As we conclude the shloshim for our three sons Naftali, Gil-Ad, and Eyal—the first thirty days of mourning—in the midst of the national trauma of war, I wonder whether a fitting tribute to Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, who the nation embraced with an open heart, would be to pay some respect for how they chose to live their lives. They were yeshiva students, boys who were dedicated to grappling with and mastering our sacred Torah tradition.
Am Yisroel is suffering terribly right now. We lost three precious souls on the brink of manhood; we’ve lost courageous, principled soldiers, young and old, and we’ve been forced to fight yet another war for our survival as our enemies have reached the sensitive heart of our nation with their missiles. No city in Israel is beyond their reach. Led by the Islamists, ugly Jew-hatred is erupting in cities across the world.
Does anybody think that we will ever come to peace with the nations surrounding us by natural, military means? Do we want to spend the rest of our lives in a state of war with our neighbors by which we will be bled a little at a time, until their sheer numbers and increasingly advanced weapons overwhelm our defenses? Where will this end?
I never expected to agree with J-Street, but for once, they couldn’t have been more correct when they issued the well-worn statement, “Ultimately there is no military solution to the underlying conflict (between Israel and the Palestinians).”
Avraham, our Patriarch, grasped paradox in the two messages he carried in his pockets: “I am but dust and ashes” and “the whole world was created for me.”
Like Avraham, we have to have the humility to admit that we are not surviving here by our wit and ingenuity alone, but by Divine grace and we have to have the self-esteem to realize that our mission is more than being a prosperous democracy, but rather a vessel for Godliness in the world. Our history and our destiny are both glorious. And if God has restored us to our heritage and preserved us amidst regional chaos, we must ask, for what?
Let’s face it: we are amazing. But it’s for something grander than being the Middle Eastern Silicon Valley that we’ve been blessed with so much righteousness, with so much mercy, and with so much wisdom. We are among the first to send rescue squads to the world’s disaster zones and we set unparalleled standards in merciful warfare. And still they treat us like pariahs. The world doesn’t want an Israel that is a better example of every other nation. We will not impress them no matter how many medical or technological innovations we contribute, nor how well our democracy upholds the civil rights of our enemies. The world needs a reflection of its spiritual potential and it can only find that in the Jews living in accord with the will of God in their native homeland. When we behave like we are solely a plucky, embattled, start-up nation, we neglect our purpose. And we leave the world without its anchor.
All of you are heroes, all of you who send your children to the army, who withstand the world’s criticism and continue to make meaningful contributions to your nation and to the world, who live honorably and do so much good within your families and communities. But it’s not enough. Our tradition teaches that morality—upholding the seven Noahide laws—is what’s required of the rest of humanity. The Jews, as God’s chosen people, must be holy. Holiness is a sacred state which reflects Godliness. Just as we would feel reverence in ancient times when gazing upon the High Priest conducting the sacrificial rites in his sacred vestments, so the nations must witness the presence of God when they look upon us. Were we to exemplify holiness, the nations would remember the dignity of man, that man was created in the image of a benevolent God, and must not mar nor despoil himself with violence, with cruelty and with lewdness. We possess the keys to peace on earth in our Holy Torah, if we would but use them.
Why is this tiny tract of land beset by so many threats, by so much contention? Israel has extended its hand for peace over and over, yet our neighbors grow more violent and rejectionist by the day. Our Torah teaches that Eretz Yisrael is different than every other land: the eyes of God are constantly upon it. Where you have the greatest potential for holiness you have the greatest attraction to spiritual impurity. It is because we could soar so high that our failure to manifest our potential becomes a magnet for dark spiritual forces. The vacuum that could and should be filled with holiness becomes filled with lawlessness.
We are the only people in civilization who were expressly promised a land and yet some of us feel the least entitled to it, because many of us are estranged from our Benefactor. Our deed to this Land is the only one that is incontestable. Rashi, the medieval commentator, asks: If our Bible is mostly a book of Jewish law and a record of the relationship between the Jewish people and God, why does it start with the creation of the world? Just so that it will be clear to rivals for the Land of Israel that the God who made everything may give this land to anyone whom He chooses. It is to confirm our title to Eretz Yisroel. Yet those yet to fully seek the Divine shelter live in peril that the nations will declare us colonialists, swept to the Middle East illegitimately by Holocaust guilt. Unless we are living our Law, we will have neither authority in the eyes of the nations nor full confidence in ourselves.
