Humiliated on the Temple Mount

Snow on the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City is seen from the Mount of OlivesLast week, I went up to Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount).[1]  I’ve been there a number of times before, but this time was different. In the past, I have gone to the Mount as part of an organized group of religious Jews led by a rabbi. This time, I was there as part of the course I’m taking to get my tour guide license. My classmates are mainly secular Jews, and there are some non-Jews in the class as well. I was the only rabbi with us.

In some ways this experience was even more uplifting and inspiring than my previous visits, and in other ways, it was even more infuriating and humiliating.  Let me explain.

Security on the Mount is provided by armed Israeli police and unarmed officials of the Moslem wakf (religious trust), like this guy:

wakf guard

The policy of the Israeli government and police is to allow Jews to visit the Mount, but not to pray there, since that would apparently offend the Moslems. But for some reason, while the police vigorously enforce these prohibitions, they allow deliberate provocations from the other side. For example, groups of Arab women are bussed in to Jerusalem every day, just to follow Jews around the Temple Mount, shout loudly at them and taunt them (rumor has it they are paid a salary for their services). See this video for an example.

In previous visits I have gotten used to this intolerable situation. But this time, going “incognito” with a group not identified as religious, I was left more or less alone. Going up as a tour guide and not as a religious Jew also gave me the opportunity to enter a few places I otherwise would not have been able to, mainly the underground chambers from the time of the Second Bet HaMikdash known (inaccurately) as “Solomon’s Stables”.  That was really amazing.

solomons stables

“Solomon’s Stables” built by King Herod

shaar hulda hallway

Hallway ascending to the Mount from the southern gates known as “Shaarei Hulda”. Our ancestors in Second Temple times used this entrance to the Mount.

So why do I say that my visit was also infuriating and humiliating?

In order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Moslems, we were told in advance that we would not be allowed to display any outward Jewish symbols such as a kippa or tzitzit. These would need to be concealed. This bothered me greatly – do I really have to hide my Jewishness here, in the heart of Jerusalem??

But then it got worse. At one point the police told us we would need to remove our hats altogether and walk bare-headed. I explained that I didn’t want to do that; I always keep my head covered for religious reasons, it was a hat and not a kippah, and all the tourists on the Mount were also wearing hats (it was raining). But I was told that this is the rule and if I did not comply, I would have to leave the Mount immediately.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – I have never received a demand like that from a policeman, anywhere in any country (to the contrary; wherever I go, the police protect my rights). Was an Israeli policeman actually demanding that I remove my head covering??? Here, of all places???  I had to make a split-second decision: comply with the demand, or be expelled from the Temple Mount. I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not…but I complied.

A few minutes later, with my hat back on and in a better mood, I experienced an even more exhilarating aspect of the visit. On two separate occasions I needed to wait for my group (for example while they were in the areas that halacha prohibits entering). According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to engage in frivolity or idle chatter on the Har HaBayit, so those waiting times gave me the opportunity to observe the mitzva of mora mikdash – reverence of the holy site.

Although I am strongly opposed to them, I was careful to abide by the rules that prohibit Jews from praying out loud. So I simply stood still, staring at the Dome of the Rock (where the Holy of Holies is) and contemplated the awe-inspiring significance of the place. Even though I did not pray out loud and I made sure to follow the rules that my lips not be seen moving, I did manage to recite Psalm 24 to myself about five or six times. With a religious group, the police generally keep the group moving, so there is no time for that.

But then, a wakf guard noticed me standing there, absorbed in my thoughts and swaying softly. He immediately approached and told me that praying was forbidden. I responded that I was not praying; just standing there. He insisted that I stand in a different pose in order to make it clear that I am not praying. An Israeli policeman then asked me to sit down so that nobody would think I was praying.

Since descending from the Mount, the conflicted emotions of soaring spiritual inspiration combined with pain, humiliation and deep sadness have gotten me thinking. I have drawn three conclusions from this experience:

1)  In spite of the indignities, we must be very grateful for the fact that we have the right and ability to visit this holiest of places in accordance with the demands of halacha and in safety and security.

