More than 3,300 Hizbollah rockets have hit northern Israel since July 12. After over a month of intense fighting we do not seem to have dealt Hizbollah any kind of fatal blow. They still have thousands of rockets left. Dozens are still falling every day. Israeli troops are still engaged in intense fighting only a kilometer north of Israel’s border – an area we certainly would have expected the powerful Israeli army to have secured weeks ago. The press reports that Israel’s cabinet is in disarray with intense bickering, the top generals in Israel’s ground based forces are unhappy with the way Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Dan Halutz, an air force man, is conducting things, and everyone is blaming Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for something. In the meanwhile, about 1,000 people have died – 850 Lebanese and 150 Israelis, including 40 civilians. Lebanon and Israel both have hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the fighting. Life has ground to a standstill in the northern third of Israel and in all of Lebanon.
In times when I feel troubled, I follow the advice of Psalm 121:
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל-הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבא עֶזְרִי: עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְי עשֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ:
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
And how do I turn to the Lord? By studying his Torah. This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, has several passages that are very relevant to the situation in Israel today. There are several references to the process of conquering the land of Israel.
There is a particular verse in this week’s parsha which speaks to the despair that many of us may be feeling.
כִּי תאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי אֵיכָה אוּכַל לְהוֹרִישָׁם:
“Perhaps you shall say in your heart, These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?”
The next verse gives us the answer: “You shall not be afraid of them; but shall well remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh, and to all Egypt.”
I translated the above verse according to Rashi’s understanding – for as you will see, how we translate one little word, “ki,” translated as “perhaps” above, can have a profound influence on how we understand what the Torah is telling us.
Rashi says we need to read the verses as follows: “Perhaps you’ll say in your heart, because there are so many of them, I can’t drive them out. Don’t say that! Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t try to explain the verse with one of the other meanings of the word “ki.” Naot Deshe, the Torah commentary of the Admor (rebbe) of Sokatchov, points out Rashi’s concern is that people should not despair. God forbid you should despair, and fall into thoughts like “how can we possibly win?” Don’t worry, don’t despair, as the next verse reassures us, God will protect us.
So if we apply Rashi’s teaching to the current situation, it would be a sort of comforting verse – don’t worry, it’ll be OK, God is with us—don’t despair.
But there are other—and I would suggest in this situation better and deeper—ways to understand what this verse is teaching us.
Sforno, a 16th century Italian rabbi, says to read “ki” as meaning when. This one little change, and we take the opposite message from what Rashi suggested. According to Sforno then, we read the passage as “when you say, ‘how can I drive them out,’ don’t be afraid of them.” This is because it is only when you despair of your own power – only when davka you do feel a little bit of despair – that you will turn to the true source of your deliverance, to God. Once you despair, THEN you will remember what God did to Egypt – THEN you will finally turn towards God, and will rely on the true source of salvation.
This is a hugely important message. If you don’t despair, it could be because you have full confidence in yourself. You feel you don’t need God. You feel that you can do it on your own. And this is a very dangerous mindset to have.
Naot Deshe points out that this is exactly what was the problem with Bar Kochba. If you are not up on your Jewish history, you may be wondering, what the heck is Bar Kochba. Bar Kochba was a Jewish military leader who lived in the 2nd century, nearly 2,000 years ago. Around the year 130 – sixty years after the Romans crushed one Jewish revolt, destroyed the Temple, and kicked the Jews out of Jerusalem – this upstart came along and wanted to try again.
The legends around how strong and brave Bar Kochba and his army were are astounding. Bar Kochba only wanted the strongest and bravest soldiers in his army. So he ruled that no one could join his force unless they were willing to cut off one of their fingers to show that they were not afraid of pain or being injured. After 200,000 men had cut off a finger to prove their bravery, one of Bar Kochba’s counselors said “you know, this may not be such a great idea. Why should we be injuring ourselves before we go off to battle? Isn’t there some other way to figure out who is worthy to join us?” Bar Kochba agreed, so he devised a new test – he would only accept recruits who could all by themselves uproot one of the might cedars of Lebanon. He found another 200,000 recruits who were capable of this daunting task. Today’s IDF should thank Bar Kochba, he’s probably the reason there are no more cedars in Lebanon for Hizbollah to hide behind!
