Arik Ascherman

My Words at Reform Protest Havdallah: Sh’lakh L’kha and Korakh, Fire and Light

Screenshots from videos sent to the author by the residents of Turmos Aya for use

This is the dvar Torah I gave at the Reform Movement’s havdallah before the Saturday night protest in Jeusalem last week. Because I referred to both Shlakh L’kha and Korakh, and because outside Israel you are reading Shlakh L’kha while we read Korakh here, there is something for everybody.

Shavua Tov, or almost Shavua Tov. Havdalah is a moment of transition between what was and what will be. Between the holy and the secular, between rest and work, between the portion of Shlakh L’kha and the portion of Korach.

There is no example of democracy in these Torah portions, but there are examples of the dangers and challenges to democracy.

In Parshat Shelakh L’kha, it is very simple – the majority is wrong. Ten of the spies say that the Israelites cannot cope with the giants living in the Land of Israel, inciting the entire nation.

We know that the heart of the controversy today is what constitutes democracy. I am currently participating in one of the discussion circles with people with differing opinions about the judicial revolution, and I think it is important to hear what others think. This week I heard someone say very difficult things for me to hear and so I asked, “How do you define democracy?” One of the problems is that there is no single definition of democracy, but all the theoriticians I know emphasize that democracy is not just majority rule. True democracy requires protection from the “tyranny of the majority.” The truth is that many of the worst things that have happened in history have happened with the support of the majority. Therefore, judges must respect the majority, but be able to stand against the majority.

In Korach we have a clear example of how a smart and charismatic demagogue can incite the majority. But I don’t want to make a simplistic comparison between Korach and some of our leaders today. The truth is that the story of the rebellion of Korach, Aviram and Dotan is a warning, not only to those against whom we demonstrate, but also to us. We learn what does not end rebellion.

  1. Not by might and not by power. The revolt does not end when the earth swallows Aviram and Dotan, nor with the fire that consumes Korach and his band. These demonstrations of power only further anger the people, who continue to complain.

The people also continue to complain after the miracle in which Aaron’s rod blooms with almond blossoms.

It turns out that even a divine miracle does not end the rebellion.

If there is an end to the rebellion at all – there is no actual moment when the people declare that they are satisfied and that the rebellion is over – it is when there is clarification of the division of powers and functions, as well as the manner in which tithes are distributed among the priests and the Levites.

But we also have to tell the truth. This is a division between elites, which does not impact so much on the rest of the Israelites.

The portion therefore raises questions about how to take care of everyone’s needs. And if the more obvious controversy today is whether democracy is only majority rule, or whether there are things that the majority must not be allowed to do, the perhaps somewhat hidden but not that hidden cause for our situation today is that we all see ourselves as victims – that the other side wants to take something precious from us.

There have been demagogues throughout history who incited “out of nowhere,” but usually the most successful demagogues exploit some kernel of truth – some real distress and legitimate complaint – and then exaggerate and incite. We should not underestimate these difficult feelings and the kernel of truth in the feelings of discrimination felt by those whose opinions we oppose.

And in this moment of distinction, when we light the integrated and woven havdallah candle, we must not be satisfied with defending the kind of Israeli democracy that existed until now, an Athenian-style democracy. Athens had a democracy of well to do men and landowners.

To what extent is a single mother living in poverty and fighting for survival really able to participate in our democracy? And, let’s be honest. The courts which we are here to protect, have approved too many policies that have denied this mother the right to a home, on the grounds that housing is a limited resource.

And yet we are here to fight for the courts because we know it matters will be even worse if the government succeeds in destroying the independence of our courts.

And what democracy is there for the Bedouin soldier who returns home to find that the state has demolished his family’s home? Being a minority, the majority decides “democratically” that his family’s lands, which pre State Zionist movement registered as belonging  belonged to his family in 1920, are no longer theirs, and therefore his family is forbidden to build on them. Again, the courts are the ones who sanctioned the declaration of those lands, which were once Bedouin-owned according to the survey of the Society for the Legalization of the Yishuv, as state land, and also gave permission for demolitions.

But we are still here, because we understand that without independent courts, things will be worse.

We marked here a week ago the opening of Pride Month and this Shabbat was Pride Shabbat. We are aware of everything that the LGBTQ community has suffered for generations. We are also aware of the fact that in the protest movement there are quite a few who do not like to see pride flags at the demonstrations, let and are even more opposed to mention of the Occupation.

