Arik Ascherman

Investigating and Shouting: VaYera

Settler from Ma'aleh Ahuvia and his flock in Dir Jarir olive grove.
Settler From Ma'aleh Ahuvia and His Flock in Dir Jarir Olive Grove

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn a basic legal principle important not just for formal legal proceedings, but for life in general. All too often both courts and we as individuals pass judgement without the required investigation. However, the lawlessness and violence that has become the talk of the nation )This week I took reorters around for yet another feature that appears today in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronot), and that I addressed in my dvar Torah two weeks ago, also continues because those responsible don’t seriously investigate. False prosecution and lack of prosecution are both byproducts of the lack of investigation. The vast majority of the over 150 cases of settler agricultural theft and violence that I have personally photographed and reported to the police and army have never been seriously investigated. In many of those cases, the police didn’t even show up.

Before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, God does two things. Firstly, God informs Abraham, testing Abraham’s moral sensibilities, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right….” (Genesis 18: 17-19). This sets up Abraham’s iconic debate with God, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?….Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (23-25)

However, God also says, “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached, Me; if not I will take note.”(18:21) This presents a serious theological challenge.  How could it me that the omniscient God must investigate before passing judgement?  Some commentators say that God wants to give the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah one more chance to do teshuvah, and change their ways.

Rashi comes up with a different solution, “This teaches the judges that they should not give decisions in cases involving capital punishment, except after having carefully looked into the matter — all as I have explained in the section dealing with the dispersion of the nations” Dispersion of nations refers to the Tower of Babel.  There also we are taught that “Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that people had built.” (11:5).  There Rashi writes, “God really did not need to do this, but Scripture intends to teach the judges that they should not proclaim a defendant guilty before they have seen the case and thoroughly understand the matter in question. This is to be found in Midrash of R. Tanchuma.”

Rashi solves the theological challenge by saying that this is God’s way of  teaching an important  lesson for us.  How many times have each of us passed judgement or formed opinions without bothering to investigate, check facts or listen to others?  How easy it is to label anything contradictory to our preconceived notions as “fake news?”  Some brand any mention of side effects of the Covid vaccine as conspiracy theory heresy, while others automatically dismiss any study showing that the vaccine is relatively safe as a big pharma financed lie….  I sometimes contemplate creating a social media post with a new side effect that I make up, to see how long before it would go viral.  The problem is, that were I to then go public with the fact that the side effect was a figment of my imagination, it would be no more possible to convince everybody of that than it would be to climb a tower, rip open a feather pillow and then try to recollect all the feathers that have been spread with the wind (As we know from the well-known Khassidic story about “Lashon HaRa – spreading malicious rumors).

Lack of serious and thorough investigation, and/or not allowing the accused to know the evidence against him/her can lead to false convictions, but it can also lead to a lack of convictions. The random arrests of Palestinian children who are than forced to confess to having thrown stones and implicate others is an example of the former, as is administrative detention.  While the court reprimanded the prosecution for not fulling revealing evidence to the defense in the closely watched Netanyahu trial, all too often there is a lack of discovery for less well known defendants without high powered lawyers.  Today, Defense Minister Gantz issued a statement that six Palestinian civil society and human rights organizations are terrorist organizations, without resenting any evidence. I suspect that all too many will automatically believe that it is true. While I also can’t pass judgement without an inquiry into the evidence, I admit that my strong suspicion is that this is an underhanded attack on important human rights organizations exposing realities that Israel would prefer to remain in the dark.

For those of you in suspense after last week’s dvar Torah, Tami and her five children have a brief respite from the threat of eviction from her public housing apartment. I was not arrested. However, even as we were barricaded in her apartment, she was informed that a Housing Ministry committee was reviewing her case, but she had never been eligible for public housing. This, the day after she had been told that she had been moved up to number one on the waiting list, after three and a half years at number 2!  Tami had to scramble to send in the proof that those who had not properly investigated had overlooked.

In Tami’s Apartment

While Rashi doesn’t address the second scenario, I wish to.  I often have to argue with the police and the army to even show up when I am standing in a Palestinian field, sometimes in danger, and watching a settler flock eating the barley that Palestinians have planted, and destroying their trees. They often refuse to come, saying that the landowners should come to the station and make a complaint – not that anything happens when they do.  A complaint in the police station is belatedly analogous to the outcry that reaches God.  Showing up in real time, documenting and identifying the suspects is analogous to God saying that God will go down to investigate. (In the end, God sends two angels.) Even in the rare case where a suspect is called in later, the case is much weaker because the police didn’t show up in real time. If there has been even one indictment from all of those 150 plus documented thefts, I haven’t heard about it.

The Yeidoth Ahronot article I mentioned earlier contains statistics from our fellow Israeli human rights organization, “Yesh Din indicating that over the last three years they have documented 540 acts of violence against alestinians committed by Israelis.  In 238 cases the victims filed complaints. Many Palestinians have told me they are afraid to lodge complaints because they fear that those they file complaints against will catch them alone and unprotected.  Those 238 complaints have led to only 5 indictments.  The article doesn’t mention whether any of those 5 indictments led to convictions and punishments.

Finally, many commentators understand the outcry heard by God as the outcry of those suffering from the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says that God hears the cry of outrage arising both from those who witness the evil and from the earth itself. (It could be that Hirsch is referring to a cry coming from the victims, as he also says that the cry is not heard by other human beings, but by God. However, my reading is that is that he is referring to a cry of protest.

On the one hand, I ask why those who saw the evil didn’t do more to stop it, or to try to influence the evildoers  to do teshuvah. However, according to this understanding, the outcry of outraged observers did get God to take action. This is somewhat reminiscent of the debate among Israeli human rights activists between working through the system here, and appealing to the international community. In the end, I believe we must do both. We too must thoroughly investigate so as to neither ignore evil nor make false or unsubstantiated claims.  When we see evil, we must do our best to try to get the evildoers to change their ways, and we must also shout until our fellow Israelis and beyond are moved to action.

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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