Todd Berman

Caught in the middle again

There is a rabbinic tradition that past events in the life of our patriarchs stand as symbols for situations in the Jewish future. “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim.” In a few short weeks, on the last day of Passover, we will relive the time the Jewish people were caught between the chasing Egyptian army on the one side and the raging sea blocking escape on the other. At the height of tension, the Jewish people looked to Moses for guidance and cried out to God to save them. Responding to Moses’s supplications, God replies: “why are they screaming to me? Speak to the people of Israel and go!”  The rabbis read this passage as a demand for human action. According to various versions of the Midrash, only when one or some or all of the Jewish people ran in to the deadly waters did the sea split allowing the children of Israel to pass safely on dry land. Only decisions made in faith, both in God and man, is freedom truly won.

I feel, as a citizen of Israel, again caught between two difficult choices and unsure which direction will bring peace and ultimate redemption. Although I used to see Torah and politics as something akin to Non-overlapping magisteria, living and teaching in Israel breaks down those neat boundaries. Borders, as we know, can sometimes be imaginary, capricious markings on a map. I have friends on the “right” and on the “left” of the Israeli political spectrum both living here and outside of Israel. But I, and others like me, lack clarity of which way to turn.

In just over a week, we will celebrate the first stage in the redemption from Egyptian bondage by reading the Passover Haggadah.  Following rabbinic ruling, we recount the story by remembering slavery, “Avadim Hayenu L’e Paro BeMitzrayim” we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The poet and modern semi-prophet, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s words on this passage made a deep impression on me. He suggests that this sentence recalls three types of alienation: slavery, foreign tyranny, and expulsion. Lacking autonomy is the first stage. Having lost the autonomy to a foreign ruler represents the second. And the last element of alienation takes place when ruled by a foreigner in a foreign land. God saved the Jewish people from all three psychological handicaps by releasing us from bondage and bringing us out of Egypt and ultimately to the land of Israel. We will sing great praises for the Divine gift of freedom in our own land. Reciting these words, I am deeply troubled by the fact that we, citizens of Israel, deny these same freedoms to others.

Many of the Jewish people see the land of Israel as a Divine gift. We share the State with all its citizens regardless of religion, but we deny national autonomy to the non-Israeli inhabitants, mostly Palestinian, of the areas captured in 1967. We know that if we were not in control, most likely some despot or “king” or pseudo-democratic president would rule their lives just as the lives of those living in countries around us are governed; yet, I feel that it would no longer be my responsibility. That stage of alienation created by our presence would be removed from them. How can I praise God for giving me what I am not willing to give to others?

Yet, Jewish tradition is not monolithic. On the one hand, Nachmanides, and many rabbinic authorities in his wake, famously ruled that we are obligated to redeem all of the Promised Land. While his position is offset by others such as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who rule that we can give up land for peace, even their positions are conditioned on the achievability of peace and the saving of lives.  Generals argue from both sides of the political divide, but as someone living here, I don’t see how we can protect our children if there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank.  The Talmud teaches that the Torah demands, “ [if] one comes to kill you, you should strike first.”  This ruling and others like it are applied on the national level as well (see for instance the comment of R. Menachem Meiri.) Do we give up our land and yet risk the seemingly inevitable violent repercussions?

As I write these words, I glance out my window to the mountain roadway Abraham walked from Mt. Moriah to Hebron. It is a path marked by Jewish ritual baths and ancient wine and olive presses belonging to my ancestors before they were kicked out of this land. At the same time, 6000 miles to the west of my home, many have gathered at the J Street conference to discuss how to press for a two state solution.  Like many here in Israel, I question not their integrity but their suggestions.  This past summer, despite our distance from the Gaza border, a few missiles landed close to where I and my children were hiding in our bomb shelter. My daughter living in a city near Gaza was bombarded multiple times a day. How can we relinquish control over this area, even with land swaps etc., and prevent what has happened in both Gaza and Southern Lebanon from taking place?   What will prevent Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other such groups from setting up missile factories here within easy range of all of Israel? How will we prevent them from digging more tunnels under children’s pre-schools?  I imagine some will suggest answers, but there are plenty of deadly counter examples and proofs of intransience on the Palestinian side as well.

Maintaining the current control over the entire West Bank may present ethical challenges, but relinquishing control presents others as well.   As great as the moral quandary regarding maintaining control over another nation may be, the State also has an overarching moral obligation to defend and protect its citizens. The Egyptians are attacking from behind yet the sea blocks in front of us. Which challenge one sees as akin to the Egyptian army and which one views as the deadly sea is the real question.  To err in interpretation may cause sorrow for those meeting in Washington this week, but it is existential for those of us living on this side of the Atlantic. The creation of the State of Israel is arguably the most monumental event in the past two thousand years of Jewish history. To choose incorrectly regarding the question of two states may lead to one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history.

At the sea, God demanded from Moses that the Jews act. This action ultimately led to the redemption from Egypt, the road to Sinai, and eventually all the way to the land of Israel.  On the night of Passover the Jewish people will sing praises to God for taking us out and on the seventh night we will commemorate our hand in the second part of that process.  At this point, I feel that we are once again, standing in our ancestors’ situation:  frozen, praying to God, standing still. At some point, we will need to make decisions as to our future direction (two states, one state, annexation etc.). But just as God, according to tradition, allowed the people of Israel to choose to act, perhaps others need to stand back and allow us to figure out which is the safest route to go. For if the people had confused the Egyptians with the sea, we and our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.