On water for an arrested shepherd, life or death for communities and housing for single parents.
The midrash explains that, when Moses opened this week’s double Torah portion by declaring that all were standing before God on that day of the renewed Covenant, “both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not with us here this day”(Deuteronomy 29:9), that Moses is referring to all future generations of the Jewish people. Moses goes on to tell us that doing the right thing is not rocket science. It is not in the heaven or beyond the sea. Nobody needs to bring us teach us how to be just and how to serve God. “No, The thing is very close to you, in our mouth and in your heart, to do it.”(Deut. 30:14).
I confess that, through the years I have learned that many things that seemed simple, weren’t. It was so clear to me growing up that a basic part of what it means to be a Jew is to fight for universal human rights and justice. That is what I learned from my parents, my rabbis, from my community. As I went out into the world, and especially arriving in Israel, I realized to what degree there can be different opinions regarding what is right and just.
Our Torah portion’s words are therefore so appropriate as we approach the High Holy Days, when we must all stand before God, and give an accounting. On the one hand, we reaffirm that there are basic truths. There is right, and there is wrong. However, we are also taught, “Know before Whom you stand.” Telling ourselves that the right path is intuitively in our mouth and in our heart, it is all too easy to convince ourselves that we stand before nobody. Whatever our heart desires, is right.
Perhaps this is the difference between being God’s partner, and playing God. Aware of our infinite capacity as human beings to sanctify ourselves, we must refocus on truths we did not invent, but that God implanted within us.
As a part of the UNetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we recall that God decides the fate of every human soul, who will live and who will die. I have written a great deal recently about power. Part of the way we play God is by using the power of the State to determine the fate not only of individuals, but of entire communities. On Sunday at 5:00 pm, those of you in Israel are invited to a conference in the Israeli Bedouin village of Umm Al Hiran. The State has determined that the community must die, even though it exists where the State sent them in 1956. Minister Lieberman has recently declared that the communities of Susya and Khan Al Akhmar will die in the coming months.
The Jewish people suffered because we were powerless, and part of the reality of power is that we must make fateful decisions. The question is how we do so. Do we make decisions in line with our parasha’s command to “choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) This is not only about the life or death of individuals or communities, but quality of life. On November 5th, the public housing collective I am a part of, the “Maabarah” will hold a conference on the criteria that keep single parents from being eligible for public housing.
The temptation to play God plays itself out not only on major matters of policy, but on “little” every day matters. Today, I again joined Ta’ayush accompanying shepherds from Uja. When the soldiers arrived, I half joked with them, “The closed area changes every day. What is closed today?” They didn’t know. We all waited.We talked. One soldier didn’t want to listen. He simply said we were there only to make trouble, and walked away. Others listened. However, they were in denial. They insisted that they were causing no harm to Palestinians. They simply did not want to hear when I explained how the systematic reduction of the lands the shepherds have access to since 1980 has made it increasingly hard for shepherds to make a living. The order, when it finally came, incredibly forbade the shepherds from grazing their flocks in lands that are part of Area A, under full Palestinian control! But, what does that matter. They made it very clear that whatever the army decides will be. Our intent was simply to document the almost arbitrary nature of the orders, and so we moved towards the permitted lines.
Suddenly, I received a call from one of the shepherds, because, beyond our line of sight, the army had entered Area A, and handcuffed and blindfolded his brother. By the time we managed to arrive, we found two donkeys, two sheep, and one dog, but no shepherd.
The remaining shepherd received a phone call from his brother, complaining that he was suffering from the tight handcuffs, and passing on the army’s demand that his brother come with both of their IDs to the checkpoint where he was being held. We learned later that he was denied water. We contacted the Palestinian coordination unit who pointed out to the Israeli army that they had no authority to arrest people in Area A, and demanded that he be released unconditionally. Finally, he was allowed to walk home.
The released shepherd showed us the deep marks on his hands from the handcuffs. He also told us that the soldiers had told him that they had no problem with them. We Israelis were causing all the trouble. (Pharaoh also believed that Moses and Aaron were troublemakers.) The message was clear, “Accept settler dictates where you can graze your sheep, don’t dare raise your head, and things will go badly for you if you accept help from Israeli activists.” In the Jordan Valley, far from the public eye, every young soldier can play God.
Just as we must be conscious that we are standing before God when tempted to play God, we must know how to stand in opposition to the unjust abuse of power. When some wish to wipe out communities, or deny basic rights such as a roof over one’s head, or “simply” deny water and tighten the handcuffs on a farmer, where and how do we stand? Are we choosing life?