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Israel in Gaza: The elephant in the Room

Parashat Vayishlach 5784, delivered on December 1, 2023

There is a parable about a group of blind men who one day hear that a strange animal, called an elephant, has arrived in their town. Others guide them to observe together what this new beast may be. Each man places his hand on that elephant, inspecting the animal by touch alone.

The first person's hand land on the elephant's tusk. "This being is as thick as a snake," he says. The next reaches out and touches the elephant's ear. "And this part is kind of like a fan," he says. Another places his hands around the elephant's leg. "It is made of tree trunks," he says. The final person puts both hands squarely on the belly of the beast. "And this is like touching a wall," he declares.

Each person can only describe some aspect of the elephant, and each part is distinct and different, giving little clarity about the whole animal.

The elephant in the room is the war in Israel and Gaza, and we are the blind men, all describing the same animal but only able to capture one aspect of it at a time. It is so difficult to comprehend the totality of the situation, the magnitude of what is going on, and indeed, we struggle with the long-range implications for Israelis, Palestinians, American Jews, and others.

As conversations about Israel have gone on, I find some talk as if the one part of the conflict they touch is the entirety of the story. One then neglects other vital aspects of what is going on. When we are talking about one thing, we are not talking about something else.

Moreover, the struggle with talking about Israel right now is that by focusing on one thing, others are prompted to respond, "Well, what about…". When we speak of the trauma Israelis suffered on October 7 and beyond, it is not unreasonable to then turn and consider the pain and suffering of innocent Gazans. Likewise, for those who only speak of Palestinian liberation, of Israel as an occupational force on the Palestinians, they invalidate Jewish suffering. They write away our collective, historical trauma and the grief of loss from October 7 and beyond.

There is a Midrash about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea: when they made it to the other side, the waters closed up on the Egyptians, as we know, the Israelites began to dance, even as the bodies of their enemies washed ashore. And God called out to Miriam and the others, imploring them to modulate their celebrations, because those Egyptians were also God's creation.

It is easy to only see the world through one set of eyes, yet God in that Midrash reminds us to expand our field of vision, to go out and touch more than one part of the elephant.

Still, tonight, I want to consciously focus on one specific aspect of what has been going on. I want to be one blind man speaking about only one part of the situation, recognizing fully that we are only talking about one part of the story.

And that is about Pidyon Shvuyim, our Jewish obligation to bring home the kidnapped Israeli children, women, and men. As of today, 85 of the roughly 240 people captured on October 7 have been released. We know that at least four have died in captivity. Six children are still being held hostage, two of whom are under five years old. Twenty-nine of those still hostages are over 55 years old.

The news of this week has been about prisoner swaps, the morality of releasing Palestinians known to be violent, but mostly about bringing home our Israeli friends and family to safety. And please remember, any conversation about the release of the hostages is intimate. We have families at Hevreh whose relatives are among the 240. We have families at Hevreh and in our community who lost loved ones on October 7.

I assume we all have stayed up on the news around this. But why—from a Jewish perspective—must we be so focused on bringing home safely those 240 souls?

Think back to 2006. One June day, Hamas militants came across and captured several IDF soldiers, including Gilad Shalit. Shalit would remain a hostage for five years.

Shortly after he was captured, his family set up a vigil in front of the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

I lived around the corner from there and passed the vigil any time I went out, to go to the market, to meet up with friends, or to head to school. Over the next five years, as long as Shalit remained captive, individuals continued to sit vigil for him. Some set up tents and slept there overnight. They stayed there until the Israeli government successfully brokered his release in 2011.

There is debate about the timing of Shalit's release. Indeed, he could have been brought home sooner. And, as there have been now, there were questions of morality. How do we justify trading one life for multiple lives? Does it matter who the adversaries are who are being released? Recall the deal brokered last year between the United States and Russia, which brought home WNBA star Brittney Griner but freed a notorious Russian arms dealer. It is natural to wonder about the morality of releasing dangerous individuals to bring home the innocent.

From a Jewish perspective, though, the moral answer is clear: There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming the captive. In attempting to rank the 613 mitzvot, Maimonides places this obligation at the top of the list. Pidyon Sh'vuyim, redeeming the captive, takes priority, even over sustaining and clothing the poor. Yes, the captive and the poor are among the most vulnerable within our spheres of concern and care. But the captive experiences sakanat n'fashot, mortal danger. We are to preference redeeming our captives over clothing those in need.

