Parshat Beshalach, February 8, 2020
Is Peace Possible? – Taking a Small Step Forward
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong immortalized those words when he put his left foot on the moon. Imagine if he would have listened to the naysayers, one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments would never have come to fruition. I can’t help but think that what marks the difference between success and failure is often nothing more than the willingness to take an unprecedented step forward. Tesla’s stock price has skyrocketed over the past few weeks. Yet, a few months ago, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, was ridiculed and and sanctioned for claiming Tesla’s stock would reach $420. Many analysts believed he was all hype and bluster and his company, Tesla, would never be financially viable. However, Elon was in perpetual forward motion and refused to listen to the negative reporting.
The Torah is replete with fantastical stories of heroism and miracles but none that pique the imagination more than the splitting of the sea. Charlton Heston as Moses in Hollywood’s portrayal of The Ten Commandments has brought the biblical story to life. But did you know it wasn’t Moses who led the charge? Fear set in and the Israelites all froze. Most were unwilling to take the step forward, the proverbial leap of faith, prior to the water splitting. It was Nachshon ben Aminadav who preceded Neil Armstrong by 3,300 years by taking a small step for man but a giant leap for mankind. He decided to enter into the water albeit uncertain a miracle would turn the water into dry land. He realized that his survival and the survival of his people depended on his fortitude and strength in overcoming his fear and being willing to take a risk. Imagine, if he had heeded the advice of his peers. The story of the world would have been rewritten and the Jew would have been remembered as a relic of ancient history.
It’s truly amazing that there were no winners in the impeachment process, only losers. The Democrats are upset that the US Senate acquitted the president while the Republicans are upset that the House of Representatives impeached him. I thought maybe the lack of a winner would bring closure to the debacle, but quite the contrary is playing out. Those that want to impeach the president say that regardless of the outcome, they will persevere and bring up new charges against the president. And those that fought against impeachment indicated that were Joe Biden to win the presidency, they would immediately begin impeachment proceedings against him. Unfortunately, instead of taking a step forward, both sides have decided to dig their heels.
It seems that the entire world is stuck in a giant quagmire. Although dialogue amongst feuding nations is taking place, the standstill and lack of progress charts a dangerous course for our future. I’m delighted that Prime Minister Netanyahu is making some new inroads in Uganda and Sudan but I fear it’s one step forward but three steps backwards. Turkey pivots towards the European Union but then takes an about face and links arms with the Iranians. Saudi Arabia has taken small steps in building a relationship with Israel but has taken giant leaps in the opposite direction through their clandestine activities.
Please don’t misconstrue my words, but I hope my Israeli grandchildren will never have to serve in the IDF. God forbid, this is not a negative reflection against the Israeli military as I sincerely believe its mission is one of holiness and righteousness. On the contrary, I am hopeful that one day in the near future Israel and its neighbors will live in peace and harmony and there will be no need for the IDF. I’m merely echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, “And a wolf shall live with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a kid; and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling [shall lie] together, and a small child shall lead them.” I’m hoping that the current animus will one day be replaced by mutual respect. But to do so requires someone to take a giant step forward.
Although I have faith in the prophet, it seems a bit too optimistic. I can’t imagine a scenario where the Palestinians will ever be willing to concede their territorial aspirations. I believe their leadership would rather die as perceived martyrs rather than live in peace if living in tranquility would mean that Israelis would also live in tranquility. My cynical side would posit that the Palestinian leadership wants to continue enriching themselves on the backs of their people. And that accepting peace regardless of how favorable the conditions would have an adverse impact on their personal finances. Conversely, I also believe that many right of center Jewish parties are unwilling to be partners in peace and would veto any reconciliation or property transfer needed to form a two state solution. As much as we condemn the Palestinian leadership as unwilling partners, the truth is that many on our side are equally unwilling to bridge the divide. Based on the culture that currently exists, any shift in mindsets will be a long shot, however for the status quo to ever change, someone has to take that step forward into the murky waters of the unknown.
What if Isaiah’s prophecy came to fruition? “Im tirtzu, ain zo agada.” This is Herzl’s famous and often-quoted phrase. “If you will it, it is no dream.” Well, I certainly will it, so maybe I’m not dreaming. But to be quite honest, these thoughts usually enter my mind when the lights are off and I’m laying horizontally. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas for those bold enough to contemplate taking a few steps forward.
1. Don’t be too realistic. Try to look past what everyone tells you can never happen and realize that anything and everything is possible. The European Jew in 1945 could never in their wildest imagination believe that an independent Jewish country called Israel could be a reality in three short years.
2. Don’t be too realistic. Imagine a cessation of partisanship in the United States House of Representatives and Senate. Imagine a bold statement from both sides of the aisle that unapologetically supports President Trump’s ‘Deal of the century.’
3. Imagine a cessation of bickering by dysfunctional Israeli politicians. Imagine a bold and strong coalition that will serve the needs of the whole country. (With the exclusion of those entities that want to be part of another regime).
4 Imagine all religions begin to play the part that God intended them to play. Imagine that Sunni Muslim countries to make a bold decision to offer a comprehensive peace accord with Israel and begin a mutually respectful and beneficial coexistence. (Even in my most optimistic dream scenario the Shia Muslims just aren’t ready yet).
5. Imagine that the United Nations stops demonizing Israel and becomes an honest broker in Middle East policy. It will begin to treat Israel no differently than any sovereign nation and support its right to defend its borders.
6. Imagine that the European Union will never forget its collective responsibility in the death of six million Jews, and have the moral clarity to move their embassies to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
7. Imagine that the American Jewish community will be a community in more than name. Imagine that they dismiss their differences to focus on their commonality. Imagine that the left realize that JStreet and BDS are tools used by Anti-Semites and Anti-Zionists to further their agenda. Imagine that the right face up to the reality that some in their camp have fairly radical and dangerous ideas. Moreover, imagine that the right should acknowledge that many views expressed by the left have value and merit and incorporating those values into their own agenda would be mutually beneficial.
Our default is to remain steadfast in our positions. I hate using this example but I remember the Tareyton cigarette commercial from my youth: “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!” (Yes, they used to advertise poison on tv.) That philosophy seems to have pervaded our psyche, many of us would rather fight than switch. Sadly, even when we experience failing policies we still continue down the same erroneous path.
I’m not naive and know that some who read this article may believe that asking for one small step forward is too much to expect. Think of the year 1969 when man landed on the moon. Imagine for one moment the person who had to convince Congress, the Senate and the White House that this journey was possible and worthy of its price tag. Whoever he or she was, they persevered against all odds and succeeded. The boldest of steps was required but the accomplishment was worth it. Imagine those enslaved in Egypt for generations being told by Moses not to worry because he will convince Pharaoh to set you free. Who would believe him? Moses, himself, had doubts. And Moses raised the ante. He expected them to also believe that God would take them out of Egypt, inflict the local Egyptian population with ten horrific plagues and then take them to the land of Israel. In spite of the doubters, he persevered and took the steps needed to succeed.
Before you decide if you should take that step forward, or if it’s too much to ask, think for a moment what your reaction would have been if you lived in the generation of Moses. Would you have supported his agenda or accepted the status quo? Perhaps it’s time to take a risk. Perhaps it’s time to venture into the realm of possibility. Perhaps it’s time to dream the impossible dream because as history has proven, the greatest impediment to achieving the impossible is the fear of taking the next step. And remember, for us, it may only be one small step, but for the future of mankind it may be a giant leap.
Rabbi Jack Engel