The 10th of Shevat is Ariel Sharon’s yahrzeit. To mark the occasion, I have been reflecting upon this sermon that I delivered at Great Neck Synagogue on the Shabbat immediately following his death, Parashat Yitro, 2014.
It is often difficult to take constructive criticism or advice from a family member, and certainly that is true when it comes from a parent-in-law. I don’t think that I need to elaborate on that point, except to note that if you’ve just come down from a mountain holding two tablets containing God’s message to your people, and if you are a national leader in the process of implementing God’s plan – the one that you just brought down from the mountain on those two tablets – I imagine it would be especially difficult to hear your father-in-law tell you about the great system that we used for this sort of thing back in Midian.
And yet, we read this morning about the conversations between Yitro and Moshe, how Yitro advised Moshe to accept his own physical limitations, instructed him as to how to set up a functional bureaucracy that would share responsibility for the people relieving him of much of that responsibility. Certainly we learn a great deal about Moshe’s humility and Yitro’s tact; we learn how to accept – and how to offer – advice and criticism. We also learn something very relevant to the complex life and legacy of Ariel Sharon, and that is primarily what I’d like to address this morning.
I’ll begin with a puzzling teaching that comes by way of explanation of Yitro’s advice to Moshe. In particular, he tells Moshe that his role is to be the ultimate judge and teacher of the people, v’hoda’ata lahem et haderakh asher yelkhu bah, v’et ha-ma’aseh asher ya’asun, you should make known to them the path upon which they should walk, and the action that they should perform. Remember, this is in the context of people asking Moshe questions, resolving disputes, litigating cases. The talmudic sage Rav Yosef offers the following explanation.“And you shall make known to them” – this refers to their house of life; “the path” – this refers to loving kindness; “upon which they should walk” – this refers to visiting the sick; “which” – this refers to burial; “and the action” – this is the law; “they should perform” – going beyond the requirements of the law. (Bava Metzia 30b) The question is, as important as these principles are, what do they have to do with what Yitro is actually talking about? What is the connection between visiting the sick and appointing judges?
I think the answer to this question has a lot to do with Ariel Sharon, especially as he was understood by the Israeli journalist and columnist Ari Shavit. Shavit, one of Israel’s most influential political writers and a self-described Israeli WASP (White Ashkenazi Seeker of Peace) was a strange match for the right-wing, militaristic, pragmatic Sharon, but they connected, eventually spending a remarkable 20 hours together in private conversation over the course of Sharon’s political resurgence that took him, against all odds, and at the age of 71, to the Prime Minister’s office. Shavit was in the process of writing a profile of Sharon for The New Yorker that was to run in the beginning of 2006. That piece, which I recommend that you look up online and read, now stands as Sharon’s definitive obituary. It was published soon after he lost consciousness in an emergency room in Jerusalem, eight years before his physical body finally found peace.
As I reread that profile, I thought of how Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, generated controversy this week of all weeks, during Sharon’s shiva, by referring to Secretary of State John Kerry’s ambitions as “messianic.” I was struck because in his profile, Shavit wrote of Sharon, that “he was the least messianic of all of Israel’s Prime Ministers..it was Sharon who brought to fruition post-messianic politics. Under his governance, Israel was weaned of the hope for an ideal end. It even came to realize that there would be no absolute peace or victory. Fundamentally, Sharon was a man of process. If he has left a legacy, it is the need for time—lots of time—because there is no way to reach peace with one abrupt act.”
Shavit’s widely read and much-discussed book, My Promised Land, won a National Jewish Book Award this past week. I recommend it. In it, he describes the shared multi-generational mistake of both Israel’s Peace movement and settlement movement. Their mistake was the notion that it would be possible for Israel to take steps that could bring resolution to their conflict with the Arab world. Yossi Beilin thought that he could negotiate a peace proposal that even Yassir Arafat could not refuse. Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook felt that by aggressively settling the entire land, the problem of the Palestinians would melt away of its own accord, whether naturally or perhaps even miraculously.
Sharon, though, had no illusions. His insight was in understanding that Israel is something of a Greek tragedy, where the forces of history and destiny loom large and, ultimately, are unconquerable. He understood deeply how the creation of Israel represented the fulfillment of 2,000 years of dreams and prayers, and he knew how the establishment of a Jewish homeland was a needed response to centuries of anti-Semitism, from pogrom to Shoah. He also realized, though, that the birth of the State of Israel created a problem without a solution. Having fought for Israel since before its birth in 1948, having been involved in all of its major wars and struggles, military, political, and diplomatic, Sharon concluded that it would not be possible to win definitively, nor would it be possible to arrive at a lasting peace with the Arab world. The most important thing for him, therefore was to continue – to continue pushing, continue fighting, because that meant that the Jewish people would continue surviving.
