Do Not Be Broken Or Afraid Of Them [Parshat Devarim By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the L‑rd,
many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand,
sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were only one.

 This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
 
So I said to the L-rd, “You promised me L-rd,
that if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
 
The L-rd replied, “The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.”

Mary Stevenson, 1936

Today we begin reading from the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) in shul. Devarim differs from the first four books of the Torah, in that it is essentially Moses’ final speech to the Jewish people. Soon he will pass away, and they will ford the Jordan into the Holy Land, forty years later than planned.

In this final address, Moses castigates and encourages his nation, as he reminds them of their failings and the ensuing punishments, as well as their strengths and the consequent blessings. He reminds them of the dialogue that takes place after the spies returned with an unsavoury report about Israel: You said, “Where shall we go up? Our brothers have discouraged us?” and I replied, “Do not be broken or afraid of them. The L‑rd, your G‑d, Who goes before you will fight for you.” He continues, “… you have seen how the L-rd, your G-d, has carried you, as a man carries his son.”

On the last sentence, Rashi repeats a comment he made in Parshat Beshalach: This can be compared to a person walking along the road with his son walking in front of him. When bandits came to capture the son, he took him from in front and placed him behind. A wolf came behind him; so he put his son in front. When bandits came in front of him and wolves behind him, he put him on his arms and fought them off.

Most of us would recognise this as normative behaviour for a parent. We would like to think that a mother or father has a devotion to their child above and beyond what they have for themselves. If, G-d forbid, the tragic choice had to be made whose life was to be lost, it is assumed that a parent would always choose to save the child even at the expense of their own life. How many grim stories have we read from the Shoah where parents begged the Nazis to take them and spare their children …

What we are seeing in certain parts of the world now is an upheaval of those values, and even worse, a calculated and sinister play on other people’s love of children, to win a propaganda war. It is not only in Gaza that we see this happening, in fact British and American troops have been seeing this for years in their struggle against the Taliban … children used as suicide bombers, children trained to fire rifles and rocket launchers. For the soldier facing these threats, a terrible decision has to be made on the spot, and whichever decision is taken the consequences are horrendous. Save the child, and lose a soldier; kill the child and cause outrage, hatred and years of inner guilt.

Golda Meir’s quote about “not forgiving them for making us kill their children” is so apt right now. Killing an enemy combatant in a defensive war can be justified, leaving the soldier to sleep easy at night; killing a child, or a woman, or any innocent civilian placed in the line of fire is a whole different story … one that can never be erased from the memory. It is this for which Hamas must be excoriated, rejected and removed from power. Yes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, but there is no code on earth, no moral individual on the planet who can condone the murder of children by placing them on a battlefield, or by placing the battlefield next to them. While Israeli citizens under rocket fire cover their children with their own bodies, young boys and girls in Gaza are being cynically used as cover for munition dumps, rocket launch sites, and terror tunnel shafts in a violent war zone. If their cover holds, Hamas is happy; and if they die while those weapons are being targeted for destruction, Hamas is even happier, for then they win the propaganda war.

In Israel there is a famous expression, “Ein Breira,” which simply means “No choice.” For over a decade Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have been under rocket attack from Hezbollah in the North and from Hamas in the South. Miraculously, they learned to cope; they build shelters, warning systems and Iron Dome missile defences alongside the hope that one day a peaceful solution would be found. The deaths over the years were termed “korbanot hashalom,” Sacrifices for Peace. Now the situation is different; communities along the Gaza border simply CANNOT continue life as it was before, with the constant fear that at any moment of night or day, armed terrorists could emerge from the ground outside their home, to kidnap or murder them or their loved ones. That was the Hamas plan, and thank G-d it was caught and is being averted as we speak.

To flush out these tunnels, to find the rockets and the launchers means losing the lives of many of our young men in the prime of their lives. Never again will they laugh or smile, work or marry, play with their children or visit their parents. The loss is enormous, to their families and friends and to the entire Jewish nation. But that is war; and war means tragedy, losing life to save life, and the country understands and accepts that, however searing the pain. What will never be accepted is what Golda Meir said all those years ago, involving innocents, men, women and especially children, in a war not of their making.

It is with a heavy heart that I write again about a war that is still ongoing, about deaths on both sides. It is made even harder by dint of the fact that the world does not understand “ein breira,” nor do they understand the words of Golda Meir. Perhaps they never will.

We stand now in the Nine Days, an annual period of traditional Jewish mourning for the destroyed Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash. The mourning is now so much more poignant and real, as it is blended with the daily funerals across Israel. But the Nine Days (especially Shabbat Chazon) also embody a hope, a look forward to the imminent arrival of Mashiach, the redemption of our people, the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and an era of peace when “swords will be turned into ploughshares.” Then we will look back, and like the poem above, we will realise that throughout our difficulties G‑d was carrying us on His shoulders. May that day be very soon.  Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.

 

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