David Lerner

Rallying as One Well of Peace – Toldot 5784

A few days before this week’s rally for Israel in DC, I received a text from an old friend—Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is now a rabbi in Detroit.

Back in 2002, we were both young rabbis in Chicago, and we organized a group to attend a rally for Israel in D.C.  It was the Second Intifada. Almost every day, a Hamas suicide bomber would blow up a restaurant, a bus, a wedding hall, a cafe, the Hebrew University cafeteria, and on and on.

American Jewry came together to stand with Israel against terrorism.

Personal archive. Fact Sheet from 4-15-02 Rally

And now, 21 years later, we had to do the same, although it was after much worse terrorist attacks and an enemy who has enmeshed itself in the civilian population, building an immense network of tunnels, the most extensive terrorist infrastructure in human history.

Asher’s text was a picture of the info sheet we sent to everyone who was going to DC on the flights we organized. 

Personal archive. Rabbi David Lerner with his wife Sharon and their daughter Talya

It was an amazing experience – Sharon and Talya (who was nine months old at the time) joined our group.

As we were texting, we returned to the emotions of that time and this time, but 

we also allowed ourselves to smile. He asked me about how big my group was and how Boston was doing. I told him we had people flying, taking buses, and going on our federation’s charter plane; he said Detroit had three chartered planes!

  I replied, “OK, you win.” 

* * *

On Tuesday, many from our shul traveled together. After having been to a number of these rallies in DC over the years (for Soviet Jews in 1987, Darfur in 2006, and the Israel ones), I kind of have this down to a science – take a commercial flight right to Reagan, the Metro to the National Mall, be at the rally (see some friends, chant and sing peacefully), take the Metro, fly back and then you’re home. 

It took a total of 13 hours. 

Not bad.

Standing under the warm sun surrounded by almost 300,000 people was most powerful. 

It was the largest gathering of Jews outside of Israel since we were at Mount Sinai!

Pro- Israel DC Rally 2023.,_Washington,_DC_USA_318_201233-Edit.jpg

Now, why so many media outlets said there were only “tens of thousands” and why there was so little coverage of this massive gathering is another story, a disappointing one.

But for us on the National Mall, it was an awesome feeling. There was strength in numbers, in our voices, in our peaceful demands to release the hostages, to support Israel in her time of need, and to decry the ferocious rise in anti-Semitism over the last six weeks.

There was not one incident of violence despite the numbers. Think of it – 5% of the entire American Jewish population were all standing there together as one.

The only problems I heard about were about the chartered planes – communities around the country had chartered so many there were not enough slots for them to land, which caused delays. Two of the Detroit planes had problems because the bus drivers would not take the passengers from the plane to the rally once they heard it was a rally for Israel! Anti-semitism alive and well…

Beyond all the complicated logistics of organizing everything in a week, it was not easy to bring so much of the American Jewish world together – as there are real religious and political differences. 

For example, the left had to swallow having Pastor John Hagee speak at the rally. He is an extreme-right figure and a problematic one at that.

Van Jones.

Some people on the right may have been bothered by having Van Jones, a liberal political commentator, speak.

I, for one, was annoyed that while there was great music and singers at the rally, women were not allowed to lead the sing since the Orthodox think it is wrong for women to do so.

But, even with all that, it was great. 

There were powerful speakers, including parents of some of the hostages — I really do not know how they do it. Where do they get the emotional courage to bare their souls and their pain day after day all over the world?

That’s why we have empty chairs in shul; we had an empty table for them last night at our Shabbat dinner; there are man  Shabbat Dinner table installations around the world including one on the Boston Common.

Courtesy photo

I have to pause here for a moment and say how disturbing it has been to see people ripping down posters of the hostages. These are people of many faiths, ages, and nationalities, including Israeli-Arab-Palestininas including 54 people from Thailand. 

It is the highest number of American hostages taken since the Iran hostage crisis in 1979–81, where Iran seized 66 American citizens at the U.S. embassy in Tehrān and held 52 of them hostage for more than a year.

Avigail Idan who was kidnapped by Hamas and taken into Gaza. Both of her parents were murdered by Hamas.

Why is this not on the front page every day? 

What kind of person takes down or rips up these flyers? 

What’s going on?

Our own Noa Fay, daughter of our members Aaron Fay and Myriam Wright, gave an eloquent and fiery speech about what she is experiencing on the Columbia campus. 

Her words gave me hope for the future — and I was shepping a lot of pride for Aaron and Myriam. Take a minute to watch it here.

Noa Fey at the Pro Israel DC Rally.

All in all, a day of ahdut ha’am, feeling the unity of the Jewish people during this time of crisis, during this time when we need our hostages home when we need Hamas not to be able to hurt us. 

We need to end their reign of terror, which goes back to when they murdered two of my friends in 1996. 

We need to end the state of perpetual terror and war, which is what they want.

Let me be clear – Hamas is a genocidal terrorist organization who do not care if their own people live or die. 

Their entire plan was to kill Israelis in Israel in such horrific ways and take hostages so Israel would have to go into Gaza. To achieve this, they have even been using their own children.