2)  The humiliation I felt at the hands of the authorities was once commonplace for Jews. Thankfully I have almost never experienced anything like that – certainly not here in Israel but not in any other country either. The experience was, therefore, a helpful reminder that the Redemption is still not complete. It highlights the paradox that although the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt in the most splendid of ways, its most important part remains in ruins. I felt the churban very clearly there.

3)  It is unconscionable that the Israeli government allows this type of disgrace to go on. We must use every legal means to pressure them to change this policy and allow Jews to pray openly and securely. If Moslems object and attempt to interfere, it is they who must be removed from the Mount.

But we must understand that the reason this is happening is that most of the Jewish people doesn’t understand the significance of this place. Imagine if the government wanted to restrict Jewish prayer at the Kotel. Any government that even attempted such a thing would be brought down within minutes, because the Israeli people would not stand for that. The humiliation at the Temple Mount will similarly end when the Jewish People are reconnected with it.

Thus, the solution to this injustice, like so many other things, comes down to the need to encourage more and deeper Jewish education. We must redouble our efforts to teach more Torah to more Jews everywhere. Ultimately that is what will lead to our Redemption.

[1]The halachic questions regarding entering the Har HaBayit should be the subject of a separate article. For now, I will say that many rabbis hold that it is prohibited at the present time to enter the Mount at all. However, I obviously follow a different opinion, also supported by many authorities, that allows it provided one immerses in a mikveh first and observes various restrictions regarding the areas of the mountain that are permissible, and regarding appropriate conduct on the Mount.

What are YOU doing about Shemita?

vegetablesNote: This post, which is also entitled “The Challenge of Shemita – Part Two”, primarily addresses those who live in Israel. Readers in the Diaspora are of course also invited to read it and to contemplate the questions raised.

Just before Shemita started, I wrote about the conceptual idea of this mitzva, and the inspiring values that Shemita represents.  Now, after half a year of eating holy vegetables, teaching about Shemita and taking people on tours to learn the history of Shemita and meet farmers who struggle to observe it in the best way they can, I want to talk a bit about practicalities.

For those of us who aren’t farmers, observance of Shemita is expressed primarily in the question of which fruits and vegetables we consume. Although there are numerous possibilities, in broad strokes we have three types of options (See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for more detailed explanations):

  1. We can buy the “standard” produce sold in most stores under supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, grown using the Heter Mechira, on land that has been temporarily sold to a non-Jew in order to remove its sanctity and exempt us from observing Shemita Although there is a broad consensus that it is necessary for many farmers to rely on this leniency, some kashrut organizations refuse to certify this produce and many individuals are reluctant to consume it, for both halachic and philosophical reasons.
  2. We can seek out produce grown and marketed by Jewish farmers in ways which are permissible during Shemita without selling the land. These farmers also rely on leniencies and loopholes, but they are actually observing the mitzvah, not bypassing it. Some of the products grown this way (those marked “Otzar Bet Din”) have kedushat shvi’it (Shemita sanctity) and must therefore be handled with special care and used according to special regulations.
  3. Or, we can avoid the issue altogether by buying produce grown by non-Jews (typically local Arabs) or imported from outside of Israel.

Although I understand the halachic reasoning and the thinking behind all three approaches, my personal preference is clear: I try very hard to support Jewish farmers! Whenever possible, I invest the effort and expense to use Otzar Bet Din products or others from category #2. If that is not possible I will use Heter Mechira. Buying from non-Jews is my last resort.

Contemplating this decision allows us to explore two fascinating philosophical questions.

One question has to do with how we relate to Kedusha (holiness).  While I seek out and relish the opportunity to consume produce with kedushat shvi’it, many people do the exact opposite: they avoid it, because of the restrictions on how this produce may be used, and because one must try to avoid destroying it. When I teach about Shemita, I explain how it isn’t difficult to observe the restrictions, but still many people find them stressful. Why worry about mistakenly doing something wrong? It’s much easier, and safer, to buy non-holy vegetables, such as those grown by non-Jews.

But as always, there’s another side to that coin. Eating Otzar Bet Din fruits and vegetables is a rare opportunity for us to bring kedusha into our homes and lives (in the present halachic epoch, it is the only such opportunity).

