Thoughts on being close to a Palestinian attack on soldiers, eifah v’eifah, Amalek, Purim and personal responsibility

This past Friday, twenty rabbinical students and other potential future Jewish leaders spending a year in Israel travelled with us to the endangered Palestinian village of Susya, and the endangered Negev Bedouin villages of Umm Al Hiran and Atir. On previous programs this year students joined Rabbis For Human Rights to pick olives and plant new trees with Palestinian farmers, learned about poverty, unemployment and public housing inside Israel, and heard Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. Every human rights issue was connected to our Jewish tradition, and we will conclude the year just before Israeli Independence Day by studying from RHR’s Talmudic style commentary on Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

On the way back from each Friday field tour, I always conclude with a dvar Torah (brief commentary) on the weekly Torah portion. Last Friday, I was about to begin as we approached the Tzomet haGush, the Gush Etzion settlement bloc roundabout. However, the traffic came to a halt. Just a few meters ahead of us a Palestinian was killed before he was able to stab soldiers. I was unable to concentrate on what I had been intending to say, seeing the flashing lights of an ambulance and hearing the wailing sirens, and not knowing yet whether or how many bodies might be lying just ahead. I felt guilty because I was also worrying about the delay.  We had promised everybody to be home two hours before Shabbat.

When the traffic began to move, and we were on our way, I struggled to go back to my planned dvar Torah. But,  it still seemed something between insensitive and surreal to go on with business as usual.

And then it hit me. However, my realization came only after I had introduced my theme, and it was too late to stop. I wasn’t really going on with business as usual. The only question remaining was whether it would be best to avoid the obvious connection between the words coming out of my mouth and what we had just experienced, or whether ignoring it might actually be more jarring and upsetting. Perhaps acknowledging the connection might even help some of those on the packed minibus to process what they had just seen.

This past Shabbat was Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. Because Haman, the chief villain in the Book of Esther, is a descendant of Amalek, we read the dangerously problematic and somewhat contradictory command to always remember (zakhor) to blot out any trace or memory of Amalek. Not fearing God, the Amalekites attacked the weak and famished stragglers when we had just left Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The previous passage in the Torah reads:

You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures (eifah v’eifah), a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you. For anybody who acts this way, who perpetrates injustice, is an abomination to Adonai your God (Deut. 25: 13-16).

My planned dvar Torah was to quote the Rashi (Preeminent classic Torah commentator, 1040-1105) commentary to Deuteronomy 25:17 which I first learned from one of RHR’s founders, Rabbi Ben Hollander z”l. Rashi, based on Midrash Tanhuma 8, taught that the prohibition against dishonest weights and measures appears immediately before the command regarding Amalek because our enemies attack when we are dishonest in this way. Our sages expanded the prohibition against eifah v’eifah to refer to any form of unequal and discriminatory behavior. Rabbi Hollander similarly expanded Rashi’s teaching to say that we open the door to Amalek attacking when we act in a discriminatory manner towards the weak and disadvantaged.

Having decided that it was impossible either to ignore what had just happened or to imagine that the students would miss the connection with Rashi’s commentary, especially after what we had seen and heard all day, I braced myself and spoke about the difficult truth. I shared my feeling that there is something Amalek-like in acts of terror. In this case the intended targets were soldiers. In many cases the targets are the weak, the elderly, children, and other unsuspecting civilians. I also reminded the students that Israel’s Shin Bet security services issued a report giving two reasons for the current round of terror and violence: 1. Social media incitement. 2. Young Palestinians seeing no light at the end of the tunnel of occupation, poverty and ongoing oppression. Our sages taught, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirkei Avot 5:11) Our sages did not justify or encourage violence. Surely they recalled God’s words to Cain demanding that he overcome his anger, “Sin crouches at the door, its urge is towards you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7). However, our sages were also realists.

Perhaps some of the students, and some of you, are/were infuriated by any suggestion that the responsibility for what we had just seen lay with anybody other than the perpetrator, or perhaps Palestinians in general. Others may be angry with me for justifying violence against Palestinians by seemingly backing the dangerous assertion we actually hear from time to time, that Palestinians are descendants of Amalek. However, as Rabbi Leon Wiener Dow postulates in last week’s RHR dvar Torah on the weekly Torah portion, the obligation to drink on Purim until we can’t distinguish between “Blessed by Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman” is to realize that we can all have some Amalek within us. (Many rabbis today, understanding the dangers of alcohol, temper the obligation to become inebriated on Purim. Rabbi Wiener Dow actually teaches the story of one Talmudic sage who murders another on Purim under the influence.)