We feel justifiably outraged by the degradation of truth in the world, as our enemies peddle lies to world bodies like the UN Human Rights Council, lapped up by technocrats too lazy or anti-Semitic to check their sources. We feel bereft and betrayed by the abandonment of truth. We live for the rare declarations of truth by someone who acknowledges the moral hypocrisy in this region and calls Islamic savagery by its name. Yet here are some fundamental truths that the modern state of Israel has yet to embrace: God created the world, chose the Jewish people, and gave them the Land of Israel on condition that they keep the laws of the Torah that He bequeathed. If we deny truth because it is inconvenient, how can we expect others to espouse truth, like the justness of our war against terrorists dedicated to annihilating us? We are diminishing the expression of truth in the world, allowing false ideologies like hedonism and utilitarianism to replace the truth that we live in a spiritual universe borne by a Creator who cares intimately for our conduct and our physical and spiritual safety.
Moral relativism has made a mockery of truth and justice. The internet has decreased the literacy of great books, durable sources of wisdom, and given every liar a platform. What’s the antidote to moral relativism? Absolute truth. Who’s got the only defensible claim to absolute truth? God. No one else stands shoulder to shoulder with Him. And we are fortunate enough to possess His word. And it’s subtle and complex and requires a great deal of study to understand. Our tradition welcomes diverse perspectives, each revealing unique layers of meaning. But you’ve got to be learned, and you’ve got to embrace fundamentals of faith to be part of the conversation. Once you’ve started to stretch the truth, you’ve lost it.
Let’s look at some intriguing evidence that the Torah might be true: Christians and Moslems appropriate parts of our tradition and claim it for themselves. The Christians assert that God rejected the covenant He struck with the Jews and forged a new covenant with the followers of Jesus. Moslem commentators claim that God commanded Abraham, our Patriarch, the father of Isaac and Ishmael, to take Ishmael rather than Isaac up on Mount Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice in a superhuman test of faith; and that God vowed to forge a special relationship with Ishmael’s descendants rather than Isaac’s. The towering faiths of Christianity and Islam are built on these false foundations. But even in their deceit, they corroborate our history. The Christians confirm that God struck a covenant with the Jews and the Moslems confirm that Avraham our Patriarch, a faithful warrior against paganism, was commanded to bring up his only son (by our Matriarch, Sarah) as a sacrifice—gaining his reprieve at the last possible moment—which won him and his son Isaac, who offered his life, a privileged relationship with God. Surely you can see that the covenant between God and the Jews endures, as revealed by Biblical prophecy: Were we exiled from our land as foretold by the Torah? Have we returned to our land after thousands of years, a battered remnant of a beleaguered people who nonetheless have rejuvenated our land? Are many of us choosing to live lives in exquisite accord with God’s will, demonstrating the indestructibility of this covenant? Inasmuch as we are suffering, we are also witnessing extraordinary miracles. Who can deny that the minimal damage and loss of life we have suffered despite more than two thousand missile attacks represents a canopy of Divine protection? What more evidence do we need?
Our Torah contains so much relevant wisdom and so much prophecy that has come true that it has earned the right to be regarded as authoritative by any honest broker. Instead of regarding its precepts as threatening, would that our public would turn to it for reassurance, for guidance in these troubled times, for wisdom and inspiration.
Islamists may have a fanatical, depraved ideology which perverts the will of God, but they believe passionately in a Creator, so much so that they are willing to die for their beliefs, diabolically taking their children down with them. The Torah teaches us that the faith of the Ishmaelites is their secret strength, the only effective weapon they brandish against the Jews. The West is so besotted by its vices that it cannot even muster self-defense. The Western world accommodates a radical Islam flexing its muscle because, with no convictions, it has lost the will to fight. Imagine when the religious passion of the Muslims beholds the Divine fire of a unified Jewish people behaving in accord with God’s will? I would venture that they would count themselves lucky to live in the precincts of a people in whom Divine revelation was manifest. Perhaps their physical proximity to us, God’s chosen, will be their reward for maintaining faith in God over the centuries, however they distorted His will, as most of the developed world abandoned Him.
I was born in the 1960s in America in the decade when whatever was left of traditional authority was questioned. When I came of age, it was into a world which had largely declared belief in God to be a quaint superstition held by the ignorant. Everybody knew that humans evolved according to soulless scientific principles. To believe anything else revealed a kinship with the unlettered Bible belt. My university educated peers and I do not like to admit, that we accept the fable of Evolution as uncritically and dogmatically as we maintained others held onto religious faith. We didn’t see that we were doing violence to logic and our senses. How could one behold such an extraordinarily, exquisitely calibrated world, so hospitable to human life, and so full of wonder, and believe that it arose by random mutation? Contemplate the marvels of a living cell and one is astounded at the intelligence in its design.
