“In the wilderness of Sinai” are the opening words of the book of Numbers, the fourth and longest book of the Torah. Despite the textual interruption of Leviticus, we pick up the story on the heels of the Exodus and the building of the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary that will accompany the people on their journey to the Promised Land.
The wilderness is a powerful backdrop for the journey of the Israelites from oppressive slavery to real freedom, as well as the landscape for the giving and receiving of the Torah which Jews celebrate next week on Shavuot. It is the nexus at which contemporary Jews find themselves identifying both tribal and covenantal attachments to Judaism, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel.
The midrash teaches that the Torah was given in the wilderness so that no one could claim it as a possession. The Torah must be that which opens us to transformation, just like open spaces offer no set boundaries to contain our imagination. Moving from reality towards aspiration is something that each of us does in the course of our lives many times over.
As the split screen news coverage from Israel unfolded with the celebration of the US Embassy opening in Jerusalem on one side and the clashes between Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces at the Gaza-Israel border on the other, I found myself in the emotional paralysis that sometimes accompanies a wilderness trek. The starting point and the end of the journey are invisible once underway – only the never-ending landscape around is visible, which can elicit optimism or pessimism about the overall experience.
It is possible to believe that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and still ask if moving the US Embassy was the diplomatic and right and necessary move considering the wisdom that has guided every US administration (Democrat and Republican) of the past 70 years. The previous delays of that decision underscored the powerful attachment that both Jewish Israelis and the Palestinian people have to the city, and its enormous symbolic power for Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world.
It is possible to believe that Israel has a right to defend its borders against terror and infiltration, and still be distressed and angry about the loss of Palestinian life and those injured. Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas was elected as the governing Palestinian body in 2006. Life in Gaza would be immeasurably better if Hamas disarmed and prioritized its citizens over the call for the destruction of Israel. Hamas called for its people to storm the fence, and many did not come peacefully. The blockade enforced by Egypt and Israel is there because of the terrorist intentions of radical factions that built tunnels into Israel instead of infrastructure for the Palestinian people.
I have never served in the IDF, but I believe that IDF soldiers know that a truly peaceful protest is legitimate, and yet when it escalates with rage, and the intention to inflict damage to people and property, the soldiers are ready to defend the border against an impending war for Israel’s existence. I believe that there is serious moral reflection in the IDF in order to maintain the military code of conduct, that Israel values the importance of such discourse for the future of the country, and yet, I still pray that the use of lethal force was not misdirected, and there was an avoidance of civilian casualties as much as possible. Yet I hear the drumbeat call of disproportionate response, decrying Israel’s actions, and I would be dishonest if I did not see the death of 60 people and the maiming of thousands more as upsetting, no matter how many were confirmed terrorists by Hamas.
It is possible to pray that the Israeli government recognizes that the narrative of self-determination which propelled the Jewish people for 2,000 years, lives within the Palestinian people as well. That Israel doesn’t have to control every aspect of Palestinian life in Gaza, that it can open opportunities for them to really govern themselves. This would mean attending to the moral arc of the universe and committing to bend with it towards justice. At the same time, I can also pray that Palestinians educate away from hatred and violence, that their leaders build Gaza with an eye towards the future, and I can definitely pray that the US sees peace in the Middle East not as a trophy to be won, “the ultimate deal to be made,” but as a moral, spiritual, and political imperative.
I am a rabbi and a Zionist, and I felt all of these feelings this week.
I was reminded of noted writer and educator Parker Palmer, who writes about what he calls “the tragic gap.” It is the gap between the hard realities around us, and what we know to be possible because we have seen glimpses of it with our own eyes. It is called “tragic” not simply because it might be sad, but in the classic sense of the word, it is tragic because we are likely not going to achieve perfection, and yet we cannot stop moving towards it.
The challenge as Palmer presents it, is that most of us stand in such a gap all the time, and sometimes we veer off towards one extreme – “corrosive cynicism” – or another – “irrelevant idealism.” Both extremes take us out of a life of action, as if to say nothing will ever change or everything is just fine. As I absorbed the events of Monday, I experienced the extremes of: “Israel massacres Palestinians” vs. “A great day for peace” – neither of which told the entire story and rendered so many thoughtful and proud American Jews confused, ambivalent, and in despair.
In the tragic gap of this experience, I return to the Torah that imagines that revelation happened in the gap, in the wilderness, and propelled the Israelites forward. Without the Torah, they would have no sense of how their lives could be. They didn’t venture forth with certainty, but rather despite their uncertainty. We contemporary Jews receive Torah in our own day in order to ground ourselves in a vision of a just society that we continue to strive for and hope to achieve. Without the recognition of the gap between the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the yet-unrealized resolution to that conflict, we would let paralysis take over, and never move us towards peace. There are so many Israelis and Palestinians doing the hard work on the ground of building relationships, rather than destroying them; those working to transform hatred and grief into co-existence and a shared future, trying to move forward.
I cannot forget Jerusalem and the existential yearning to be a free people in our homeland, but I cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinians who yearn as much for their freedom. As we enter the wilderness, we cannot be silent about Israel’s right and obligation to defend its borders and its people, and at the same time, we cannot be silent about what is needed for Israel to remain committed to the Jewish values of tolerance, justice, and humility, and to fight for the dignity of all, in pursuit of redemption and revelation.