The Land is Crying

The war in Gaza is over (at least we hope) and the time for taking stock has come. For some, the question now is “Who won and who lost,” to which there is no clear answer. And for some, the question now is “Will Hamas eventually rearm and fire more missiles at Israel to advance its Islamic fundamentalist agenda,” to which, again, there is no clear answer. The government of Israel opted not to remove Hamas as Gaza’s rulers, perhaps because the international condemnation of the military operation necessary to do so would have been too much to bear, and perhaps because there was no consensus to do so within the Israeli cabinet. Now is the time for taking stock of what Israel has gained and what it has lost from this terrible war.

On my mind is a verse from this week’s parasha, Shoftim:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time…you must not destroy its trees… Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you? (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The verse refers to the Torah’s prohibition against destroying fruit trees during a war. As Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) taught, we cannot be so carried away in time of war that we forget the war will be over one day and people will have to live and feed their families in the place where the battle was waged. War demands restraint, decency and compassion. I believe we can be proud that when Israel is forced to wage war, it displays those qualities. Israel’s reluctance to completely obliterate its enemies is surely due to the fact that it knows the price of that victory in human and material terms. And we may surmise that Israel’s enemies, if they had the capability, would not be guided by those principles of restraint and compassion.

And on my mind is this verse from Parashat Shoftim:

You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you to possess. (Deuteronomy 19:14).

This verse appears in a section that underscores how important it is for the Jewish people to create a society based on justice in the Land of Israel. It addresses an area of law known in Hebrew as Hasagat Gevul, or encroachment. Simply put, there are rules that prohibit someone from moving a fence or a land marker in order to take away land from his neighbor and add to his own. Apparently, people did this either openly or in the dark of night, and the Torah prohibits it. A society based on principles of justice demands that people respect the boundaries between them.

There’s an old story told about this verse. Two farmers were having a dispute over land, so they went to their rabbi for a resolution. The rabbi heard each person present his case, after which he got down on his elbows and knees and put his ear to the ground. The two disputants were bewildered, and they asked the rabbi for an explanation of his strange behavior. “Shhhh…” said the rabbi. “I’m listening to the land and…it’s crying.”

In the folktale, the land was likely crying because the two farmers couldn’t settle their argument. In the context of the Gaza War, I think that the land is crying because it fears that the need for its defense it not over, because Israel still has enemies who wish to harm her, and because the people of Israel were forced to do terrible things to prevent further bloodshed and destruction from taking place.

With the war apparently at an end, my prayer now is that the land will stop crying, that Israelis will be able to return to the productive task of building up the land and of making it productive and prosperous for its inhabitants, and building up the nation that lives on the land. My prayer is that Israel’s enemies will cease their interminable efforts to displace and harm Israel, and that they will see the wisdom of laying down their arms and weapons of destruction and share in the blessings of peace and abundance that the land so generously offers.

Then, and only then, will the land stop crying.

The Importance of a Single Hebrew Letter

A lot has been written and said about the tragic war between Israel and Gaza that is nearing the end of its third week. Countless blog posts from analysts and commentators around the world have offered a wide variety of perspectives on nearly every dimension of this terrible conflict. The most moving piece I read this week came from Rabbi David Golinkin, head of The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem, who wrote about the funeral of Second Lieutenant Yuval Heiman, z”l who was killed in battle in Operation Protective Edge near Kibbutz Nir Am. Rabbi Golinkin attended the funeral because Yuval was the son of Zohara Heiman, a veteran worker in the Accounting Department at the Schechter Institute. The eulogies offered in memory of this fallen soldier of the IDF described him as a modest person who sought to excel in everything he did in life. His grandfather Yehudah, whose own father was killed in the War of Independence, quoted from the Book of Numbers (32:32) where it says: “And we ourselves shall cross over as halutzim before God into the land of Canaan.” In his eulogy Yuval’s grandfather noted that the word “we” in the verse (“anachnu” in Hebrew) is spelled in an unusual way, without the customary letter “aleph.” Why? Because the soldiers, the halutzim who go before the rest, are modest and they hide the “aleph”, the “I,” because they are acting for the good of the entire Jewish people.

That is the nature of the soldiers of the IDF. They fight with modesty, with the intention of putting aside their own needs for the sake of the needs of the State of Israel and the People of Israel. They fight to protect and defend Am Yisrael, not so they will have a place to live but to ensure that the Land of Israel is there for all who love and cherish the land as the homeland of the Jewish people. They fight not only to win today’s battle, but with the weight of all of Jewish history and all of Jewish destiny on their shoulders. When the soldiers of the IDF fight, they set aside the “aleph.”

I considered writing this week about an overturned world in which justice and morality are scorned, and terrorism, hatred and violence born out of narrow minded fundamentalism are rewarded. I thought about writing about the sting of anti-Semitism and the outrage and fear of being hated by so many in the world. I thought about writing about the importance of unity, felt so deeply at the Solidarity Rally organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey this week. But the funeral of Yuval Heiman speaks to me powerfully about what it should mean to be a Jew and a Zionist. We’re all called upon to suppress the “aleph” in the word “we.” In our support of Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael, whether in times of calm or times of crises such as we are now living through, we ought to act for the good of the entire Jewish nation. We are not soldiers in the IDF, who are too often called upon to risk their lives in defense of the State of Israel, nor are we citizens of the state who live under threat of missile attacks. But we can set aside the “aleph” by giving our resources, spiritual, emotional and financial, for the good of the nation of Israel. If we love Israel, if we are concerned about her welfare, that is the least we can do.