Sermon for Parashat Mattot
“The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’ And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6
This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”
We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war? And what is it that we should be doing?
In a skype conversation earlier this week with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, we asked him to talk us through the very serious issues facing Israel that his organisation is engaged with and the list was long and depressing– serious economic poverty among many Israelis both Jewish and Arab , the problems of the asylum seekers and of the Bedouin in the Negev, the children who are traumatised by the stress of normal everyday living, the crisis of the unemployed and underemployed…. The reality is that while Israel is facing war, all the same problems are still there in her society, many of her people are insecure and vulnerable not just to the rockets coming over from Gaza and from the North but simply their place in society is not protected. He spoke of the work that RHR (known in Hebrew as shomrei mishpat, guardians of justice) has done not only in taking many cases to court in order to gain protection for people, but also in working with the government to mitigate some of the more draconian laws. He spoke with pride of the work done by Idit Lev to develop a policy to help the most underprivileged and of how Government was even beginning to work at funding it – only to say that now we don’t know what money there might still be, it may all have gone in the artillery into Gaza. We sat and listened to the analysis of all that must be addressed in Israeli civic society, conscious that when Israel is at war it is so easy to put these issues into the ‘pending’ file as the rockets being fired from both sides take centre stage in our attention.
He also spoke of the Jewish texts on self-defence, of the rodef, the pursuer, and the principles and laws that dictate the rules of self-defence, and of how we find a way through the tangle of feelings and thoughts that I guess most of us have been enmeshed in recently. Jewish law lays out a general principle of self-defence based on a Biblical case of a thief invading a private home at night (Ex. 22:1-2),: We read in tractate Sanhedrin “The Torah decreed, ‘If [the rodef] comes to kill you, kill him first’” (Sanhedrin 72a). But the rabbis also limit this principle extensively, recognizing the enormous danger of providing a legal way to bypass the judicial process and essentially allow murder. So rabbinic law provides that force must only be used if it will prevent a particular victim from being killed; such force must not be premeditated but rather a spontaneous act when life is in immediate danger ; and no more than enough force is to be used – in other words if you can achieve your objective without having to kill the rodef, then if you do so this principle will not defend you – you will still be liable for murder. Rabbinic law also clarifies explicitly that any self-defence in this case must not harm any innocent third-party. The verse: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (M. Sanhedrin 8:7) is used to teach us that everyone who is aware in a situation must attempt to save innocent people from life-threatening danger.
The law of the rodef, the pursuer, is complex and problematic, and because it is based in biblical precedent, while it is bound by many rabbinic constraints it continues to live as a principle, both for our benefit in some circumstances and for a problematic approach to our realpolitik in others. But there is another kind of rodef we find in Mishnah – the rodef shalom. In Pirkei Avot we find that Hillel says “Be a student of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom), a lover of people who brings them closer to Torah.”
What does it mean to be both a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace? One response from Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah (16th century Tzfat, Land of Israel) suggests that the phrase ‘lover of peace’ refers to oneself and one’s immediate world, while the ‘pursuer of peace’ refers to the one who brings peace about between people. He writes “one needs first to love peace for oneself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”
The concept of the rodef moves in a process from its earliest incarnation of avenging the death of blood relative to permitting us to defend ourselves – even if necessary pre-emptively – against attack, and further it is the structure within which we can create a more peaceful world.
So how are we to be to be a rodef shalom, the figure that Hillel exhorts us to be? In a 4th Century text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan) we find this explication: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in their own place and is silent, how can they pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.”
And so it seems that we come full circle. Moses speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad asks “‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” The author of Avot d’Rabbi Natan challenges us that to pursue peace we have to go out from our own place and go searching into the world in order to bring peace about. And Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah says “we need first to love peace for ourself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”.
Sitting here and knowing that people we love and care for are potentially in danger, that the Land of Israel is once more at war, that many innocent people on both sides are becoming collateral damageis a painful and uncomfortable place.