So the question is: Is kedusha something to be feared, or embraced?  We pray for the Mashiach to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt. When those prayers are answered, are we going to run with joy to gather there? Or will we stay home for fear of incurring God’s wrath by violating the sanctity of the place?

This discussion is about a lot more than Shemita; it has to do with our entire hashkafa (outlook on life). Some people and communities live by a philosophy that views the world as a dangerous place, full of potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks to be avoided, and do everything possible to stay safe by avoiding any possibility of sin. I understand that approach – but I reject it. Staying “safe” carries an even bigger risk – it means giving up many opportunities for spiritual accomplishment and growth.

~~~

Modern Shemita observance also raises another philosophical question: Are we meant to serve God primarily as individuals? Or as a nation?

Many people look at Shemita as an issue of kashrut. As God-fearing Jews, they try to only eat food that meets the “highest standard”.

While this may make sense for items such as meat or milk products, when it comes to Shemita the issue is significantly more complicated.  This is because even many people who don’t rely on the Heter Mechira themselves will acknowledge that often, farmers have no other choice (see The Kosher Consumer’s Guide for explanation).  I’ve heard people say things like: “If I was a farmer, I would almost certainly sell my fields to an Arab during Shemita. I don’t criticize them at all for doing so. But since I’m not a farmer and this doesn’t affect my livelihood, why should I rely on the leniency?”

There is, though, a big problem with that type of thinking. Is it fair to abandon those farmers, by buying from non-Jews this year? For the past six years, we ate the food they grew. Just because we have other jobs and the mitzva of Shemita falls primarily on their shoulders, does that mean we have no responsibility towards them?  Does Shemita mean causing other people to lose money while we go about our business as usual?? Such an idea is quite far from the unity and equality the Torah wants to create this year!

This is even truer regarding those heroic farmers who take risks and sacrifice to observe Shemita without the heter mechira, by using expensive and risky methods like Otzar Bet Din and matza menutak. Especially for those who don’t want to rely on heter mechira, isn’t there an OBLIGATION to participate in the mitzva, by consuming this produce and helping cover the costs?

Shemita is not a mitzva for the individual; it is for the nation as a whole. Just because we aren’t the ones actually farming the land doesn’t exempt us from participating in the mitzva.

In my opinion, buying all of our vegetables from Arabs while letting the farmers absorb the losses is not an ideal way to observe Shemita. I certainly wouldn’t describe that as “Kosher LeMehadrin”.

The Challenge of Shemita – Part One

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will begin!

Here in Israel, once every seven years we observe the Sabbatical Year, the Biblical commandment (Shemot 23:10; Vayikra 25:1-7) [1] to refrain from agricultural work, to allow the land to rest and to grant everyone equal and unencumbered access to agricultural produce.

As in previous Shemita years, there has been much discussion and debate about how this law should be observed in modern times.  (I’ve recently published a small booklet explaining the various issues and opinions from the perspective of the consumer.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can download a copy here.)  These debates are important, and I hope to address them in a follow-up post in the next week or two.  But for now, moments before this awesome holy year is to begin, I would like to draw attention to the lofty and inspiring vision embodied by this commandment.

Shemita is described by the Torah as Shabbat HaAretz.  Just as we observe Shabbat once every seven days, the Land itself observes Shabbat once every seven years. [2]

But it is not only the land that rests.  All of the people who work the land rest as well.  In a pre-modern agrarian economy, this meant that probably upwards of 80% of the people (who earned their livings either directly from farming or indirectly from related fields like producing wine or oil, or selling agricultural products commercially) would have their employment drastically reduced for an entire year.  Just as we are commanded to cease our economic activity once every seven days in order to remember our Creator, to temporarily release ourselves from the “rat race” of pursuing a livelihood, to spend time with our families and to focus on spiritual matters like prayer and Torah study – so too once every seven years the entire economy was to go into massive slow-down mode, so that the same goals can be met on a national scale.