Rather than doing what is relatively easy, looking for Amalek only in “the other,” we really need to remember to fight the Amalek-like characteristics lurking inside us. This is never easy, and we find it particularly difficult aware as we are of those who de-legitimize Israel’s very existence. However, recognizing that Amalek can be inside us does not mean that we are Amalek.  Identifying Israel’s Amalek-like actions does not de-legitimize Israel.  The real danger is when we fail to struggle.

It would be relatively easy for me to concentrate only on how we act in Amalek-like ways using our overwhelming State power to make it almost impossible for Palestinians to build legally and then demolish hundreds of their “illegal” homes per year, destroy entire villages like Susya and steal their lands. Recently the entire village of Khirbat Tana and several communities in the Jordan valley were again demolished. Today (March 22nd) more homes were demolished in Jinbah. After arbitration broke down, the attempt to eliminate multiple villages to create Live Fire Zone 918 returns to court tomorrow (March 23rd),  Symbolically, the Court will hear the villagers’ plea to save their communities on the day we observe the Fast of Esther,  identifying with Queen Esther’s three day fast before pleading with the King for the lives of her people.

I could focus on the ongoing attempts to wipe off the face of the earth the Negev villages of our fellow Israelis who happen not to be Jewish, but Bedouin. Just this week, the police and prosecution cancelled my indictment for standing with the villagers of El Araqib in June 2014. I was forcefully removed from the one building without a demolition order, and beaten and arrested, on the day when our State demolished for the first time structures inside the fence of the Araqib cemetery, even though I obeyed every order until the moment that the police laid their hands on me.

I could write about African asylum seekers. As we help organize this year’s Refugee Seder on April 17th in the Holot detention center, I could focus on the recent reports that not only have we closed our borders to those fleeing persecution and death, not only have we imprisoned them in an “open” facility, but recent reports indicate that the Holot inmates are suffering from malnutrition and the booths they created to feed themselves were recently destroyed.

Yes, I could focus solely on our Amalek like actions towards non-Jews. However, the fact is that we don’t just prey on the weak and helpless of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. The current struggles of RHR’s Socioeconomic Department include efforts to change criteria so that the weakest and poorest Israelis aren’t deemed ineligible for a chance to put a roof over their heads, and won’t have their electricity cut off once they have a home. We are fighting so that plans to set up a credit history information bank don’t ensure that those living in poverty never have a chance to lift themselves out of poverty, as well as other policies dooming those who fall into debt to sinking deeper and deeper into an inescapable pit. If Amalek-like actions towards others elicit Amalek-like actions in return, Amalek-like oppression of the weakest and poorest Israelis endangers the social fabric of our society. We are liable to find ourselves less able to defend ourselves from Amalek-like threats from without.

Although I don’t like to think of ourselves in the human rights community as the targets, and I don’t see ourselves as weak, this year I will particularly identify with Queen Esther’s plea on behalf of her own people. I can’t ignore the unprecedented attack on Israeli human rights organizations, including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s “Mark of Cain” bill currently in front of the Knesset, the campaigns of NGO Monitor, Im Tirzu and Ad Khan, and the army of professional hackers who have taken down our website once, and are attacking other organizations on a daily basis. So far, Ta’ayush and Breaking the Silence have been the most viciously targeted, but we have had our share. Our tendency has been not to stoop to the level of some of these organizations that either are not doing the most basic fact checks or are being intentionally disingenuous, and don’t even respond when asked to make the most elementary factual corrections. Any time spent dealing with incitement is a victory for the inciters because they have succeeded in diverting us from our work. Yet, we are increasingly concerned that the very foundations of Israeli democracy are at risk.

Finally, I could project all the responsibility for all the Amalek-like acts in our region on everybody but myself. Who am I, and what can I do when facing an all powerful government, a society that increasingly demonizes human rights organizations, and Palestinian terror not sufficiently condemned by Palestinian leaders?

But, after all the fun and games and silliness, this is the serious message of Purim. When Esther pleads helplessness to Mordechai, he tells her that perhaps she has become queen precisely for the moment that she will be in the right place in the right time to save her people (Esther 4:14). She becomes a hero. In the language of the Book of Esther, “nahafokh hu,”  seemingly impossible to change realities are overturned. Our sages taught that each of us is here on this earth for something s/he needs to do at a particular moment. “Despise no person and consider nothing impossible, for there is no person who does not have his/her hour and there is no thing that does not have its place” (Pirkei Avot 4:3). Whether it be standing in front of bulldozers, lobbying our government, speaking to our union, synagogue, church, professional organization or circle of friends, writing, organizing or demonstrating, we each have a role to play in God’s Scheme for the arc of history.

May it be God’s will that each of us recognizes our moments, May we be empowered and emboldened to take those actions we can and must take to overturn current realities, and eliminate from our world Amalek-like preying by those with the sword in their hand on the famished and the weak.

Purim Sameakh!