The answer is that we are biased. Our tradition explains that a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and corrupts a judge. What is the bribe to deny our Creator, to hold that humans evolved? It is simple: Freedom. Without a Creator, we have no debts. We have no obligations. We can maintain the fiction that our lives are exclusively our own. Humans have a fateful wish for unlimited freedom: it snared us in the Garden of Eden, and it’s still driving many of us today. Judaism maintains we are least free when we are slaves to our passions and we are most free when we exercise restraint. It is precisely our capacity for self-control, our ability to choose among our impulses, that distinguishes us from animals and makes our lives meaningful. Paradox again. Nuance, something our Sages were masters of.
Sexual freedom has not us brought us the Shangri-La that we were hoping for. Instead it has brought an epidemic of women and men unable to commit to marriage, infidelity and rising divorce rates, with children bearing the wounds of their parents’ broken bonds. I am of the opinion that the two religious extremes in our society are driving one another. Because there is so much lewdness, the religious response is excessive propriety. When our health ministry finds the need to inoculate our thirteen-year-old girls against venereal herpes, religious people feel the need to take cover, under clothing and in sequestered communities. Were we to come back to the Rambam’s golden mean in our decorum, there wouldn’t be the insanity of segregated sidewalks.
The best kept secret is that you can’t imagine how rewarding Torah observance is! It is so satisfying for body and soul to be in synch. Why is Israel the happiest country on the planet with the highest birthright in the Western world? Because we know we are accomplishing something glorious here and are part of a Divine destiny larger than any of us.
On a recent Shabbat, we hosted a shaggy Israeli university student from Ramat Gan who accompanied our visiting American Birthright guests. He imbibed the joyous atmosphere at the Shabbat table, moved by the tranquility of Jerusalem on Shabbat, and murmured, “I never knew that Shabbat was like this.” He trekked all the way to India after the army in search of what could be found in his own heart.
For those of you who bristle at the thought of joining ranks with people who you see as backward, selfish, and prejudiced, take a step toward your Creator who is perfect and has none of our human flaws. There are so many frameworks with which to learn Torah, that everyone can find their place and their pace. Accept an invitation to experience Shabbat with an observant family. Investigate, experience, give a chance to a lifestyle you rejected without trial. The secular press does not represent the religious fairly. A secular press only highlights the religious failures, those who violate society’s norms as well as the Torah’s, not the untold success stories, not the bedrock of kindness and dignity that you find among the religious. And yes, we need improvement. So infuse us with your passion and your talent, and show us how to contribute economically and professionally while we’re serving God. We need the balance and the challenge so as not to become complacent and self-satisfied.
I beg the nation to remember the faces of Gil-Ad, Naftali and Eyal, and the dignity of their parents at a time of sheer torment. Let their nobility of spirit call to you: This is what a life of Torah and mitzvoth accomplishes. This is how a soul is molded by dwelling in the embrace of God. And may those of us who dedicate our lives to God remember the outpouring of prayer from the bosom of the nation, the spontaneous acts of mercy and chessed done for the benefit of these boys and their families by the so-called secular, and realize that this spiritual fire is the eternal core of the Jew, ready to be ignited, would we be but worthy catalysts.
In medicine, when one diagnosis explains many disparate symptoms, it is likely to be true. The perpetual, infernal double standard to which the world holds Israel can be explained by the fact that the nations know intuitively that we are called to a higher Law. This may even account for why the good among them resent us so much, because they want and need a pious Jewish people to restore their spiritual stature as human beings made in the image of God. Our abdication of our role and our marginalization of the Torah has led to the creeping debasement of humanity, as good and evil become utterly obscured. Our secular left’s willingness to part with crucial parts of our land and their feelings of discomfort with our rights to it has to do with their failure to fulfill our part of the covenant. Those of us who are keeping Torah and mitzvoth feel a far greater “ownership” of this land. That 75% of more than 2000 rockets have done little damage confirms God’s faithfulness. And our high birthrate and national happiness scores point to the satisfaction that most of us feel fulfilling our Divine destiny in our promised land. Our misfortune in having to continually fight war after war despite being so righteous and merciful can be explained by our Bible, pure and simple. We are not yet living our Law and we will not rest in tranquility and contentment until we do. Our Maker attests that we Jews are the most stiff-necked people on earth. If we get behind God, the rest of the world will be butter. Next year by Tisha B’Av, instead of calamity, we could greet Moshiach.