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.

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What I Will Pray For This Tisha B’Av

This week, the Jewish world will observe Tisha B’Av, a solemn day on which we recall catastrophes that have happened to the Jewish people throughout our history, primarily the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of our people from the Land of Israel for a period of time that lasted nearly 2,000 years. Tisha B’Av (the name means simply “the 9th of Av,” which is the current Jewish month) is one of two 24-hour fasts on the Jewish calendar (the other being Yom Kippur), and includes the reading of the mournful Biblical book of Lamentations and chanting of kinot (dirges). In our day, so far removed in history from the time of the destruction of the Temple, Tisha B’Av has become a time to focus on Jewish peoplehood and the importance of unity. Often, texts and stories about the perils of people engaging in acts of gratuitous hatred and insensitivity are the focus of our discussion on Tisha B’Av.

This year, I expect that my prayers on Tisha B’Av will be infused with concern and worry about the war going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I’m imagining that my mind and my heart will be focused not on the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but on the danger, pain and suffering that are the offspring of war. I want to share what I think I’ll be praying for when I close my eyes in Tefilah on Tisha B’Av.

The first thing I’ll pray for is that the soldiers of the Israel Defense Force can come home to Israel in safety and unscarred by battle. I’ll pray for an end to war, and for an end to the reasons that this war had to be waged. I’ll pray that the young men of the IDF no longer have to risk their lives in battle, and that the reservists who have been called up to supplement the standing forces can return to their lives unharmed. And I’ll pray about the sadness of the lives of Israel’s soldiers that were cut short, and the pain that is surely endured by their families and loved ones.

I’ll pray that all the innocent men, women and children of Gaza who have suffered at the hands of despotic leaders and who have had their hopes for peaceful, productive lives sacrificed on the altar of ideological hatred, find their lives restored and their fears calmed. And I’ll pray about the tragedy of the civilian lives that are lost each day this dreadful conflict goes on.

The next thing that I’ll pray for is that in place of chaos, conflict and violence, the world in which we live becomes a place of wholeness where everything is in its proper place. On Tisha B’Av, we speak about the world being “overturned” (Olam Hafuch in Hebrew). Where people, communities and nations should be peaceful and tolerant of one another, we have conflict marked by violence. Where Israel, a democratic and peace loving nation that seeks to defend itself against terrorism, should be admired, instead is vilified in the media and leaders and followers cheer for the terrorists to be victorious. Where the Jewish people, who have contributed so much to the advancement of human civilization and who should have the respect of the world community, are instead the targets of hatred and disdain. Where people should love and embrace one another in a spirit of co-existence and tolerance, we have instead hatred marked by the desire to destroy the other. Where people of all ages should be able to pursue their dreams, they are drawn into war and violence. Indeed, on Tisha B’Av we symbolize Olam Hafuch by not wearing Tallit and Tefilin during the morning service (the only weekday morning in the Jewish year on which we should but don’t wear them), but we do wear them at the Mincha service in the afternoon. This year, I’ll pray that the acts of violence that shake our world every minute of every day, and the violence of war that has rocked Israel these past three weeks, are no more.

In the spirit of Tisha B’Av, I’ll pray that the destruction wrought by war, the broken lives, the broken homes, the shattered dreams, be replaced by new growth, new planting, new hope and fresh promise for the future. This is the rhythm of Tisha B’Av, one that I first experienced at Camp Ramah where this mournful day is experienced in a profound and impactful way. We begin with tasting “churban” (destruction), by telling stories of loss and tragedy. The first part of the day is marked by solemn chanting of our prayers, spoken and not sung, by reciting sad dirges and reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) whose words and cadence and melody quietly speak to us of the awful price of hatred and violence. But as the day goes on, we begin to focus on “binyan” (building), on gaining strength and confidence and hope that our dreams and ideals can be realized. This year, I’ll pray that the destruction, the hatred, the pain and suffering, the churban in this world, be replaced by binyan, by building up and by wholeness.

This is what I’ll pray for on Tisha B’Av…perhaps it should be what I pray for every day.