Maury Grebenau

Freedom from public opinion

Bombarded by a deluge of anti-Israel sentiments in the media, on college campuses and almost everywhere else I turn, I wanted to look back and see the support Israel received in the immediate aftermath of October 7. In an online survey commissioned by the Federation from November 11-12 of over 1,300 US adults:

  • Two thirds of Americans believed Israel should continue military efforts until Hamas is defeated and the hostages are released and that Israel must send troops to Gaza to reunite hostages with their families.
  • Eight in ten Americans believed Hamas is primarily responsible for putting civilians in Gaza in harm’s way.

Around the same time, was another survey conducted November 19-20 asking Americans about what conditions should be required for a longer term ceasefire.

  • Three times as many people in the general population said they wanted the hostages freed as a precondition than those who said they wanted a total immediate unconditional ceasefire on both sides.
  • Over half of the general population wanted Hamas’ removal from government as a precondition to a ceasefire[1].

My, how opinions have shifted. It is hard to believe this was ever indicative of the opinions of the general public in the US. What’s unfortunate is that we are seeing plenty of leadership that also has shifted just as quickly as the general population. This is reminiscent of the Gemara at the end of Sotah (49b) that describes the challenging circumstances we will face just before Moshiach comes. The Mishna tells us that “pnei hador k’pnei hakelev” – the face of the generation will be like that of a dog. Although the simple explanation is that there will be unprecedented dog-like chutzpa, some explain that this is actually a description of the leadership of said generation. When a person walks a dog, it may seem that the dog is leading since it is in front. In reality, the dog just waits until they know which direction their master wants to go and then races off in front as if they are leading. So too, the leaders of the generation before Moshiach will simply follow the will of the people instead of guiding them in keeping to their moral compass.

Yet, what I continue to find amazing and inspiring is the voices from Israel. People who have walked away from companies they have built and jobs they love to give everything they have to the Israeli cause. Some are fighting the battle online and others are fighting the physical war and protecting the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Where does this commitment and strength come from?

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:2) tells us that the only truly free person is one who engages in Torah study and rereads a pasuk in our parsha to come to this conclusion. The Torah (Shemot 32:16) tells us that the ten commandments were charus al haluchos (literally engraved on the tablets) and the Mishna says there is an additional level of interpretation when we pronounce the word as Cheirus – freedom. The Mishna explains that we are only truly free when we study the Torah deeply. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 41:7) elaborates on this famous reading to answer the question: What is the nature of this freedom? What exactly are we free from? The Midrash offer 3 opinions:

  • Rabbi Yehudah – free from exile
  • Rabbi Nechemia – free from the angel of death
  • Rabbis – free from suffering

It seems that a connection to Hashem through the study of Torah and following the commandments protects us. We can understand how it might keep us in the land of Israel but does it truly protect us from death or even suffering? It would seem that the meaning of these opinions is not that death and suffering ceases to exist but that we are “free” from them. We are able to take a perspective on death and challenges that allows us to be accepting of these realities and still feel close to Hashem[2].

I was recently listening to Rabbi Shay Schachter speaking about visiting wounded IDF soldiers. He commented that every soldier, despite being seriously injured in ways that are usually life-altering, is so proud of what they have given to the point of wishing they could return to the front. Former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman is also constantly posting inspiring stories about absolute heroics from “ordinary” soldiers. We should in no way minimize the suffering of these brave men and women or underestimate the physiological and emotional toll of their experiences and injuries, but I am in awe of any of them that are able to have this attitude. I believe this is the freedom the Midrash is speaking about.

These soldiers have a connection to Hashem and the first freedom follows – the freedom from exile. They are connected to the land of Israel in a way that gives them unreal strength. These connections further insulate them from how they relate to suffering and even death.

When we are grounded in our Torah values including a sense of love and responsibility for every other Jew and for the land of Israel, we are free. We are insulated from the perspective of those who advocate for a ceasefire because they fear standing strong against public opinion. We can echo the strength of the soldiers whose faith and connection are truly free.

[1] Only 20% of the general population and 16% of American Jews believed both sides should immediately and unconditionally cease hostilities. Significant majorities (60% of the general population and 64% of American Jews) backed demanding the release of all hostages as a precondition. More than half of those surveyed (51% of the general population and 58% of Jews) called for Hamas to be removed from power as a precondition.

[2] We could take this idea even further and point out that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik writes that as opposed to the vision of a religious person being in a state of tranquility that is imagined by some other religions we actually are frequently closest to Hashem when we are struggling and suffering.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Maury Grebenau has worked in Jewish day school for 20 years, including leading two Jewish schools for a decade. Rabbi Grebenau has written a number of articles on educational leadership and current issues including teen health and school technology use. His articles have been published in Phi Delta Kappan, Principal Leadership and Hayidion, among others. He currently co-leads a program that supports administrators in Jewish day schools.
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