Jews Have Returned From Exile To Their Ancestral Homeland, And Are There To Stay [Parshat Pinchas By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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In July 2011 I was asked to help lead an ECJS Taglit-Birthright  group to Israel, made up of young Jewish singles, aged 18-26. Participants came from many European countries, including Ireland, France, Finland, Germany, Italy and Spain, who in the main were not religious and had never visited Israel before. The few who had been to Israel previously, had mainly been on sun holidays to Eilat rather than what we had planned, which was ten days of non-stop experiences, rising early for a full day which left us exhausted by evening.

The exhaustion was not just physical, although strenuous hiking in baking sunshine definitely takes its toll. The exhaustion was also emotional, as different sites and sights evoked a rollercoaster of emotions; tears in Yad Vashem, awe at the Kotel, pain in the Har Hertzl national cemetery, and joy kayaking down the Jordan River. The sights and sounds are so varied, and so profound that you are often left speechless, whether thinking about the last moments of the Zealots atop Masada, or wondering who last ate from the broken plate you dug up in Beit Guvrin, buried over 2,000 years ago. Our group went through an amazing transformation in those ten days, from strangers to family, and from thinking about Israel as a holiday destination to seeing it as the ancient Jewish homeland, deserted for two thousand years, and now vibrant and flourishing once again.

For some though, it was transformative in another way altogether…

As we left Ben Gurion airport on our first day, and headed up north to begin our trip, we spotted two army tanks at the side of the road, and I took the photo above. The driver pulled the coach over and suggested we meet the chayalim, and everyone started to get off. I saw one young woman who was sitting by the window not moving, who seemed to be trembling. I asked what was wrong, and she just pointed at the tanks, terrified. Her perspective, informed by years of European media broadcasts, was that Israeli tanks were death machines, and dangerous to approach. It was then I saw the little blonde-haired boy playing on top of the second tank (middle of the photo), and saw his family nearby. I showed her the kid and she agreed to get off with the group and meet the soldiers. Of course she quickly realised that the chayalim were exactly her own age, and had exactly the same interests, shared with young people across the planet. Her perspective changed in about ten minutes, as it suddenly dawned on her that maybe she had been fed misinformation for a very long time.

Later in the trip, a small group of soldiers, male and female, joined our coach for a couple of days. They ate with us, joked with us, played sports and joined the trips. In the evenings they sat with us for heart to heart conversations, trying to answer the searching questions that were being thrown at them by Europeans who had never lived in the Middle East and were struggling to come to terms with the culture and the conflict. They shed tears as they spoke of friends and family killed in battle, young men and women in the prime of their lives; they spoke of their desire to lead normal lives, to study, to travel, to have fun … but most of all to have peace. Every single Israeli we met, soldier or chef, bus driver or yeshiva student, told us the same thing – they told us of their overwhelming desire for peace, of their bitterness at being forced into wasting years of their lives being drafted into an army to fight an enemy they had no desire to fight.

They spoke of the pain at having to go to war, again and again, to defend themselves from attack, and how they failed to understand why the world did not understand.

One of our security detail, a tall, strong, silent type spoke to me privately. He told me of the impossible situations that happen in war time and the moral dilemmas soldiers face. “What would you do,” he asked me, “if you came across a father and son pointing a loaded rifle at your face, but it is the son, about eight years old, who has his finger on the trigger and his eye on the sight, whilst the father stands over him, telling him to shoot? Do you kill a child, and risk international opprobrium and possibly a court-martial, or do you let yourself get shot at and injured or killed?”

We don’t want a war,” he said, “none of us. We just want to go to university, get jobs, get married and raise families like everyone else. But the day we retire the army is the day we are driven into the sea. We simply have no choice.

And so we continued our tour, and we saw the tapestry of Israeli life, we saw Yemenite Jews and Ethiopian Jews, we saw British Jews and American Jews, Chinese Jews and Indian Jews; Jews from every corner of the globe. But we also saw Muslims and Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists, and we saw them living together, shopping together, dining together and sharing a country together. We even danced around a newlywed couple singing Siman Tov uMazal Tov, until our tour guide whispered to us that they were in fact a Druze couple, and not Jewish at all! Our young people saw for themselves, with their own eyes, that those that want peace can live in harmony together. Those that hate will always be at war.

Tragically, Israel today is at war again, and war only leads in one direction, to rivers of tears, and oceans of pain. Once again a blinkered world challenges Israel for responding with military might to the hundreds of rockets that traumatise Israel’s citizens, Jew and Gentile alike. As schoolchildren in Sderot learn nursery rhymes that keep them calm whilst running to the bomb shelters, world leaders talk about patience and restraint, about proportionality and about David and Goliath.

If only they could have sat on our coach, and met the people we met, the soldiers we traveled with, the schoolchildren of Sderot, and the citizens of Israel who all say, with one heart, “Give us peace and we will reciprocate with peace,” maybe then they would understand. Until they do understand, we can do spiritual things; we can pray, we can give charity, we can put on tefillin, we can study Torah, knowing that G-d watches over the Land of Israel from the “beginning of the year to the end of the year,” protecting its citizens from harm.

May G-d grant wisdom to Israel’s neighbours to accept two facts: Firstly that the Jewish people have returned from exile to their ancestral, G-d given homeland, and are there to stay; secondly, to understand that if and when they are ready to renounce violence and incitement, there is a hand already outstretched for peace … all they need to do is grasp it.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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


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