So here was Bar Kochba – with an army of 400,000 men, a huge force, half of whom had cut off a finger to prove their bravery, half of whom had uprooted a cedar to prove their strength. Even the great Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest and most brilliant rabbis who ever lived, believed that Bar Kochba was the Messiah – God’s anointed, the savior, the one who was going to lead the Jewish people to victory over the Romans and to a once again independent Jewish state with the Temple rebuilt and Jerusalem a shining jewel.
But there were skeptics. Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta told R. Akiva, “grass will be growing out of your cheeks, and the Messiah will not yet have come.” In other words, “Akiva my friend, you are totally wrong, Bar Kochba is NOT the Messiah, you’ll be long dead and gone before the real Messiah comes.”
And, of course, Yochanan ben Torta was right. Bar Kochba was not the Messiah. He was totally crushed and destroyed by the Romans. One of the many disasters that Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar commemorates is the crushing of this revolt at Betar. And what was Bar Kochba’s problem? He believed too much in his own PR. He believed how powerful he was. He thought he didn’t need God’s help. In fact the Midrash says that Bar Kochba foolishly thought the Jewish people had been abandoned by God. He quoted Psalm 60 back to God, which says “Have you not rejected us, O God, so that you do not go forth with our armies?” Figuring with the Temple destroyed it meant God had rejected us and would not go out with our armies, there was no point in asking for God’s help. So he told God, “Don’t help us, and don’t help our enemies.” He figured as long as God wasn’t helping the other guys, he would be able to
defeat them militarily. Wrong. He should have asked for God’s help.
There are plenty of other historical examples of a powerful force being defeated by a smaller force. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War nearly 2500 years ago – a war in which mighty Athens was defeated by smaller upstart Sparta. As Victor Davis Hanson points out in his article “What Ancient History Tells Us About the War,” Athens was a democracy; a liberal, cosmopolitan society with a powerful navy and an overseas emplire. Sparta on the other hand was a poor, rural, oligarchic backwater. Primitive by comparison. Yet in the long run Sparta prevailed. Hanson argues this is because Athens was complacent, and didn’t respond harshly enough early enough to have a credible deterrent effect on Sparta – he argues that to avoid disaster, the West needs to act more aggressively against the Iranians and their allies. But if we look closer at the spiritual causes of Athens’ complacency, I suggest we find it was the same thing that led to Bar Kochba’s defeat – they believed themselves more powerful than the enemy.
For another example, look at Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49. In that situation, Israel was clearly the underdog. A weak army, lacking unity, lacking experience acting as an army, poorly armed, poorly supplied, fighting a vastly superior force of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Arab Liberation Army, with support from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Israelis were scared to death that they would be crushed. You can bet there was a lot of praying and crying out to God going on – they had no hubris, they had no confidence in an easy victory–yet they won.
Naot Deshe teaches that God does not send his salvation to those who think they have all the strength and power they need, that victory is in their hands. God lets them go their own way. Rather, God supports those who are afraid—those who say in their hearts “wow, how are we ever going to defeat these guys?” In other words, Sforno is right – it’s only when we are afraid – and we turn to God – that God will help us.
And I think this explains perfectly why so many of us are depressed by what’s going on Lebanon. Maybe Israel has had too many victories. Thanks to the tremendous dedication of the Israelis, as well as financial and material support from the United States, Israel is no longer the underdog. Israel now has the most powerful and capable fighting force in the Middle East, bar none. When the war in Lebanon broke out we certainly were not afraid, and we certainly did not despair. Yes, it was tragic, but I think most of us figured that within a couple of weeks the IDF would have Hizbollah cleared out, the rockets would stop falling, and that would be the end of this little unmarked speedbump on the roadmap to peace.
Boy, were we wrong!
The war in Iraq is the same problem for America. When it started, no one anticipated just how difficult it would be. We all know President Bush said “mission accomplished!” way prematurely. We never anticipated how “improvised explosive devices” could kill so many hundreds and thousands of people. We underestimated the tenacity of the resistance. In short, we were over-confident.
