The Torah portion of the week describes the familiar and unfortunate events which lead to Moses’s miscalculation and the tragic outcome by which he was denied entry into the land of Israel. Moses, probably the greatest leader known to mankind, is approached by a large portion of the Jewish people who complain that they want water. After approaching God for a solution, he is told by God to “speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters”, but rather than speaking to the rock Moses hits the rock with his staff. Hence in retribution, God informed him that he would not enter the land of Israel with His people. Many commentaries struggle with this episode as to why Moses, God’s most entrusted servant, was punished so severely over what seems to be a minor infraction. Maimonides explains that Moses’s sin concluded with his hitting the rock but it began with his misuse of speech as he amassed the Jewish people around the rock he said, “listen now o rebels”. Maimonides explains that Moses was wrong for having referred to the Jewish people as “rebels” because although it was said in a state of frustration, it was insulting and demonstrated a lack of faith in the people. It is difficult to describe the predicament the Jewish nation found itself in without water as a tragedy, and perhaps the people themselves should have demonstrated more faith in God having witnessed so many miraculous events during their journeys through the desert, yet Moses was punished for his tone and the way he addressed them under the circumstance. As I reflect upon the Torah portion and the circumstances we find ourselves in here in Israel today, I submit that unfortunately we tend not to learn from our past mistakes and history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
The Jewish people are confronted with what everyone agrees (even at this point UN Secretary Spokesperson Farhan Haq of the United Nations) is a most tragic incident; the abduction of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel. Once again the people of Israel must grapple with questions which all too often resurface under heart-rending circumstances; what should we do and how should we react? As a rabbi I suggest prayer although I can understand how such a prescription, well intentioned as it may be, does not speak to all segments of the Israeli population. While I cannot come up with one successful formula with which to approach this imminent tragedy, let alone contemplate the developments of such a calamity, it appears that some rabbis such as Rabbi Dov Lior and religious publications such as Yated Neeman, believe that they can.
Yated Neeman ran an article asserting that the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths by terrorists was a punishment from God for the government’s enactment of legislation that would see a larger number of Haredi yeshiva students inducted into the army. The editorial compared yeshiva students to soldiers who serve on their bases (yeshivas) and that, “when the government tries to execute the systematic kidnapping of Torah students from their places of learning, when it tries to kidnap soldiers from their bases and to diminish the only army that truly protects [Israel], the land’s stomach churns and it wants to vomit them out”. One can only read such words in disbelief and wonder how it is possible for a publication which claims to represent the ideals of the Torah, whose ways are described as “pleasant and peaceful”, can be so insensitive to the families and victims involved and publish such distorted divisive comparisons at a time when people are longing for and in need of unity. I am not sure about the land’s stomach churning but I know that after reading this article, my own stomach took ill. Rabbi Dov Lior accused the government of enacting policies that led to the kidnapping, “To our chagrin, we have been witnessing a serious deterioration in the government’s attitude toward the state’s Jewish character. There is a barrage of laws whose common denominator is to damage and chip away at the Jewish character of our public life.” He then wrote on his facebook page that Israelis should contemplate how their slackening religious observance brought punishment upon the nation. Lior’s audacity to accuse and castigate effectively reveal his self-glorification, and his attempt to play God divulges an insolence which desecrates God’s name at a time when sanctifying God’s name is of the utmost importance.
Lior and Yated Neeman consistently criticize people like Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and MK’s from parties such as Meretz, for their unsympathetic views of religion and their lack of appreciation for the contributions that religious institutions offer the country. Interestingly enough, immediately after hearing of the tragedy, Yair Lapid went to look for the prayer book he last used at his son’s Bar Mitzvah so he could utter some prayers to God as an act of unity at a time of need and desperation. Lapid said,
“I haven’t prayed for six years. Since the bar mitzvah of my son I haven’t been in a synagogue. When the story (of the capture) broke, I looked through the entire house searching for my grandfather’s siddur (prayerbook). I sat and prayed”. While the words of the rabbis who people turn to for spiritual guidance were accusatory and contentious, Yair Lapid’s words were inspirational and harmonious.
Meretz party chairwoman MK Zahav Gal-on responded to Rabbi Lior’s comments saying,
“It’s nice to know that the holy rabbi has opened a direct line of communication to God and can read his thoughts, if he can truly connect with the higher powers in such an intimate way then perhaps he can do us all a favor at the same time and also ask where the kidnapped [youths] are being held. Until Lior can bring us something useful from heaven he should keep his ugly incitement to himself”. While the words of the rabbis who people seek for wisdom were nonsensical, Gal-on’s comments were sensible and poignant.
Finally outgoing President Shimon Peres, himself not a religiously observant man, commented,
“Three families like this can lift up a nation to heights previously unknown, and I’m not exaggerating. It’s been several days that Israel is different, unified, joined, praying, fighting,”
It is comforting to know that the vast majority of the Jewish nation in Israel represents a sound united front in wake of the tragedy, yet it behooves us to promote unity and coherence even after God willing the boys are brought home.
Meanwhile, certain rabbis and leaders will have to continue to learn that words can be most damaging and that sometimes things are better left unsaid, but should they still feel the uncontrollable urge to speak, they should simply join in with the rest of us and declare,
Bring our boys home!