According to the Gregorian calendar we this week marked 56 years of Occupation.  For Palestinians under our control, there is no democracy. They do not vote for the Knesset, or the government that undemocratically imposes on them the laws that determine their fate. There are no Palestinians from the Occupied Territories serving as judges in the courts to which they can appeal the decrees we have imposed. We abolished their planning committees and replaced them with a committee of the military’s Civil Administration without Palestinian representation, which almost never approves Palestinian construction….

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Originally penning these words from the Birmingham jail, he reiterated them when he answered the call of his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to oppose the Vietnam war, even though many warned him not to endanger his cause, and to stick to the issue of racial discrimination.

We must recognize that after 56 years of occupation, lack of democracy anywhere under our control raises the question of whether there is democracy anywhere in the country under our control.

And when we think of ourselves as the only democracy in the Middle East, we would do well to remember that the Greek historian Thucydides wrote that one of the reasons Athens eventually lost to Sparta was that “democratic” Athens became much crueler to those under its control than Sparta

But, in conclusion, I want to leave theory and talk from the heart about personal experience. Yesterday afternoon, shortly before candle lighting—as we all were getting ready for Shabbat, I began to receive phone calls and pictures and videos.  Settlers set fire to trees in the village of Turmus Aya, and the military blocked tree owners from reaching them to extinguish the fire. They even told me they had even shot teargas at them. I spoke to the command center and asked: “How can the farmers put out the fire in their trees when the army is preventing them from getting to their trees?” Eventually, the army relented.

Screenshots from videos sent to the author by the residents of Turmos Aya for use
Screenshots from videos sent to the author by the residents of Turmos Aya for use

On Shabbat, I don’t usually touch my smartphone. But I did this morning, unusually, because of my experiences during this past  week. In Eyn Samia, 200 men, women and children fled their homes, where they had lived for 40 years, because of state-backed settler violence. But the story is not over. On Sunday, the army and police watched as settlers who were not satisfied with the Bedouin leaving and now wanted to expel the farmers from their lands in the area: beat farmers, punctured water tanks, caused serious damage to a tractor and cut down trees. The forces saw and did not intervene. But the next day I actually contacted the reserve duty company, who presumably was in charge of the soldiers who had just watched the day before/ I discovered a man who wanted to act humanely and fairly towards the Palestinians as well. Although not all of his soldiers were happy, they were assigned to guard the Palestinian farmers, and he returned the police to complete the work when they did not remove settlers and their invading herds. Only, since he didn’t give me permission to pass on his number to other activists who observe Shabbat differently than me, and had agreed to be in contact with the farmers over Shabbat, I had to be on my cell phone if there was a situation in which we had to contact the company commander.

It was quiet in ‘Eyn Samia, but in the morning I saw that I’d missed a phone call and videos from because at 3:00 A.M., that settlers had started more fires in Turmus Aya. I hesitated because the event was already over, so there was no justification for calling on Shabbat. But, on the other hand, I wanted them to know that if there were more problems I could be reached. At the end I just left a message “Ana Metassef” I’m sorry – now I’ll be available. In fact, I did have to deal with a third incident at 3pm Sahbbat afternoon….

After dealing with the first arson on Friday night, with only a few minutes to write about the incident and offer a dvar Torah, I thought about the difference between the soft embracing light of the Shabbat candles, and the burning fire in the trees emanating from the fire of hatred and supremacy towards non-Jews. I also noticed that in Parshat Shelah Lech there are verses that we usually pay less attention to as a movement that does not pray for the restoration of the worship of sacrifices “When you enter the Land I am giving you to settle in, and would present an offering by fire to Adonai from the herd or from the flock, be it a burnt offering or sacrifice in fulfillment of a vow explicitly uttered, or as a freewill offering, or at your fixed occasions, producing an odor pleasing to Adonai:” (Numbers 15:2-3)

I prayer arose in my heart that the light of the Shabbat candles would fill our hearts instead of the burning fire – a light that warms and embraces and is gentle and soft, instead of the burning fire of hatred towards non-Jews, or of Jews who think differently than we do, I prayed that the light of the Shabbat candles would awaken our eyes to see the reality beyond the mountains of darkness, the reality it is  convenient not to see., And another prayer arose in my heart – that instead of fire that burns victims or Korach and his flock, that our sacrifices will be our deeds– they will be the offering that will be a pleasing odor to Adonai and bring light to our world – our deeds working for justice and democracy for all.

May the combined many wicks of the Havdalah candle that we will soon light illuminate not only backward – not only reminding us of everything that has been good and nourishing from the past and the country as it was until now, but also forward – may the light of the Havdalah candle illuminate the way to a better future and a true democracy. In the Havdalah candle’s light may we understand how to build a protest and a movement and engage in actions that will advance us from Athenian democracy to democracy for all.

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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