Now you may be a logical, rational person who has a hard time believing that God really comes to the help of those who are scared. But I believe this message is true – if you are over-confident in yourself, that is one of the greatest dangers you can have in a war. Too much confidence in yourself is a very dangerous thing – you will underestimate your foe. On the other hand, if you turn toward God you are acknowledging the limits of your strength and knowledge – and one way God will help you is that you will be more cautious and perhaps have a better estimate of your enemy.
This week’s Torah portion contains another instruction for conquering the land, besides to be afraid and rely on God – and that is to obey the commandments. Moses tells the Jewish people:
כִּי אִם-שָׁמר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזאת אֲשֶׁר אָנכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשתָהּ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְי אֱלקֵיכֶם לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ
“For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do them, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to hold fast to him; Then will the Lord drive out all these nations from before you, and you shall possess greater nations and mightier than yourselves.” Lazer Beams elaborates on this.
There are two commandments in particular I want to encourage you to follow today. The first is v’ahavta l’raecha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself. We need to remember that the war which we watch as a TV show is effecting real lives. People in Lebanon and Northern Israel are living in terror. We need to feel compassion for what they are going through. We are sitting here celebrating a wonderful double simcha, a bar and bat mitzvah in air conditioned comfort, certainly with no concerns about needing to run for cover, while in northern Israel today I’m sure there were children celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah in a stuffy underground bomb shelter, waiting for the sirens to go off announcing an incoming Katyusha rocket. A few weeks ago, the Conservative synagogue in Kiryat Bialik celebrated such a bar mitzvah. As one of the participants wrote, “His grandmother had tears of joy and pride streaming down her face expressing what we all felt inside. Here in the humblest of settings, threatened on the outside, we in solemn determination were keeping that age-old thread of Jewish perseverance alive.” We can only imagine what it must be like.
And with our compassion aroused, we need to put those feelings into action. The other commandment I want to call to mind this morning is one from next week’s Torah reading: “If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother; But you shall open your hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks.”
Our brothers in Northern Israel are impoverished by war. Their needs are tremendous. Large numbers of children are being evacuated to camps in the center and south of the country. People are out of work. Homes and businesses are being destroyed.
The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the Jewish Federations, has launched an “Israel Emergency Campaign.” The goal of the campaign is to help the most vulnerable populations in Israel’s besieged north, chiefly children, seniors, the disabled, and new immigrants such as those from Ethiopia. Our Toledo community has set a goal of raising $500,000 towards this campaign. As of Thursday, we have raised over $208,000 towards the goal.
There is another emergency campaign I would like to call your attention to, and that is one organized by the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel. To give you an example of what they are doing, my colleague Rabbi Tzvi Berger, rabbi of the Conservative congregation in Kfar Vradim writes “And Wednesday morning did begin quietly. I was talking to one of my Board members on the phone, we were making plans to shop for food to put in "care packages" for soldiers (we’ve been preparing baked "goodies" and buying treats for units serving in the area…), but
as we were talking, the warning siren went off.. It was the 1st of 12 such sirens over the hours ahead.” In the middle of bombs falling, our sister Conservative congregations in the north of Israel are not only trying to provide support to soldiers, they are providing space at Camp Ramah in the center of Israel for children from the north, they are providing scrip for pharmacies and supermarkets for people affiliated with our congregations who, already on limited income as hourly minimum wage workers, have been out of work for weeks and have had trouble buying medicine and food; they are helping to purchase supplies for people who have been living in shelters for weeks; and they are providing counselling for traumatized members of our communities and for traumatized families who are sheltered by our communities.
Lauri and I are contributing $500 to the UJC Emergency Campaign, and we are contributing $500 to the Masorti movement’s Emergency Relief Fund. This is over and above our annual contributions to both groups. I encourage you to “open your hand wide” to your poor brother who is in need, and to give generously to either or both of these vital campaigns at Israel’s time of need.
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, please strengthen the hands of the soldiers defending Israel, protect all innocent people, Jew or Muslim, Druze or Christian from harm, and help the leaders of Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority to speedily bring about a lasting peace in the region,