Matthew L Berkowitz
Rabbi Berkowitz serves as Vice President of Schechter Institutes, Inc.

The Echoes of Roi Rothberg and Moshe Dayan

Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the border of the Gaza Strip, in 2015. (Amir Tibon/Times of Israel/File)
Image from the fields of Kibbutz Nahal Oz

The brutal slaying of Israeli civilians by Hamas terrorists calls to mind a little known episode in modern Israeli history.  In April, 1956, Roi Rothberg, originally from Tel Aviv and an early member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip – took his horse for a ride to check on the fields.  Rothberg was appointed by his fellow kibbutz members to be in charge of security.  He and others regularly patrolled the fields to protect themselves from Palestinian raids and attacks.  One morning, Roi saw a group of Arab harvesters in the field and as he approached them, he was ambushed by terrorists who crushed his skull and took his remains to Gaza.  The UN intervened on the same day and facilitated the return of Rothberg’s mutilated remains.

At his funeral, then Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan shared the following, “It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roi’s blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation? Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders? Beyond the furrow of the border, a sea of hatred and desire for revenge is swelling, awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path, for the day when we will heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms. Roi’s blood is crying out to us and only to us from his torn body. Although we have sworn a thousandfold that our blood shall not flow in vain, yesterday again we were tempted, we listened, we believed.

We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the cannon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice – to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down. The young Roi who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.”

It is chilling to read Moshe Dayan’s words today in light of the atrocities of this past week.  And yet, Dayan reflects very important truths.  First and foremost, without arming and protecting ourselves we will not be able to continue building this country.  Dayan was not naïve – he recognized that attacks on Jews would persist and we must be prepared.  Second, he understood the resentment and anger that Jewish nationalism and the rebirth of its homeland would bring in its awakening.  We would need to be attuned to this bitterness and hatred and act accordingly.  And third, Moshe Dayan warned us not to be blinded by our ideals.  The bright ‘light in our hearts’ should not blind us to ‘the flash of the sword.’  Both idealism and complacency could doom us.

When Leo Pinsker and Theodor Herzl gave birth to modern Zionism, it was in response to the unrelenting persecution of the Jewish people, the rise of nationalism in Europe, as well as a recognition that the Jews must be a free people in their own land – and preferably that state would be in the land in which they have four thousand years of history.  The Zionist dream of return – to pursue self-determination and freedom for our people that were k’aleh nidaf, as a driven leaf – through centuries of persecution, was and remains no small endeavor.  Herzl had hoped that establishing a country of our own would solve the Jewish problem once and for all.  Having a sovereign state would bring normalcy to the Jewish people.

The events of this past week prove to all of us that Herzl’s vision remains a fleeting dream.  While we pray unceasingly for peace, we must also be vigilant against enemies.  We can never again let our guard down in the face of our enemies.  Moshe Dayan’s words echo loudly in our ears today  —– to paraphrase this remarkable leader—perhaps ‘the yearning for peace deafened our own ears and we too did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush.’

When Dayan used the expression ‘the gates of Gaza’, he was clearly calling to mind the image of the blinded biblical character Samson who took vengeance on the Philistines by destroying them and the Temple of Dagon – and in so doing brought his own life to an end.  I hope and pray that we do not meet the same fate as Samson.  Hamas must pay a heavy price for its horrific actions.  But in so doing, let us not annihilate our ideals or ourselves.

Hashem oz l’amo yiten, Hashem yivarekh et amo ba’shalom

May God grant strength to His People, May God bless His People with Peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the Vice President of Schechter Institutes, Inc. He served as JTS Director of Israel Programs and is a co-founder and partner of Kol HaOt, a Jerusalem-based venture devoted to exploring the arts and Jewish learning. For ten years (1999-2009), Matt was the JTS Senior Rabbinic Fellow, organizing substantive adult learning throughout Florida and beyond. He is a member of The Wexner Heritage Program Faculty. He completed his undergraduate work in International Relations and Middle East Studies, summa cum laude, at Colgate University. He was ordained from JTS in 1999, is a Wexner Graduate Fellow alumnus and an alumnus of the Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Institute, Class V. An accomplished artist, he was formally trained in Jewish scribal art in Jerusalem and completed the writing of Megillat Esther, the illumination of several ketubbot, and a limited edition artist portfolio entitled Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus which was acquired by Yale University, exhibited at Yeshiva University Museum (April, 2006) and is on permanent exhibit at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Lovell Haggadah, published in 2008 by The Schechter Institutes and Nirtzah Editions, is based on this work. In 2008-2009, he studied illustration and oil painting at The Jerusalem Studio School. He designed a collection of mezuzot, tzedakah boxes, and other fusions of art and Jewish learning.
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