Eschol to arms

My wife started a new job recently, which is great. That also means commuting, which is less great. It’s much less great (that can’t be right!) when it’s a demo day.

What’s a demo day? If you grew up in a reasonably temperate climate, you’ve probably heard of a snow day. If you live or work in Jerusalem, those are pretty rare, but demo days — when protestors shut down the roads — are all too frequent. Your 40-minute bus or car ride just became two hours. Schools and businesses may close early in anticipation of the impassable.

Now, many demonstrators protest for many reasons, but if they’re actually closing down roads in the capital, it’s probably a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protest. If you ask me, they have a pretty sweet deal: no army service, voluntary unemployment, stipends to learn in yeshiva. And if you ask them, that only makes sense, because Torah study and prayer are what REALLY get results. Unless you want to protest the government, because then you have to leave the study hall and block some roads, throw some rocks, maybe burn some dumpsters.

Some will say that the roadblockers are the extremists, which is of course true. However, the policy they support, of wholesale opposition to the draft for haredim, is THE position of haredi society. There have been a handful of haredi MKs with short-lived careers who have suggested otherwise–Tzvia Greenfield (Meretz), R’ Haim Amsalem (Am Shalem), R’ Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid)–but notice that none of them belong to haredi parties or are in Knesset anymore. In fact, the most powerful haredi politician of this generation, Finance Committee Chair Moshe Gafni has stated that it’s impossible to be haredi and work.

Now, if these fine bochurim manage to make their way back to the study hall, they might read in this week’s Torah portion about our Patriarch Abraham, who hears his nephew Lot has been captured in a war against Sodom (Gen. 14:13-14):

A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Emorite, a brother of Eshcol and Aner, all of whom were Abram’s allies. When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 disciples born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Abraham goes out to war; his disciples go out to war; even his Emorite allies go out to war. When the battle is won and the King of Sodom offers Abraham the spoils, he replies (ibid. v. 24)

“I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

Centuries later, a fateful split occurs among Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites. After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses sends scouts to survey the land, and ten of them reach the decision that they cannot defeat their enemies on the battlefield, with two dissenting. This ultimately leads to a decree of death for the generation that left Egypt and four decades of wandering. And where does the fateful split among the scouts take place? Wadi Eshcol, echoing the name of “Eshcol, boon companion of Abraham” (Num. Rabba 16:16).

If the students of Abraham left their yeshiva for the battlefield, I would not dare to reckon myself better than them. If Eshcol the Emorite and his brothers enlisted for the cause, shouldn’t a fellow Jew do the same? After all, we do not want to reenact the scene at Wadi Eshcol, where God’s promise to accompany us into combat was rejected.

Our nation is worth fighting for.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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