Maimonides explains this in his master legal collection, the Mishneh Torah. The objective of that set of books is to clarify for anyone who studies it the very ways that we are to live a Jewish life, to create and maintain Jewish relationships and community. In his exploration of why we are to make pidyon shvuyim a chief concern, he gives three reasons, each based in laws found in Torah:

"Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin," he reminds us, quoting Deuteronomy. We violate our obligation to one another and to God when we shut our hands against the needy. When we close ourselves off to those in mortal danger, we transgress. Moreover, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." (Leviticus 19:16) When one of our own is in danger, we are to do something. And for a straightforward, positive reason: Ahavta l'reichah kamochah, we are to love our fellow as we ourselves are loved (Leviticus 19:18).

To bring back those held in captivity is the greatest mitzvah we can perform, because the greatest mitzvah we can embrace is the love of our fellow.

Maimonides likes to make grand statements like this—something is always the greatest thing ever. There is always one in the crowd who leans toward hyperbole. A person will invariably declare their spouse's cooking is the best in the world, that they have outdone themselves. In describing a recent trip, proclaim--that it was the nicest hotel we've ever stayed in, or a child will tell you, "That is my favorite toy in the whole entire world!"

Maimonides is not hyperbolic, though. He is specific about the importance of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming the captives. Whenever something is the greatest, that's because it is, and because it comes back to the essential qualities of (1) the preservation of life, and (2) the love we experience between individuals.

There is something else that Maimonides asserts is the greatest: the principle of loving your neighbor as you are loved. This is the greatest principle in the Torah, Maimonides states. Maimonides is settling an essential debate that started between two Talmudic rabbis, about what should be our focus: concern for all humanity (call it universalism), or love for those within our own tribe (call that particularlism).

Rabbi Aaron Panken z"l always taught that that question, that tension of universal values and particular attachments, is probably among the enduring debates of the Jewish tradition. Are we to be concerned for Ahavat Yisrael, the love of the People of Israel exclusively, or turn our sights toward others as an Or L’Goyim, a light unto the nations?

In the case of redeeming the Jews held captive, setting that commitment as the greatest mitzvah, we are leaning into our tribal obligations. By redeeming the captives we fulfill not only the explicit command for matir asurim, the release of those held, but we are also fulfilling ahavta l'reichah kamochah; we are loving our fellow Jew as we wish would be done for us were we in the same situation.

We often quote that mitzvah to love your fellow, which many identify as the beating heart of Torah, to describe our universal commitments. During the pandemic, some began to use that phrase as a blessing to mark the sanctity of mask-wearing. By masking up, we were preserving the lives of others. For that reason, one of my teachers once said that as she put on a mask for the first time in the morning, she would say to herself, "I am now ready to perform the mitzvah of loving my neighbor as I love myself." There were even masks being sold that had Ahavta L'reichah printed them.

Yet, this principle, while couched universally, is really about our Jewish tribal commitments. The intent of loving your neighbor is—in a close reading of the tradition—about Ahavat Yisrael, loving your fellow Jew. And so, we say, "Bring them home." Bring them home now because it is the greatest mitzvah we can do to make sure that our children and their families are safe in their beds tonight and always.

If that assertion makes you uncomfortable, because you are aware of the other parts of the elephant; then, I want to invite you to live with that tension. Rabbi Sharon Braus—rabbi at Ikar in Los Angeles—recently discussed the need to strengthen our tribal attachments. At the same time, we also reinforce our universal commitments. She is right. We live in the tension of caring for our own, wanting to maintain our humanity and focus on doing what is just, right, and moral for ourselves and those we encounter, whether in times of peace or war.

Jacob wrestles with an angel in this week's Parashah, Vayishlach and becomes Yisrael. Famously, Yisrael means one who struggles with God. It is a struggle today as we maintain our attachments to our tribal connections while maintaining a moral grounding. The mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, our effort to bring home those captured by Hamas, that though helps us respond to the tension. We need to bring them home to preserve their lives.

There are certainly other aspects of the elephant that are worth discussing, as well as other Jewish values and commitments of which we need to be aware. But for tonight, for this week, we give thanks for the 85 who have now come home, and we say: Blessed are You, Eternal Our God, for redeeming the captive. For the 155 who remain in captivity, we pray—we long for, we demand—their safe release speedily and soon. May these souls be our souls, may we live out our greatest value of Ahavat Yisrael, may we maintain our commitments to caring for all, and may this conflict end soon.

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