But Shemita isn’t only about God.  It is also about our relationship with each other.  It is about temporarily eliminating the gaps between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between master and servant.  The Torah specifically describes this aspect when it says “And in the Seventh Year you shall release and abandon [your land] so that the poor among your people can eat, and that which they leave over shall be eaten by the wild animals” (Shemot 23:10). [3] And to those people (a very small percentage in the pre-modern agrarian society) whose livelihood was completely unaffected by the cessation of agricultural activity, the Torah addressed the related commandment of Shemitat Kesafim – the requirement to release borrowers from the obligation to pay their loans, and to nonetheless lend money to anyone who needs assistance (Devarim 15:1-8).  The few people who were able to go about their jobs without restriction were obligated to essentially subsidize everyone else. [4]

Reducing our economic activity to such an extent requires us to rely directly on God for our sustenance, and putting our faith in Him to such an extent is very difficult.  For this reason, the Torah itself (Vayikra 25:20-24 and Devarim 15:9-11) uncharacteristically issues a special exhortation about keeping the mitzvah, and promises us a Divine blessing for doing so.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of the human weakness of Jews who didn’t live up to these challenges and various historical circumstances, much of Shemita observance today amounts to legal devices that allow us halachic legitimacy to sidestep these laws. In the case of the agricultural laws we have the Heter Mechira and other loopholes [5], and in the case of Shemitat Kesafim we have the pruzbul, an ancient device recorded in the Talmud that employs a legal loophole to enable lenders to collect loans in spite of the Torah’s commandment to release them.  Let’s be honest: these loopholes are legitimate but they are also, in a sense, cop-outs; we don’t violate the prohibitions, but we don’t live up to the Torah’s vision either.

The ideal of an entire society basically shutting down its economy for an entire year so that everyone, rich and poor alike, can spend the year focusing on spiritual matters and on social equality is apparently still beyond our reach.  It is for that reason that halacha gives us the loopholes, so that we can continue to function.  But that doesn’t mean we should reduce Shemita to a series of legal procedures.  If we can’t yet observe this mitzvah in its fullest, we can at least take a few steps in that direction.

For those of us here in Israel, that means making the effort to eat vegetables and fruits that are endowed with Kedushat Shvi’it (the special sanctity of the Shemita year) available through the Otzar Bet Din system.  More on that, b’ezrat Hashem, in the second post.  For Jews everywhere, though, the values of Shemita – taking time off to focus on our relationship with God and with each other, are still applicable.  And the imperative to help others financially even more than we do in other years, including lending money and forgiving debts when possible [6] also applies to all Jews everywhere.

I recently saw a fascinating website (in Hebrew) called “Shnat HaShevaThe organization behind this is pushing for the general public (with an emphasis on the non-observant sectors) to embrace the values of Shemita as a national social and spiritual imperative.

As we enter Rosh HaShana and begin this holy Shemita year, we should all be thinking about what each of us can do to help enhance the Jewish People’s observance of these commandments and to strengthen the fundamental values they embody.

Shana Tova and Shabbat (Ha’Aretz) Shalom!

 

[1]According to most authorities, contemporary observance of this law is based on a rabbinic ordinance and not Biblical law.  However, the rabbinic enactment is based on a Biblical idea.

[2]A friend of mine who lives near Kibbutz Shaalvim told me seven years ago that they held a cute little ceremony in the late afternoon on Erev Rosh HaShana.  The entire Kibbutz walked down to the fields in order to wish them “Shabbat Shalom!”

[3]This is an expansion of a theme inherent also in the weekly Shabbat.  Compare the two versions of the Fourth Commandment, Shemot 20:7-10 and Devarim 5:11-14.  Note the differences in the reason given for observing the law!

[4] This insight has powerful implications in our contemporary post-industrial economy.  Whereas in ancient times over 80% of people were affected by the agricultural restrictions, today only a miniscule percentage of the public works in these fields.  However, the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim applies to all Jews, even outside of Israel!

[5] See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for an explanation of Heter Mechira and the various other loopholes.  Although devices like Otzar Bet Din are much closer to actual observance of the laws then the Heter Mechira is, in its contemporary manifestation it is still far from the ideal described in the Torah.

[6] The pruzbul gives us the ability to lend money without having the debt cancelled by Shemita.  But there is no obligation to use it on every loan!  When lending money to a person with genuine financial need, it is praiseworthy to observe the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim in its most literal sense.

Did We Win?

