Arik Ascherman

Vayera: Dispel Darkness By Distinguishing Between the Guilty and the Innocent

(Image courtesy of author)

I still believe we will one day emerge from the ark, but for now our ark is journeying further into darkness.

Spending last night as part of the protective presence in Massafer Yatta (South Hebron Hills) they sometimes listened to Israeli news, but mostly live feed of the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. When in the past I have asked what could possibly have been the motivation of Hamas to attack us so brutally when they had to know the disaster they would bring upon their people, I was told that it was to scuttle the Saudi/Israel/US deal. Now I heard that this was what happens when you put people in a cage. I didn’t hear condemnation of the Hamas horrors.

Israelis aren’t deluged with images of the exploded body parts in Gaza. We know about the Israelis who were slaughtered in gruesome ways, raped and kidnapped. As I wrote two weeks ago, there are only a handful of us who are willing to try to stop rampaging settlers from murdering and expelling innocent West Bank Palestinians from their homes. As the US admitted when apologizing over forty years after placing Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor, nobody was willing to help Japanese Americans because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

I have been in arguments with those who believe that Israel is carrying out genocide, quoting Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s vow to “wipe Hamas of the face of the earth and calls by others  to “wipe Gaza of the face of the earth.” A better analogy is Dreseden or Hiroshima. Meantime, the “heroism” of Hamas is praised in streets around the world. Pictures of kidnapped Israelis are torn down.

Last Friday we stopped a convoy of settlers with murder in their eyes and some of them armed from attacking a shepherding family who were already packing because they had been attacked the previous day. Three had required medical care, and their injured neighbors were also packing. An army vehicle tailing the settlers for some reason stopped, and only we were left to face down the settlers and save the family.  Two of our phones were stolen and I suffered blows to my head from a rifle butt before the army arrived. Earlier in the day I had already been cursed by police officers as a fifth column. Even more incredibly, when I went to the Binyamin police station to file a complaint, an investigator shouted from the balcony that he would not take my complaint. A week later, I cannot process the depth of the hate and fury of this man driving him to brazenly refuse to carry out his obligation as a police officer.

Where are we heading to? How long will it take to recover from the hate we are being brainwashed with? Hate between Israelis and Palestinians, and hatred towards each other?

Each of the Torah portions we have read since beginning our Torah reading cycle anew has had an important message for the way out of the darkness. I have cited most of these teachings repeatedly over the years, but they need repeating now more than ever:

In my previous dvar Torah I cited Bereshit 1:27. We are all created in God’s Image, and Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s teaching regarding Cain and Abel that when demonize others as standing in our way, it is easy to justify murder. For many, every Palestinian is a terrorist or potential terrorist, or a Hamas supporter. Every Israeli is an evil and oppressive occupier deserving the most horrible death. How many times have wished me and my family all sorts of cruel deaths because I stand in the way of the Occupation?

I also cited the Zohar’s teaching that Noah was furious with God when he exited the ark and saw the extent of the devastation. God rebuked him saying, “Now you protest? Why didn’t you say anything before the flood?” When we do exit the ark and are confronted with the devastation at so many levels, we will want to point fingers. We should first ask what we did to pull our societies back from the brink.

Last week I had a moment of déjà vu. It was the Friday of Parashat Lekh Lekha in 2015 that I was attacked by a masked knife wielding settler and asked for the third aliyah to recite Birkat HaGomel. There is strife between Avram’s shepherd and the shepherds of his nephew Lot, as they fight over grazing lands. Although Avram has the ability as the senior to tell Lot what to do, he pleads that there be no strife between them “because we are family.” He offers, “I you want to go left, I will go right. If you want to go right, I will go left.”

I chose the same aliyah this past Shabbat after facing down those settlers last Friday. If only we could understand that we are one human family.

It was also an emotional moment in synagogue when the blessing for the fourth aliyah in which Avram faced down kings to free lot from captivity was recited by a congregant with a family member currently in the hands of Hamas.

This week Abraham argues with God as Noah did not. He challenges God regarding God’s plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, “Will You wipe out the innocent with the guilty….  How dare You do such a thing, to kill the innocent with the guilty, so that the innocent be like the guilty! How dare You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not act justly?!”

In the end, there were not even ten righteous people in Sodom and Gemorrah. There are many innocents in Gaza, and they are dying along with the Hamas terrorists. We justify the unjustifiable by arguing that this is necessary for our security. While we certainly deserve an end to the years of unjustifiable Hamas terror, I also wrote in my previous dvar Torah that even if we kill every Hamas member, we won’t kill the anger of an oppressed people. “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied, and incorrect teaching of Torah.” (Pirkei Avot)

And also in this week’s Torah portion Hagar and Ishmael are banished into the desert and are running out of water. Ishmael is dying, until God prepares a well to save him. In the midrash, the angels come to God and ask why not let Ishmael die, given all of the suffering the descendants of Ishmael will cause the Children of Israel throughout history. God refuses, knowing that no history is inevitable, and God sees Ishmael as he is at that moment, “Ba’asher hu sham.” God asks the angels who do they see at that moment, because God is capable of seeing that in front of God is an innocent child.

Many justify the killing of innocent Gazans and the expulsion of Palestinian shepherds in the West Bank, because they are all terrorists or will grow up to be terrorists, and they are standing in the way of our peace and security. All Israelis are oppressors by definition.

How dare either we or Palestinians wipe out the innocent with the guilty?

May we find the inner resources to see fellow human beings as they are. Even as we rage and even as we so desperately want to destroy a barbaric enemy, or free ourselves from an occupier, may we be able to distinguish between Palestinian terrorists and terrorized Palestinians. There is no inevitable future that every Palestinian will become a terrorist or that no Israeli is willing to grant justice to Palestinians.

It is up to us as the dominant power to determine whether the sword will continue to terrorize us because of justice delayed, justice denied and ongoing oppression of another people, or whether we defeat the sword with the mightier weapon of justice.

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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