. G-d will be good to you and make you flourish even more than your ancestors” (30:3-5).
Meanwhile – Moses concludes – “be strong and brave” (31:6).
It’s amazing that after all these years the secret to redemption eludes us but still remains in our hands: “Zion will be redeemed with Law and its captives with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27. Haftorah of Shabbat Chazon).
Torah study and charitable righteous deeds will redeem Zion and its hostages.
How much longer will Jerusalem burn? That’s up to us.
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Question for the week: How far should Israel go in its war against Hezbollah, and what should be the “end-game”?