Friday January 26, 2023 – Judged By History and Ourselves
ט״ז שְׁבָט תשפ”ד
How We Will Be Judged, and How We Will Judge Ourselves
וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ כִּי֩ הַשְׁבֵּ֨עַ הִשְׁבִּ֜יעַ אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִיתֶ֧ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֛י מִזֶּ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃ (שמות יג:יט)
And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus 13:19)
I write this week with a heavy heart after the devastating loss of 25 soldiers killed by a Hamas RPG in a building in Gaza. Those soldiers came from nearly every sector and community of Israeli society and their loss is felt by the entire country. We pray for an end to this war and that we will not have to wake up with another announcement of “הותר לפרסום…” (“cleared to publicize the names of the fallen…”).
Tradition teaches that this week is meant to be a week of joy. We celebrated Tu BiShvat, the New Year for the trees, and we read about our liberation from slavery to freedom with the “Song of the Sea.” There we read that the time had come to flee Egypt, the house of bondage, and shed the throes of slavery and subjugation.
With this war entering its 111th day, many are asking big questions about the war, the day after, the achievability of its initially stated goals, and the high price being paid in life and treasure.
I raise two overarching questions and view them through the lens of two famous midrashim connected to this week’s Torah portion.
- How will history judge us?
While some might not care how we will be judged by history for our conduct in this war, I maintain that it is an important consideration – as we would want to claim the moral high ground. There is no question that this war was necessary, that Israel had to mount a military response to the unfathomable barbaric attacks from which we are still reeling and traumatized. Today the questions on many people’s minds are: “What is achievable?” and “What residual and irreversible damage will this war create?”
As we recall the story of our Exodus from Egypt, our liberation and transition from slavery to freedom, we don’t often probe deeply enough into the analysis of our actions. How much did the Egyptians suffer from the residual effect of the 10 plagues? What was the fallout on those who were also subjected to the tyrannical rule of the Pharoah? Was it necessary to kill every Egyptian firstborn?
Many of us have no qualms when the Egyptian army pursued the children of Israel and God forced the waters to crash down on them killing them. God’s counter-attack was legitimate and justified. However, we are told in an oft-quoted Midrash that, apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked:
(שמות יד, כ) “ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה”? באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקב”ה. אמר להן הקב”ה’: מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני? (סנהדרין ל”ט ע”ב)
“The Gemara comments: As Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman says that Rabbi Yonatan says: What is the meaning of that which is written in the passage describing the splitting of the Red Sea: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? At that time the ministering angels desired to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork, i.e., the Egyptians, are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? (Sanhedrin 39b)
Hamas deserves to be eradicated. The terror organization recently published its own take on the events of October 7th in a document called “Our Narrative: Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.” Remarkably, they include the following grandiose falsehoods:
“[on October 7] Palestinian fighters were keen to avoid harming civilians despite the fact that the resistance does not possess precise weapons. In addition, if there was any case of targeting civilians; it happened accidently and in the course of the confrontation with the occupation forces. And that “the Hamas Movement dealt in a positive and kind manner with all civilians who have been held in Gaza, and sought from the earliest days of the aggression to release them.”
The problem is that so many around the world believe these lies.
The problem also is that Israel’s retaliation resulted in the death of over 25,000 (roughly 9000 Hamas fighters and 16,000 civilians). Hundreds of thousands are starving, close to two million are displaced from their homes, and roughly 45% of all Gazan buildings and homes have been destroyed. More and more are saying that this massive and wanton destruction has not served Israel’s best interests either in achieving its military objectives and freeing the hostages and the massive destruction will be a stain on Israel’s reputation and good name.
There’s no question that Hamas has dedicated its vast resources – as NYTimes columnist Bret Stephens details this week – towards creating a war machine with the explicit goal of destroying the Jewish State. Nonetheless, we have to wake up on the morning of the day after and face our own actions.
In the Song of the Sea we read words similar to current war slogans ביחד ננצח, “together we will triumph”:
יְמִֽינְךָ֣ יְהֹוָ֔ה נֶאְדָּרִ֖י בַּכֹּ֑חַ יְמִֽינְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה תִּרְעַ֥ץ אוֹיֵֽב׃
Your right hand, יהוה, glorious in power,
Your right hand, יהוה, shatters the foe!
וּבְרֹ֥ב גְּאוֹנְךָ֖ תַּהֲרֹ֣ס קָמֶ֑יךָ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ חֲרֹ֣נְךָ֔ יֹאכְלֵ֖מוֹ כַּקַּֽשׁ׃
In Your great triumph You break Your opponents;
You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw. (Exodus 15:6)
History will judge us for whatever victory we achieve, but we will be judged more importantly on whether we remain merciful and maintain our humanity.
- How will we judge ourselves?
The Torah tells us that upon leaving Egypt Moses stopped to collect the bones of Joseph, as per Joseph’s request at the end of the book of Genesis. According to the Midrash, this was easier said than done as Moses didn’t know where to find the bones of his ancestor, only to find support from Joseph’s seldom-mentioned niece Serah bat Asher:
The Gemara asks: And from where did Moses our teacher know where Joseph was buried? The Sages said: Serah, the daughter of Asher, remained from that generation that initially descended to Egypt with Jacob. Moses went to her and said to her: Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried? She said to him: The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River as an augury so that its water would be blessed. Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile. He said to Joseph: Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy Blessed One, took an oath saying that I, [God], will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath. Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.
But a different Midrash in Tanchuma states
“Furthermore, as Joseph’s coffin was borne alongside the ark of the Eternal One through the desert, the nations would inquire of Israel: “What are these two arks?” And the Israelites would reply: “This one is the ark of the one who died, and the other is the ark of the Living One of the world.” “Is it customary to carry the ark of a dead person alongside the ark of the Eternal, the Living One of the world?” they would ask. The Israelites would respond: “The deceased lying within this ark fulfilled all that is written in the other ark.” – Midrash Tanchuma Beshalach Ch. 2
In judging ourselves (and the Israeli leadership) we need to ask: Are we doing everything we can to retrieve those who are held in captivity – both alive and not? The lesson of Joseph’s bones, according to Tanchuma, is that we as a people have the responsibility to carry two “arks” on our backs. One is our collective responsibility for one another: our responsibility to those whom the State has the responsibility to protect and defend; our responsibility to those being held in captivity; and our responsibility to those who were killed in service of their country and whose bodies have yet to find final rest. And, we also have a responsibility to carry the “ark of the Eternal,” the ark of our covenant. It is our commitment to our values, morals, and ethics which make up the backbone of our ethical monotheism.
The moral responsibility we carry as a people includes how we treat our own people (the alive and the dead) and how we treat our enemies. We Jews carry both in our hearts and minds simultaneously especially in days of war when it’s likely that we’ll only think of ourselves and our people’s survival and well-being; but tradition demands more from us, to care about even our enemies and their well-being to the best extent possible regardless of the evil of their ways. If we can’t do that, then we fail our tradition’s highest and most challenging values as well as our raison d’etre as a people and nation.