Arik Ascherman

Are We Moving Towards or Away From Sinai? Shavuot 5784

It was exactly a year ago, on the eve of Shavuot that the last of the Eyn Samia shepherding community finished dismantling their homes and fled their homes because of State backed settler violence. Since then, another 20 communities have either been forced out at gunpoint, or fled out of fear, violence and the financial pressure resulting from the denial of access to grazing lands.

There are also the communities in their homes because of the protective presence of Torat Tzedek and our partners. Legal work by Torat Tzedek and partners offers a glimmer of hope to the expelled and suffering communities. We must bring them home.

I was thrown back into the maelstrom of emotions and asking whether we had failed today, when Yousef said he was planning on packing up and fleeing. I write these words with a sense of reprieve, as after we confronted the increasingly aggressive settlers more assertively than we have over the last two weeks and succeeding in bringing in the army that has always been “on the way” in recent days, Yousef agreed to give a few more days to see if our presence and army and police intervention restore some sense of security.

That is why I am now writing from Mukhmas, rather than preparing for the Shavuot holiday at home. Torat Tzedek chairperson Yoav Haas is here with me. Torat Tzedek member Michael Zeldon was lightly injured this morning as we waited for the army and demanded that the settlers and their flock move away from Yousef’s home and tried to keep them from stealing water from Yousef’s tank. Torat Tzedek member Micha Rachman was ordered to stay out of the Occupied Territories for 15 days  after he was attacked on Sunday, but the police accepted the story that he was the attacker. Several Torat Tzedek volunteers have also been mildly attacked. I have been kneed in a sensitive place and shoved around numerous times.

My word is my word. We are here.

I told Yousef that what settlers have been doing to him and his family and the lack of a proper response by security forces is a Desecration of God’s Name, a stain on the Jewish people, and antithetical to the Words of God we heard at Sinai. I asked the seemingly genuinely caring soldiers who arrived today after many times they and the police have not (A police officer did arrive a week ago Friday and tried to draw a line the settlers were forbidden to cross) who maintained that they were limited in what they could do, “Would that be a possible response were this a Jewish family whose home was being invaded by Palestinians?”

One of the communities we have begun to protect is the Bedouin community on the edge of Mukhmas. We were originally asked to help get army protection for the village to access olive trees close to the Nakhalat Tzvi outpost, whose members sometimes enter violently into Mukhmas. They have burned cars and were shooting in late March. Our presence would not be sufficient protection to get to the olive trees. However, an additional outpost was set up about a month ago. The soldiers say the owner is Tal Yinon, who Defense Minister Gallant put in administrative detention in December. We opposed that because in principle we oppose detention without trial or access to a lawyer for either Jews or Palestinians, and it is of course used much much more against Palestinians, Having said that I and certainly Palestinians have encountered Yinon’s violent behavior many times over many years. It is settlers and the flock from this outpost that are now most terrorizing this community.

We are here.

But where is here? For many years I have quoted Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot. He teaches that while most nations believe there aspirations have been attained when they achieve liberation, we begin to count towards Sinai. The day after we celebrate our freedom on Seder night. I have always found comfort in the idea that while we know that we have not yet reached Sinai even though we are in The Land, what is important is to keep our eyes on the prize and remain on the way to Sinai. That is also a huge responsibility.

However, this year I am also reflecting on the fact that this past Shabbat we read the Torah portion BaMidbar, in which we prepare to leave Sinai. Perhaps, as Rabbi Larry Kushner and others have taught about the Garden of Eden, it is a necessary part of our development to leave Sinai and continue towards the less rarified and much more morally complicated reality of living in The Land. But, somehow we must remain on the path to Sinai even after leaving Sinai.

I have already written that in my prayers wherever God’s Rakhamim and Khessed (mercy and loving kindness) are mentioned, I beseech God to either inspire or force all of humanity to act with rakhamim and khessed towards each other. We have failed in our exercise of free will. We will again be standing at Sinai and receiving God’s Words, when we begin to act with khessed and rakhamim.

Unfortunately, my feeling as I look at our actions in Gaza, the West Bank and towards Israelis living in poverty, is that despite all of us who have been fervently and piously counting the days between Passover and Shavuot, and reliving our march towards Sinai, we are moving away from Sinai. I do not belittle the moral challenges we face, especially fighting a vicious enemy like Hamas, but I am by not means certain that we are even aspiring to get to Sinai.

Our stand here in Mukhmas, and the additional communities in which human rights defenders are present day and night, is part of our attempt to get back on the path.

This evening, may we re-experience God’s Words, and God’s Will for a humanity acting towards each other with rakhamim and khessed.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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