Benjamin Blech

When history rhymes

What can Israel do when the enemy states clearly that massacre remains its goal and Jewish death is the only end that will satisfy?
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold up photographs of their abducted relatives, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold up photographs of their abducted relatives, at 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Mark Twain profoundly observed that “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

Today’s Middle East conflict between Israel and Hamas goes back years. It is a battle that seems to have no end. And the war not only rages between the direct two participants but also with millions of observers as well.

After the barbaric savagery of October 7, as Hamas ignored an existing ceasefire and committed atrocities against Jews not seen since the Holocaust, we rationally would have assumed that the world would condemn the perpetrators of unimaginable evil. However, as we all have come to sadly recognize, the victims have somehow become the villains, while, amazingly, the initiators of violence have for many been granted the greater claim to moral support.

Shades of a remarkable biblical story. In fact nothing less than an echo of the very first murder in history.

It is the Bible that records the event. Even before there were nations, fratricide took place in a family. Cain murdered his brother Abel. The context mystifies many readers.

Here are the words in Genesis 4:8: “And Cain said to Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” The verse begins by informing us that Cain said something to Abel – yet never tells us what he said! The murder is shrouded in mystery. All we know is that “Cain said to Abel his brother”!
Jewish commentators provide us with a remarkable — and currently relevant — answer. The missing words are in fact provided in the text. They explain Cain’s “success” in accomplishing the killing of Abel: “Cain said to Abel ‘his brother.’”

Cain was wise enough to grasp Abel’s chief weakness. Abel may have been physically stronger, but he had a conscience. What Cain could not resist was a plea to Abel’s ethical principles, to his commitment to family and brotherly love. So Cain shrewdly stressed that he was after all still “his brother.”

Abel acceded to Cain’s humanitarian plea — and signed his own death warrant.

It is time to relearn the biblical truth that there is a time for peace and a time for war. To ignore the reality that Hamas itself proclaims — its goal the continued murder of Israelis and Jews as well as an end to the civilized Western world — is to echo Abel and choose suicide “on humanitarian grounds.”

“Humanitarian grounds” has such a nice ring to it. It almost sounds biblical. So, in one of the most unbalanced hostage trades in history, Israel some years ago, in 2011, released over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many with blood on their hands, in exchange for one captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

When finally Shalit returned to Israel, some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were set free, amid sharp criticism in Israel. Among the freed prisoners were killers sentenced to life in prison and masterminds of attacks against Israelis. A Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, was quoted in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat as confirming that the prisoners released under the deal were collectively responsible for the killing of 569 Israelis. In the years that followed many more horrific murders were the work of those freed in the name of a “humanitarian purpose.”

Perhaps the most ironic result of Israel’s display of “brotherhood” was the tragedy of the recent massacre of October 7 — orchestrated and planned by Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in Gaza, who was one of the prisoners released in the Shalit exchange, after his four life sentences were cut short by the deal.

Should we not have learned the lesson of Cain that there are times when murders need to be prevented by resistance to duplicitous pleas ostensibly made in the name of righteousness? When Cain called for a cease fire because he was losing the battle, Abel let down his guard — and lost his life.

The Talmud at first called the payments for release of hostages a major mitzvah. But when enemies of the Jews realized that they possessed a “golden egg” for endless wealth by taking hostages for whom huge sums of ransom would be paid — a humanitarian trait responsible for the very opposite result so that taking prisoners greatly escalated — the rabbis called a halt to the newly created gentile “business.” When the great German talmudist and poet Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg, one of the shining lights of 13th-century Jewry, was kidnapped and held for an exorbitant ransom, he famously directed his community not to pay and he died in prison after seven years of captivity

With heavy heart and much soul searching I wonder if we too have an obligation not to heed the seemingly seductive and humanitarian claim of Cain to embrace our mutual “brotherhood” — when our “brother” makes it clear that massacre remains his objective and our death is the only end that will satisfy his hatred.

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, and lecturer.
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