Jewish tradition teaches that when our ancestors left Egypt 3,500+ years ago they were pursued by the Egyptian military still bent on their destruction. As they stood at the water’s edge faced with two very bad choices, the hand of God split the Reed Sea so our ancestors could cross on “dry” land and evade their pursuers. And when salvation came and everyone had safely crossed to the other side, the waters returned to their normal state and drowned the Egyptian enemy that had enslaved them for over 400 years.
The angels, as the story relates, then broke out in song, grateful as they were for the salvation that came to the Israelites. But God stopped their celebration and told them that it was not permissible for them to celebrate while some of God’s children were drowning, as the angels themselves did not suffer at the hands of the Egyptians. Rather only those who suffered had earned the right to celebrate their deliverance.
The story and its message could have ended there, but it did not. The rabbis later decreed that Hallel, the psalms of praise that are recited on every one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals as well as on Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh (when the new moon is seen each month), should be truncated on Passover as our joy is dampened a bit even today, given the knowledge that so many of God’s children had died during our deliverance from slavery.
What an amazing lesson that tradition teaches. Even when it would be natural to celebrate God’s miracles, we are enjoined by tradition to dampen our joy somewhat in recognition of the casualties suffered by our enemies.
But have we internalized that message?
Earlier this week those of us living here were, once again, given the honor of living through yet another miraculous day in Jerusalem. After multiple U.S. administrations committed in their electioneering to recognize the obvious and locate Israel’s U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, where the sovereign State of Israel established its capitol, it finally happened. Many of us thought it would never happen, but happen it did. And while one can argue pro and con whether this was the right time to make the move, whether there ever was, is or will be a “right time,” whether it advances or sets back the potential for peace in the region, none of that is part of this discussion. The fact is that it was a decision that made pretty much every Israeli proud and most certainly corroborated what every Israeli knows in his or her heart to be true.
To be sure no one here knows what the ultimate political cost of that move will be to those of us who live here and whose future is bound up so intricately with this country and for whose future so many have given their lives. But pride in this new fact on the ground is nearly universal here.
Nevertheless, with all of the pomp and circumstance of Monday’s events in Jerusalem, less than 50 miles away 57 people died (some say a few more, others a few less) and hundreds more were injured in an ongoing Hamas controlled protest at Israel’s border with Gaza. So yes, it definitely was Hamas that sent its citizens to face down our troops who were, rightfully, protecting our border. And most probably the leadership in Gaza wanted to be able to broadcast pictures of the rioters being shot by Israeli troops in order to build their case for world sympathy. One could even make a case for questioning whether our sharpshooters really had to shoot to kill or could just as easily have stopped the assailants by shooting them in their legs (after all we are talking about skilled sharpshooters).
But all of that begs the core moral question that we learned at the Red Sea as we left Egypt and that the rabbis later formalized in our truncated recitation of the psalms of praise that we sing during the intermediate days of Passover. As happy as we were to see a historical wrong being righted with the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, were we not obligated as well to temper our joy just a bit when so many were dying just 50 miles away? Does that not at least present some moral challenge to our religious leadership so conspicuous by their presence at the embassy dedication? Is it possible to act as if this is not our problem?
And if it is important to address these issues, what should we be doing? As regards the action on the border, I would hope that deep in the bowels of the Israeli defense establishment there is heavy dialogue going on about how best to defend our border with Gaza. No doubt an order to shoot and kill is delivered after a full examination of the pros and cons associated with that decision. Wouldn’t this be a truly amazing country if then a spokesperson from the Israel Defense Forces or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would go public with the logic being used so that we would all know how such decisions came about? My guess is that if they were to do this everyone here would be fully supportive and the world press would have less ammunition to use against us in their already biased reporting.
As for the moral issue relating to our celebrating in the face of the death of our enemies, I would likewise hope that the religious leaders who are supposed to act as the moral conscience of society are also debating how best to react to the situation that has developed. And here too, we would be truly an amazing country if those leaders would share their logic with the people, just as their rabbinic predecessors have done through the centuries.
Utopian you say? Perhaps so. But our purpose in reclaiming this land after 2,000 years of exile was, in fact, not only to create a permanent and secure home for our people but all to fulfill the command to be a light unto the nations. That light has burned with different intensity over the ages but today it is within our power in the full flush of our economic and military strength, to accept the challenge of achieving that high level of moral strength as well. I have no doubt we are up to the task and know that we deserve no less.