Micha Odenheimer

We can’t forget who we are, especially now

This Sabbath we open a new cycle  of the annual reading of the Torah with “Bereshit,” the creation story, and not a minute too soon. After days of murder and mayhem, with the question “How could this have been allowed to happen?” tormenting us at every turn, we desperately need a new infusion of spirit. We have been exposed, in the acts of Hamas, to a degree and level of soul-corroding pure evil that only a week ago seemed unimaginable. Our thoughts turn naturally to survival, victory and revenge. That’s why it is crucial, davka in these circumstances, to remember the ethical principles, stories and ideas that are part  of our tradition — and should be part of our bones and blood. 

A good place to start is with the introduction to the book of Genesis by Rabbi Naftatli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, best known by his acronym, the Netziv. Berlin was a towering figure and the head of the legendary Volozhin Yeshiva, from whose ranks came many of the great Talmudic minds of the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Berlin points out that the Book of Bereshit, or Genesis, also has an alternative name. In several places in the Bible, it is referred to as Sefer HaYashar — the Book of the Straight or the Upright. But why? The opposite of straight, Berlin says, is “perverse and twisted.” It is possible to be righteous, to be zealous and God-fearing, but to act perversely and hatefully in relation to other human beings, in particular to those whose beliefs are different than yours. This kind of perversity is what marked the last generations of the Second Temple period, the age of “hatred for no reason”, and is what led to the Temple’s destruction. 

But our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose story makes up most of Genesis, were not like that, and that is why their book, Genesis, is called Sefer HaYashar. Berlin emphasizes the relationship of the forefathers to non-Jews, even to “detestable idolaters.” “Our forefathers extended love and concern for their welfare,” Berlin writes, “because this is what gives existence to the creation.” He cites Avraham’s prayer even for the people of Sodom, and Midrash Rabbah’s interpretation of a passage from Psalms: “You love righteousness and loathe wickedness,” as “You love to vindicate my creation and you loathe to convict them.” Berlin likewise cites Isaac’s quick reconciliation with Avimelech the King of Gerar, and Jacob’s softness with Laban, who only a few hours earlier was determined to destroy him completely. 

I realize that there comes a moment when it is necessary to stamp out evil, and in the case of Hamas, that moment has come. And I recognize that there are times when a government must put the safety of their own people above all other considerations. And yet even — and perhaps especially — in the midst of our justified rage at the incredible cruelty of our enemy, we have to remember that love and concern for the welfare of all people are part of what keeps the world existing, are part of why God created and recreates the world each moment. 

I personally have had contact with Gazans who detest Hamas and who have risked their lives to defy this despicable group and to reach out to Israelis. From the Hebron massacre in 1929, in which more Jews were saved by Arab Hebronites who risked their lives to protect them then were killed by the evil mobs,  to incidents that have happened over the last few weeks and months  in which Jews attacked in Palestinian towns were saved by other Palestinians, it is wrong to conclude that entire nations are responsible for what some have done. 

Thank goodness, I don’t have to make strategic decisions about bombings or invasions. I know that emphasizing ethical considerations complicate and confuse matters. And I know that if we want to destroy Hamas, it is probably impossible to avoid casualties among innocents. Yet, even when it comes to a Gaza controlled by Hamas, love and concern for those Gazans who are not part  of Hamas must be part of the conversation. It’s part of our ethical DNA. And the existence of the world depends on it.

About the Author
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.
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