Ekev-A Dvar Torah Dedicated To The Settler Elkhanan

סרטון קצר של גיא הירשפלד תופש חלק מהרגע שמתנחלי המאחז "מלאכי השלום" דוהרים בסוסים אל תוך העדר הבדואי גם סרטון זה לא תופש עד כמה זה היה אלים ונורא, ואיך הצאן התיל לברוח.In this short clip from Guy Hirschfeld, he catches part of the moment when settlers from the Malakhei HaShalom outþost drive their horses into a Bedouin flock. Even this clip doesn't fully capture how awful and violent the moment was, or the terrified sheep running.

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Arik Ascherman‎‏ ב- יום רביעי, 21 באוגוסט 2019

On Tuesday the settler “Elkhanan” from the “Malakhei HaShalom outpost that is illegal even according to Israel was mocking me about this week’s Torah Portion.  This, a few minutes after he and one of his youth at risk “boys” charged their horses into a Bedouin flock, and we had rushed to stop him.

After we made it more difficult for Elkhanan to continue terrorizing goats, he asked if I could tell him what is in parashat Ekev, and whether I excise verses that contradict my beliefs.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I will speak with anybody who speaks with me with derekh eretz-basic courtesy.  However, I was not about to have a conversation with him after he had so violently sent panicked sheep running.

So, I have to thank Elkhanan for this week’s dvar Torah. I didn’t answer him then, but will now.

It is true that this week’s portion contains multiple promises from by God to wipe out the nations inhabiting the Land that God intends to give us.  It is true that my gut reaction is, “Thank you, but let’s do it another way.”  So, how does the Torah explain why the God of compassion, who created all humanity in God’s Image and who cares about every human being, sanction and seemingly demand such brutal behavior?  How is it that our portion tells us that God will help us destroy and expel nations, yet also tells us that God executes justice for the orphan, the widow and the non-Jew living among us? (10:18) How does God command us to be merciless, but also to love the non-Jew living among us, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt? (10:19)

There are three reasons, all of which appear in this week’s parasha:

  1. God promised this land to our ancestors, as a part of the covenant.  (For example: Deuteronomy 7:12-13, 8:1, 10:11, 11:21)
  2. The Canaanites acted so evilly that they deserved to be displaced. (9:4-5)
  3. The Canaanites would be a snare to us, tempting us to adapt their evil and idolatrous practices. (7:16, 25-26)

The bottom line is that nobody reads the Torah or any other text entirely objectively.  To one degree or another, we all simultaneously engage in exegesis and eisegesis.  While hopefully the Torah influences us, our biases influence what we read into the Torah. The question is how self-aware and honest we are about what we are doing and to what degree we make an attempt to truly understand what the Torah is saying.

There is also the question to what degree we see the text as authoritative, and divinely written or inspired.  I suppose that I would have fewer internal conflicts if I didn’t see the Torah as authoritative.  On the other hand, I am not sure that I could continue to consider myself a rabbi.

My bias is that the commanding God I believe in and Whose Presence I have felt in my life cannot possibly desire us to act unjustly or to unnecessarily harm other human beings, created in God’s Image just as we are.  I can uncomfortably allow myself to believe that in those days the Canaanites acted so evilly that the Land itself wished to vomit the out.  However, I also recall the Talmudic principle that those nations no longer exist (Talmud Berakhot 28a, Mishna Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4).

In terms of today’s reality, we can learn from our parasha that there is a balance to the universe. As I quoted from Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in my dvar Torah for parashat Masaei that every people, including the Jewish people, must honor the Image of God in every human being. Otherwise, their land will withhold its blessings from them.  In our Torah portion, God again makes it clear that we too will be punished if we do live as God wishes us to (8:19-20)  However, if the peoples living with us today are not inherently evil and are not trying to tempt us into evil and idolatry, we are not to extrapolate how to treat them from the commandment to destroy now non-existent people for their crimes. Rashi even teaches that God could not expel the Canaanites, even though God had promised the Land to the Jewish people, until they had sinned to the point that they deserved to be expelled. (Rashi to Genesis 15:16)

So, Elkhanan, this is my answer.  I too live in this Land because I believe that it is our promised heritage, and a sign of the Covenant.  However, that does not give us the right to oppress, dispossess and/or expel.  You did not honor the Image of God in those Palestinian Bedouin shepherds when you charged your horses into their flocks.  Your behavior is the type of behavior that makes us unworthy of living in the Land.  Fundamentalist thinking makes everything clear cut, and the fusion of religion and nationalism is both intoxicating and terribly dangerous.  I don’t know what I would have thought three thousand years ago, but things are more complicated than they were.  Yes, after a terrible and murderous terrorist attack, like the one that took place today, there are those who will paint the Palestinians as no better than the Canaanites.  However, that simply isn’t true.  Despite your statements that some day a teenage Bedouin shepherd is going to force you to shoot him,  you know that it isn’t true.

And, our portion teaches us a few other lessons.  Among them, we are taught that God caused us to wander in the desert for 40 years to test us, and to teach us that we do not live by bread alone. (8:2-6)  Some say that we were expelled because of our sins, and some say that we were expelled in order to fulfil a mission in the world.  I believe that both these ideas are true, and that perhaps another reason is true as well. Perhaps we still had much to learn about what it means to be the stranger.  Egypt was not sufficient to make us worthy and capable of honoring the Image of God in every human being, and to be God like by being just to the weakest and poorest among us.  I hope that we have now internalized what we didn’t know then. If all I knew about our people was what I know from watching you do everything you can to drive out Bedouin shepherds, I wouldn’t be so sure.  However, I know we are better than that. I hope and pray that you will discover that you are too.

Shabbat Shalom

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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