press confIn their press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz insisted that we won the war against Hamas.  They correctly pointed out that Hamas, and the entire Gaza strip, suffered unprecedented damage that will take many years to repair, that Hamas lost around 1000 fighters, some of its most senior leaders, and most of its rockets, tunnels and other weaponry, and that Israel benefitted from wide-ranging international understanding.  They also pointed out that Hamas was forced to capitulate, eventually accepting the very same cease-fire proposal that they refused before the ground invasion. 

Netanyahu made the decision to avoid a full-scale reconquest of the Strip, which would probably have led to the deaths of many of our soldiers and subjected Israel to significant international pressure.  Apparently, he also doesn’t want to have to rule the Gaza strip again.

On the other hand, several members of his cabinet – most notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – argue that because of that very decision, the operation was a failure.  They correctly point out that while Hamas has been weakened it has not been destroyed, and that if they are able to replenish their supplies and reinforce their control as they have after previous cease-fires, the next round of fighting is inevitable, and it will be even more difficult next time.  Additionally, at least in Bennett’s opinion, the prospect of regaining control over the Gaza strip, including the ruins of Gush Katif, would not be a negative thing.

So who is right?  Did we win or lose?

The answer will be clear only with time.  If we are able to keep Hamas weak and prevent it from rearming, and if sustained quiet prevails on our southern border for a significant period of time, then Netanyahu’s tactical decision will be vindicated.  If not, then we indeed failed to achieve our objective.  Personally, while my world-view is closer to Bennett’s, I’m willing to wait and see.

But regardless of who turns out to be correct, at this point a few things should be exceptionally clear: 

  • We can never agree to a Palestinian state with total sovereignty over any land west of the Jordan River. This war we just fought against a fairly powerful Hamas army was a direct result of our disastrous withdrawal from Gaza nine years ago.  Even if Netanyahu is right that reconquering the Strip isn’t wise right now, we can never allow any Palestinian entity, or anyone else for that matter, to have sovereignty there. 
  • Even more so, we cannot entertain any such thoughts regarding any parts of Judea and Samaria, which are significantly closer to our population centers.
  • On a day when Al Qaeda militants just captured the border crossing between Israel and Syria and imprisoned 43 UN peacekeeping soldiers, we should be asking ourselves what things would look like if, God forbid, these guys were sitting on the hills overlooking Tiberias. Thank God we never made a deal with Syria and withdrew from the Golan.  Any such ideas should be removed from the table permanently.

And if Netanyahu is right, it’s only because the world tied our hands.  If we had international support, we could and would have recaptured the Gaza strip and destroyed Hamas long ago (or probably would never have left in the first place) – and the Arab population of Gaza would be much better off.  We must therefore hold the UN, the Europeans, and even the Americans, partially responsible for this mess – even if President Obama and Secretary Kerry are insulted when we say that.

Those leaders, however, are paying the price for their own errors as well.  Obama took pride in the “achievement” of withdrawing American forces from Iraq, he balked and decided to back down from his threats to attack Syria, and in return he got ISIS and the brutal murder of James Foley.  According to intelligence officials quoted in the media, the fear that ISIS operatives (especially those like Foley’s murderer, who have Western passports) will now conduct major terrorist attacks on American or European soil is very real.  One can only shudder with horror at the thought of what might happen if American and European foot-dragging allows Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu is absolutely right that all of these groups (Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, etc.) are ultimately all the same.

History has shown time and again that what starts with attacks against Jews never ends there.  Thousands of years ago, God told Abraham “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3).  It has been true throughout history, and it is happening again in front of our eyes.

When This is Finally Over….

soldiersToday is the 17th of Tammuz; a day devoted to national self-reflection.  So let’s pause and reflect on the very intense month our nation has been through.

So many things have happened, and so much has changed.

It began on Friday morning, the 15th of Sivan (June 13) when we learned that three of our children had been kidnapped.  Within hours, Jews across the spectrum and across the world were united in worry and prayer for these boys, whom almost none of us knew personally.  Those emotions – pain, worry, faith and solidarity – followed us for the next 2-1/2 weeks until one evening we heard the dramatic and devastating news.  The national worry turned immediately to national mourning, mixed with fury as we heard the audio recordings of the evil monsters laughing as they murdered our three holy, innocent children.