Sitting here and watching the news on our various pieces of technology, we feel powerless and frightened, angry and misunderstood – and we desperately want peace. Across the world, many of us fasted this week on 17th Tammuz along with Muslims fasting for Ramadan – and then broke fast as two peoples together – as a way of making a statement that we want to have peace. (The hashtag on twitter was #hungryfor peace). Across the world many of us have sent supportive messages to family and friends, have signed petitions and donated money to organisations busy in building up relationships across the boundaries even while these relationships are under strain. But what else can we do?
It became clear to me this week just how conflicted I felt in my wanting to continue helping the social justice campaigns in Israel at a time when Israel is at war. Could we criticise an unjust situation perpetuated by Israel while she is facing such a serious time? Conversation with colleagues and friends here showed I was not alone in my anxiety, and it was interesting how the same conversation with colleagues and friends in Israel was different. They recognised the unease we feel in hutz la’aretz, the desire not to add to the criticism or the pressure. But they also recognised that we cannot sit quietly just because our brethren have gone to war – the critical issues of social justice do not go away, and to mask them because of the matzav, the emergency situation – is to abdicate our responsibility to our brethren.
So: to be a rodef for peace we need first to love peace for our own nation – including all the different groups who live within it, and then to go out to gain peace between Israel and her neighbours. To be a rodef for peace we need to agitate for the rights of all who live within Israel, as well as to drive dialogue and mediation between Israel and her enemies. And in that mode I tell you about this week’s events in Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev where despite the freezing of the Begin Prawer plan legislation until the Supreme Court decides the ownership of the land, the State is bypassing the judicial process and once again bulldozing this village, while the inhabitants who live in its only remaining secure structure, the cemetery, are fasting for Ramadan.
Can we stand by even though Israel is at war on its borders and its cities are vulnerable to missiles even though protected by the iron dome? I think we cannot, and I ask for you all to not stand by but to be rodfei shalom, people who agitate for peace. In the words of Isaiah 57:19 Shalom Shalom lerachot ul’karov amar Adonai שָׁלוֹםשָׁלוֹםלָרָחוֹקוְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַריְהוָה- Peace, peace, to the one that is far off and to him that is near, says the Eternal.
When Moses asks the two tribes ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?’ it is a rhetorical question. He is asking a number of things of them, and laying down some expectations. One of them is that they support their fellow Israelites as they fight for their land. One of them is that they don’t just sit comfortably and take no responsibility for their own community, and one of them, one which speaks deeply to me, is that we are one people, one community, regardless of all the differences of practise and of opinion that are so vehemently expressed wherever you look in the Jewish world. The Talmud reminds us (Shevuot 39a) Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. It comes in the context of sinning, where if one Jew sees another about to sin, they have the obligation to step in and prevent them. We have real responsibility for each other, and according to Jewish law that communal responsibility is an obligation. Working for the health of community and the well-being of everyone within it is a primary obligation from which much else of value follows.
I chose to work as a community rabbi because I believe in Judaism and I believe in community. I chose to work in South London for so many years because I see in this area a reflection of what I grew up with – a community that can overcome its differences and work together for shared principles and values, that takes its place in the world and that recognises the interconnectedness of our lives. I wrote in Kehillah about this, about the role of community in our lives and the need to nurture it and build it. I would like to finish with the words I ended that article with:
A Jewish community is more than a place for prayer, though that is at its heart. It is a place for gathering, for shared purpose, for organising support for each other as we all face life’s trials. It is a place of safety and for challenge, for learning and for teaching, for deepening our understanding about ourselves and enacting our life’s purpose.
For me as a Jew, as well as as a Rabbi, the building and nurturing of a community has been a source of energy and a source of comfort. And I know that the work will go on here. The words of Rabbi Tarfon speak in my mind “Lo Alecha ha’Melacha Ligmor, VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena” We are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from engaging with it.
So I wish for you to “gei gesundeheit” to go well with the continuing journey. And “Chazak ve’ematz”, be strong and of good courage as you enter the next chapter of community life.