Sharon never had a political philosophy or a grand vision. His major accomplishments, first as a soldier, and then as a politician – the heroism in Israel’s wars, the battle against terror, the settlement expansion of the 1970s and disengagement from Gaza, the realignment of Israeli politics – all of these were a series of short-term decisions without a clear strategy or defined goals. Indeed, Sharon was known to change course quickly and dramatically, even chaotically.
Instead of reaching out towards a specific goal, Sharon was motivated by his inner convictions and his sense of identity. He was, first and foremost, a Jew (Shavit described him as more Jewish than Israeli, in a way that surprised him), and he sincerely felt the connection between the Jewish people and the land itself. He drew resolve and power from the ranch he built, where he grew crops from the land and raised animals upon it. He often remarked that rather than taking foreign dignitaries to Yad Vashem, as is customary, he would have much preferred to take them to Me’arat HaMachpela, to highlight the connection between the land and the people, to truly help foreign visitors understand Jewish roots and Jewish continuity through the millennia.
Sharon also worried about the national fortitude of the Jews themselves, constantly worried whether the younger Israelis had the iron will and desperate determination of their predecessors, whether they could maintain the energy it would take to continue fighting a endless struggle. Instead of focusing on selling them on a particular course of action, Sharon tried to rally the people behind him by projecting strength, dedication to the land and people of Israel, and a dramatic sense of historical mission.
In contrast to Ariel Sharon, perhaps more similarly to John Kerry’s self-assessment, Moshe Rabbeinu actually did have all of the answers. As we pick up the story in this morning’s parasha, Moshe responds to Yitro’s critique by describing “Because the people come to me (ki yavo elai) to inquire of God. And I judge between one and another, and I make known to them the statutes of God and His teachings.” The people want to know what the situation is, what to do, and I, as opposed to anyone else, know exactly what to tell them.
And yet, Yitro’s response turns that all on its head. He says, “You shall represent the nation (heyei ata la-‘am) before God…and bring (ve-heveita ata) the cases to God.”
In other words, Yitro told Moshe that he was fundamentally misunderstanding his role. He was not God’s emissary, bringing truth down to the people. Instead, he was the people’s Ambassador to God. He was not there to bring truth down from the mountain to solve their problems for them. Instead, he was to give them the ability to identify with him, and grow towards God on their own.
Moshe accepted this critique, and we see the results through the rest of the Torah. He was their advocate, fighting God on behalf of the people following the sin of the Golden Calf, the sin of the Spies, and on many other occasions.
He was their representative, bringing their struggles and questions before God, whether it was the daughters of Tzlaphchad hoping to inherit their father’s share in the land, the men who desired to participate in the Pesach offering despite being impure. Moshe hears them out, empathizes with their plight, and validates it – and validates them at the same time.
Finally, it meant that he realized he could not be concerned only with who is right and who is wrong, but about the human relationship between them, how they should live, how they relate to each other. How, ultimately, even as he sat at the head of a judicial system that resolved disputes and awarded damages and rendered verdicts, his concern was really about whether the people felt connected to each other, about whether there was a sense of common purpose, of shared responsibility – whether they invited each other into their homes, tended to the sick, or comforted the grieving.
In accepting Yitro’s critique, Moshe understood that to be a leader is not just about giving the right advice or proposing the right policies. It is really about developing the right people because the right people matter much more, in the long run, than any single action or decision, no matter how monumental. And the best way to develop the right people is, simply, to be one. Moshe made himself one of the people, concerned himself with how the people truly were – and the people were able to elevate themselves, even lead themselves.
Ariel Sharon made a career of monumental decisions over the course of his life, many whose impact still reverberate across Israel and around the world. We leave it to a higher authority to render a final verdict on his record, as the final tally may not be counted even in our lifetimes. What we can say, is that Sharon embodied the passion of a Jew committed to the Jewish People, the land of Israel, and the eternal connection between the two. He led his country and his people as the living symbol of that passion. To the extent that we identified with him, we came closer to Medinat Yisrael, as his life’s story so closely tracked the growth and development of his country. To the extent that we were inspired and motivated by his supreme dedication to the Jewish people, we all became better Jews as a result. May his memory continue to guide and inspire us all, for many years to come.