They knew and wanted as many civilians as possible to be killed so that the other Iranian proxy terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in

 Yemen, and Syrian groups, and perhaps even Iran itself would join in this war. And it wanted to turn world opinion against Israel. They are deadly focused on their goal of destroying Israel and Jews.

Now, let me break this down. 

You may have seen signs claiming that Israel is committing genocide. 

This is a false accusation. If you were going to commit genocide, then you wouldn’t send out warnings to the people, telling them where you are going to attack. Israel has gone out of its way to save the civilian population, and, in doing so, has cost it the ability to find the Hamas terrorists and the hostages because now they know where Israel is going because Israel already told them. 

That is not genocide. 

That’s living up to the ethical rules of war that are deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition and in Israel’s military.

On the other hand, Hamas IS a genocidal organization since it says explicitly in its Charter that its mission is to kill all Jews, not merely destroy

 all of Israel. And they are not interested in a peace agreement with the 1967 or any borders; they want all of Israel as they have chanted time and again: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine shall be free.” 

What does this mean? 

Free of Jews. 

That’s what they are chanting on college campuses across our country, and around the world. 

Free of Jews.

* * *

I want to say a word about Hamas. They began this on October 7th with crimes against humanity and then violated the rules of war by fighting from within a civilian population, placing its military outposts underneath hospitals, mosques, and apartment buildings.  

How does it fight? 

They have uniforms that they could use and sometimes put on, but most of the time, they’re dressed in t-shirts and flip-flops firing an RPG or anti-tank missile. How do you distinguish between the terrorist with a t-shirt and the civilian with a t-shirt? You can watch the videos of this – Hamas distributes them out!

For more on this, click hear to listen to the critical interview with Tal Becker from the Hartman Institute.

Israel is going into Gaza to save Gazans from Hamas as much as they are saving Israelis… and the world.

* * *

As I was reading the Torah portion this week, I realized that it contains many parallels to this moment. 

First, the Torah says that Esau married Yehudit, the daughter of Be’eri – the name of the Kibbutz that was most terribly attacked on October 7th. 

The word Be’eri means my well. And the middle of the parashah of the Torah reading is all about wells. 

Now, wells were and are critical, especially in a land where it does not rain for half the year.

So, Isaac goes around digging wells. Now, I had never given this much thought until this week. He digs wells near Gaza where the Philistines resided – the Torah said his father Abraham dug them, and the Philistines stopped them up, so Isaac had to redig them. There has been conflict in this area for a long, long time.

And there is quarreling over the land between Isaac and the herdsmen in the area. One well is called Eisek – contention, and the next one Sitnah – hostility…

Finally, Isaac digs a third well, and they don’t fight over this one, so it is called Rehovot – meaning a wide place, presumably meaning where you don’t have to fight. 

Archeologists think this place is modern-day Ruhei-beh, 19 miles southwest of Be’er Sheva where they have found wells of great antiquity in the area and traces of early agricultural settlements. It is not the modern city of Rehovot – which is a city of 150,000 — 12 miles south of Tel-Aviv.

But what’s so interesting to me is that right after Isaac digs this well, he is given a blessing by God. That doesn’t happen with the other, contested wells.

And then, Avimelekh, the King of Gerar, comes to Isaac. The people of Gerar have been fighting with Isaac, but now things are different. Isaac asks them why they are now coming to him after they have been so hostile.

They reply that we see God is with you – which could mean to me, you are doing well (and we would like to as well), or that you are a person of good character, we want to be your friend.

They ask for a peace treaty. They say that we will treat Isaac well – rak tov – and we will send you off b’shalom – in peace.

A peace agreement.

I read this a few times. 

You can dig underground for water, or you can dig tunnels for terror. Hamas was given billions and billions of dollars since it destroyed the Palestinian Authority in Gaza 15 years ago. What did it do with all the money?

It didn’t build a thriving economy.

It didn’t take care of its people. 

It didn’t pursue peace.

It embezzled money for its leaders to live well. 

It created a terrorist army. 

And it built the largest terrorist tunnel network ever seen.

Wells of wealth. 

Wells of war.

So, now Israel must fight, find the wells with its hostages, and discern which civilians are terrorists and which are not. It must go into every building, even hospitals, and find every gun, every weapon, and please God, every hostage.

The IDF will do this with caution and precision, with Arabic-speaking doctors who brought medicine to those in need as they did in Shifa Hospital this week.

This will be hard for Israel, incredibly risky, and a PR nightmare. 

Israel asks us for one thing – to send them wells of support, wells of love, wells that say we’ve got your back.

And this week, we dug those wells in DC. 

We reminded each other that we are strong and resilient people, and we will demand our hostages and that the world understands what it means to fight morally against an immorally civilian terrorist army.

Our Israeli friends told us how grateful they were that we rallied in Washington and how much it meant to them.

And then, and then, we will, and we must sit down to make peace just as Isaac did with the people of Gerar in the same area almost 4000 years ago.

Towards the end of the rally, we sang Aheinu – the words we have been reciting at every service for the hostages – that our brethren who suffer oppression and imprisonment, may God soon bring them relief from distress, and deliver them from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption and let us say: Amen.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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