Rabbi Josh Weinberg: January 19th, 2024וַיְחַזֵּק יְהֹוָה אֶת־לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא אָבָה לְשַׁלְּחָם ׃
“But יהוה stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go.”
“When God warns someone once, twice, and even a third time and that person does not repent, then and then only does God close the person’s heart against repentance and exact punishment for their sins.” (Resh Lakish in response to the plagues, Midrash Rabbah Exodus 13:3)
Yesterday, Kfir Bibas, celebrated his first birthday as a hostage. I think celebrated is a bit of an exaggeration, more like “marked” his first birthday which took place somewhere below the scorched earth of Gaza in a dungeon or a tunnel. This date reminds us that he has now lived one-quarter of his life as a hostage.
The war reached its 105th day. The world watches as South Africa shamefully brings an accusation of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Meanwhile, PM Netanyahu seems to only care about his right flank and maintaining his coalition of extremists and deplorables who call for ethnic cleansing and are, in essence, preventing a potential hostage deal. Israel will need to prove to the world once again that it is justified in its defensive response and bound by international law – something that Hamas, a terrorist organization and not a State, is not. Israel will also need to show it’s willing to be a primary arbiter for the future of Gaza and a Palestinian state.
Has the world hardened its heart to the suffering of the Israeli people and Jews after the worst massacre in the State of Israel’s history? While fighting a war in Gaza, Israel put together an excellent team of lawyers and legal experts to defend against the accusation of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
I took the opportunity this week to sit and watch the 47-minute atrocity video compiled of Hamas terrorist body-cam and cellphone footage, along with dashboard cameras and first responder documentation. Like many of us, I had already seen many of the clips online over the past 105 days, but some footage I had not seen – of dead and burnt bodies, of frightened female soldiers huddling together for protection—all were murdered, of two young boys whose father was murdered saving their lives, of terrified party revelers running for their lives and being shot point blank in their cars to the exalting cries of ecstatic Hamas terrorists chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) as they continue on their reckless rampage. These images will be seared into my mind and our Jewish collective memories like Holocaust imagery.
That is critical context, as Dr. Tal Becker of the Israeli legal team explained in his opening remarks at The Hague last Friday. Our trauma leads us to the need for self-defense, and also of restraint.
The call for genocide is simply wrong and misses the point completely. As NYTimes columnist Bret Stephens wrote this week:
“It’s obscene because it puts the wrong party in the dock. Hamas is a genocidal organization by conviction and design. Its founding charter calls for Israel to be “obliterated” and for Muslims to kill Jews as they “hide behind stones and trees.” On Oct. 7, Hamas murdered, mutilated, tortured, incinerated, raped or kidnapped everyone it could. Had it not been stopped it would not have stopped. One of its leaders has since vowed to do it “a second, a third, a fourth” time. It’s Hamas, not Israel, that started the war, keeps it going, and would resume it the moment it has the arsenal and the opportunity.
It’s obscene because it validates Hamas’s illegal and barbaric strategy of hiding between, behind, and beneath Palestinian civilians. From the beginning of the war, Hamas has had a double aim: to kill as many Jews as possible, and to incur Palestinian fatalities to gain international sympathy and diplomatic leverage.”
Israel will need to prove to the world once again that it is justified in its defensive response and bound by international law – something that Hamas, a terrorist organization and not a State is not.
However, Israel can also not remain indifferent to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Our weekly Torah reading is in the middle of the Ten Plagues story. Each plague inflicted on Egypt was meant to pressure the Pharoah to soften his heart and let our people go. Then we come to the last inflicted plague. מכת בכורות, the killing of the firstborn. We read the following:
וּמֵת כׇּל־בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל־כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה׃ וְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּכׇל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹהוּ לֹא נִהְיָתָה וְכָמֹהוּ לֹא תֹסִף׃ וּלְכֹל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֶחֱרַץ־כֶּלֶב לְשֹׁנוֹ לְמֵאִישׁ וְעַד־בְּהֵמָה לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּן אֲשֶׁר יַפְלֶה יְהֹוָה בֵּין מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
“And every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again;” (Exodus 11:5-6)
The Hebrew word צְעָקָה / tz’akah (“loud cry”) is, in fact, the same term used to express Israel’s misery under Egyptian enslavement. Our commentators teach that, as a result of these plagues, the anguished cry of the oppressed is now supplanted by the cry of their oppressors and tormentors.
We must ask ourselves, have we, Israelis and Jews around the world, hardened our hearts to the cries of the Palestinian mothers and fathers who lost loved ones under the rubble of Gazan buildings, who face starvation and rampant disease? Are we indifferent because of the pain we experienced and the callousness with which much of the world has reacted to us after October 7? Are we numb to those who have been used as human shields by terrorists hiding in their subterranean bunkers and tunnels and to the multitudes of displaced people who have nowhere to go?
The plagues did not come out of nowhere and were not without context. Pharoah could have prevented these devastating punishments on his people, but instead demonstrated that he showed no empathy or care for his people. His heart was so hardened and he had so little regard for the well-being of his nation that he could not bring himself to free his enslaved people.
Just like Pharoah did not heed the pleas of Moses and Aaron and only bowed under extreme pressure, so too it feels like our only hope for freedom and security – Israelis AND Palestinians – is if Hamas can no longer rule in Gaza (or anywhere else).
While much of our attention was in The Hague this week, in Switzerland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered one of the most important lessons for this moment. In a conversation with NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman, Blinken said:
“The biggest poison around the world is the inability to see the humanity in the other,” he [Blinken] concluded. “When that happens, you get so hardened that you’re willing to do and accept things that you wouldn’t if the humanity of the other was front and center in your consciousness. So, one of our challenges is to fight that dehumanization — to find ways to diffuse it to take that poison out.” – U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
May God soften all the hardened hearts, and may we acknowledge that the pain we are experiencing is the same pain experienced by others.