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Michael Rainsbury
Jewish Educator
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A palace in flames

In the face of Jewish revenge-seekers praying as Huwara burned, our mission is clear: We must put out the flames

This horrific, unthinkable image of Jews inflicting a pogrom, murdering a Palestinian, and then davening Ma’ariv – conducting evening prayers – kindled within me another image, described by the Midrash centuries ago.

It is an image of a palace in flames. A traveling man saw it and wondered whether the palace had an owner until someone looked out from the palace and announced that he was, indeed, the owner. This midrashic commentary, on the Lech Lecha (“go forth”) verse, was a metaphor for Avraham’s religious journey. Rabbi Sacks explains in Radical Then, Radical Now that Avraham saw a beautiful world – the palace – full of evil and violence – the flames. He tried to understand this dissonance, for surely the owner would want to put out the fire? Surely, if there was a God, there could not be evil?

After explaining that this is the essence of free will, whereby God refrains from putting out the fire for it would take away man’s freedom, Rabbi Sacks sees in this midrash the starting point of human responsibility, as part of a covenant with God: “Only man can put out the fire. But man is not alone…God speaks to man and tells him how to extinguish the flames…The faith of Judaism…is that by acting in response to the call of God, collectively we can change the world. The flames of injustice, violence and oppression are not inevitable.”

The image above contains many flames. A Palestinian settlement, burnt down by Jews. The Kaddish prayer glorifying God, recited by Jewish terrorists. The institutions of Jewish power, namely the government and army, dismissed and delegitimized by Jewish revenge-seekers.

Rabbi Sacks says that ‘Judaism begins…in protest that the world is not as it ought to be. It is in that cry, that sacred discontent, that Abraham’s journey begins.’ And that very journey to the Land of Israel first took him to Shechem, not far from Huwara, the site of yesterday’s pogrom.

On this dark and seemingly hopeless day, we can take heart from Esti Yaniv, the mother of Hillel and Yagel, the two brothers brutally murdered yesterday by a Palestinian terrorist. As the youth worker in Har Bracha, she felt a responsibility to send a message to the community’s youth at this time of unspeakable tragedy, including an answer to the question of ‘Ma La’asot?’, what should we do? Her answer: to increase Limmud Torah and to undertake meaningful service in the IDF.

Our mission is clear. Like Avraham, we must dedicate ourselves to putting out the flames. That is the next, unsaid chapter of the midrash. We must put out the flames of Huwara. We must trust in the IDF to win the fight against terrorists whose goal is our destruction. We must re-emphasize the core Jewish beliefs that underpin the foundations of the state. And we must recapture the essence of Kaddish, which is to magnify God’s name in the world, a process that will ultimately lead to peace.

It’s time to put out the flames.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Sacks Scholar. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours with JRoots. All articles are written in a personal capacity.