From the bereaved families to the Prime Minister, cabinet members and Chief Rabbis who spoke at the funerals, down to pretty much every blogger and facebook commenter I saw, the sentiments were just about universal.  Like many others, I also wrote about this a few weeks ago: the evil is unfathomable and the tragedy is devastating, but something positive did come from all of this – we learned that in spite of our many differences, we really are one family and we can come together for the most noble of purposes.

No sooner were the boys buried, though, then we learned about the horrific murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and a few days later the unthinkable was confirmed: some of our own people are capable of the exact same level of evil.  This shook us to our core and unleashed a flurry of condemnations from political leaders, rabbis and ordinary people – again with almost complete wall-to-wall unanimity.

But before we had a chance to digest that, rockets started flying, sirens began to blare, tens of thousands of our men were called up for emergency reserve duty (known as “tzav 8” here in Israel), and all Israelis found themselves constantly asking where the nearest bomb shelter would be. From our brothers and sisters abroad, the prayers resumed and expressions of genuine solidarity flowed in.

For a few hours this morning it looked like there was a cease-fire; by now it is clear that the fighting continues, and a ground operation may be just around the corner.  If so the prayers will certainly intensify, as we once again worry about the safety of our young men.  At some point, though, this round of fighting will come to an end (hopefully with a complete victory for the IDF).

And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to return to our normal lives for at least a while (although by now it should be clear that nothing involving Israel and the Jews is ever “normal”).  That would be a real blessing.  We all have important things to do in our personal and communal lives and it would be wonderful to be able to actually focus on those again.

And at that point, the differences, disagreements and emphatic disputes will return in all of their intensity.  The arguments will continue, and that’s actually a good thing.  Our rabbis tell us (Avot 5:17) that “an argument for the sake of Heaven is destined to prevail”.

The problem is that it might look like the unity is quickly dissolving.  But it doesn’t have to.  When we return to routine, things don’t have to go back to exactly the way they were.

In fact, that’s really what this time of year is about.  Our Rabbis also tell us (Yoma 9b) that the present exile was caused by “baseless hatred”.  Anyone who studies the history of that time understands that this is a reference to the many factions among the nation.  They were divided religiously, politically and ideologically, and they didn’t conduct those disputes as “arguments for the sake of Heaven”; instead there was civil war.

There have been a number of times over the past decades when it looked like we were headed back towards those dark days, making the building of a Third Temple appear even more remote, and maybe even threatening to reverse the dramatic Redemption already under way.  After this past month, though, we’re in a very different place.

We’ve been through a lot these past few weeks; we’ve suffered a lot, but we’ve also learned a lot about ourselves.  Indeed, we have so much to be proud of.  Let’s resolve together to hold on to that.

Jewish Terrorists

I had planned to put out a post tonight marking the ending of the Shiva for the three murdered boys, and commenting on the mood within our nation.  The breaking news tonight makes that discussion seem inappropriate right now.  Perhaps in a day or two.  For now, I would like to share these thoughts.

muhammad abu khdeirThere is still a gag order preventing the press from releasing details, but it seems that six young Jews have been arrested on suspicions of kidnapping and murdering 16-year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir last week, in revenge for the murder of our three boys several weeks earlier.  Muhammad was murdered several hours after Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali were buried.

If this is true, then the killers are Jewish terrorists. There is no other word for it, and they must be treated as such.

They must be tried, and if the evidence supports it, convicted and sentenced according to the full severity of the law.   There is no justification and no excuse for murdering an innocent child, no matter how understandable our grief or anger.  There is no difference between a Jewish and an Arab terrorist, just as there is no difference between a Jewish and an Arab victim.

And if indeed Muhammad was murdered by Jewish terrorists, that means there are terrorists among us, and this is a stain on all of us.  As the Bible teaches in the context of the commandment known as Egla Arufa (Deuteronomy 21:1-9), if someone is murdered near our communities, the entire community bears some of the blame.  We must all do some soul-searching to ask how it is that such people can come from our communities.  This cannot be allowed to ever happen again.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that although the Jewish terrorists are no different than the Arab terrorists, as a nation we are still very different from our enemies.  Let’s compare:

        • Three Jewish teenagers were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.
  • There were celebrations in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority governing party glorified the crime and launched facebook campaign celebrating the “victory” with three-finger salutes (while mumbling a six-word “condemnation” in English and continuing to celebrate in Arabic).
  • The murderers have still not been found.
  • Meanwhile, the people of Israel, and Jews all around the world, prayed and mourned.

Then,

  • An Arab teenager was murdered by Jewish terrorists.
  • There were swift condemnations by both the Prime Minister and the President of Israel, the family of Naftali Frenkel, and Israelis from across the political and ideological spectrum.
  • The Israeli police launched a swift investigation, and arrested six suspects within four days.
  • Meanwhile, thousands of Arabs are rioting violently and calling for a third intifada.

We are not like our enemies.  It’s our responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

The Kidnappings and Us

#bringbackourboys bus sign

(photo credit: Sara Haber)

Our enemies have identified our Achilles’ heel.  It’s infuriating, but we may as well admit it: they have figured us out and know how to get results.

They’ve learned that if you want to extort something from Israel, the way to do it is to kidnap our people and hold them hostage.  This isn’t a new revelation– they’ve already used this tactic to free 1000 terrorists in exchange for Gilad Schalit in 2011, leveraging experience they had gained after previous kidnappings, like the deal for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in 2008.  Undoubtedly, that’s the thinking behind the current kidnappings also.

Let’s be honest. Even after the worst terrorist attacks, including the mass suicide bombings of the early 2000’s, within a few days after the attack, we’ve all moved on emotionally.  Of course we are devastated, saddened, and enraged, and we will never forget the victims, but on the day-to-day level we move on. We have no choice – if we allowed terrorism to break us, we’d have been defeated long ago.

But when there are hostages, it’s different.  As long as we believe there’s even the slightest chance they are alive, we just can’t let go.  We worry endlessly about them and their welfare, exactly as if they were our own family members.  And most importantly, we are willing to do just about anything to bring them home.

We pray that this time it will be the IDF that gets our boys back safely. But ultimately, if it were to become necessary we might well agree to pay an absurdly high price again, just like we did for Gilad Schalit.  There were agonizing debates about the exchange back then, and they’ve become wrenchingly relevant again; yesterday the army announced that one of those released terrorists was indicted for the murder of Baruch Mizrahi right before Passover.  (Personally, as I wrote at the time I was very torn, and remain so now).

So they’ve found our weakness. What they don’t realize is that they have also revealed our greatest strength.

On the Sunday night following the kidnapping, there was a mass prayer at the Western Wall, with an estimated 30,000 people.  I was in the Old City that day, as my wife’s cousin was visiting Israel with her family, and I gave them a tour of the area.  It was their first trip to Israel ever, and they joined us at the prayer gathering.  Seeing the event through their eyes was amazing. Watching endless waves of people enter the Kotel plaza, they kept asking: Are all of these people really coming for three boys that almost none of them know? Are you sure this was only announced a few hours ago?  A teenager had recently been murdered in their hometown of Portland, OR, and the contrast in the public reactions was remarkable.

And it doesn’t stop. I don’t think I’ve been to a single prayer service in the past two weeks without an extra chapter of psalms being added.  I had the pleasure of attending two students’ weddings in the past two days, and both said a special prayer under the chuppah.  A few days ago the electronic siddur on my Android phone (Tfilon – highly recommended and free!) was automatically updated to include a prayer for the three boys’ release.

tfillon screen shot

(screenshot: Batsheva Haber)

And it’s not only the Orthodox. Many secular Jews have joined in as well, including talk-show hosts Avri Gilad and Hila Korah who recited psalms on their show as an expression of unity. A special Mincha prayer was held in the Knesset this week, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid reported that he prayed for the first time in six years upon hearing of the kidnappings.  And of course there was the instantly-viral #BringBackOurBoys internet campaign that continues to gather steam from all over the world.

Indeed, no other nation could show this type of unity.  It may be our greatest weakness but it is also our greatest strength.  It’s sad that it sometimes takes tragedies to bring it out, but we must learn from this. We pray that our boys – our boys – come home immediately and this tragic affair comes to a speedy end.  But then we have to make sure not to lose this.