The Shmini Atzeret War (Dvar Torah on Parshat Bereshit, October 14, 2023)

I became rabbi at Ansche Chesed in August, 2001, just a month before 9/11. I was with you through the horror and anxiety of those weeks and months, into the beginning of the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was during the second intifada, which had begun a year before and would last until 2005. I was with you through those dark days when suicide bombers exploded buses, restaurants and markets almost every day, through the terrorism and retaliation in which some 1,010 Israelis and some 3,200 Palestinians were killed.  

So I learned early on what my job was going to be as rabbi. My job is:

  • To lift you up when you’re down, hold you up when you’re flagging; 
  • To tell you the truth and not lie; 
  • To point the way towards the good, and sharpen our moral sensibilities, so we can understand what life expects of us;
  • To prepare ourselves for the long road ahead;
  •  And to give ourselves whatever hope we can find, when the world looks hopeless. 

My job has never been so difficult as it is today.

About six months ago – no, wait, actually it was not even three weeks ago, on Yom Kippur night, September 24 – I told you the words of R. Nachman of Breslov: אין שום יאוש בעולם כלל, “there is no such thing as despair.” Today, despair feels overwhelming. Because just one week ago, on one single day, more Israelis – including non-Jewish Israelis and foreign workers – were murdered than in the entire five years of the intifida. More Israelis were killed last Saturday than on any single day since the Shoah.

About six months ago – on Yom Kippur night, three weeks ago – I said Israel’s greatest threat comes from within, from the social and political divisions. Confidently, I said, Israel can always handle external threats. Bad things can happen, but Israel is strong and will deal with its enemies just fine. That is still basically true; Hamas is not going to defeat Israel on the battlefield. But today it feels false, cavalier, naive. 

The Bible is a library, not a single book, and within it you can find the words to express so many different religious and personal emotions. Today I am drawn to a lament, Psalm 69, which describes desperation, despair and panic:

ב) הוֹשִׁיעֵ֥נִי אֱלֹקִ֑ים כִּ֤י בָ֖אוּ מַ֣יִם עַד־נָֽפֶשׁ׃ (ג)טָבַ֤עְתִּי ׀ בִּיוֵ֣ן מְ֭צוּלָה וְאֵ֣ין מׇעֳמָ֑ד בָּ֥אתִי בְמַעֲמַקֵּי־מַ֝֗יִם וְשִׁבֹּ֥לֶת שְׁטָפָֽתְנִי׃

(2) Rescue me, God, for the waters have reached my neck; (3) I am sinking into the mud, and there is no firm ground to stand upon. I am in deep water and floods are sweeping me away. 

כ) אַתָּ֤ה יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֶרְפָּתִ֣י וּ֭בׇשְׁתִּי וּכְלִמָּתִ֑י נֶ֝גְדְּךָ֗ כׇּל־צוֹרְרָֽי׃ (כא) חֶרְפָּ֤ה ׀ שָׁ֥בְרָ֥ה לִבִּ֗י וָאָ֫נ֥וּשָׁה וָאֲקַוֶּ֣ה לָנ֣וּד וָאַ֑יִן וְ֝לַמְנַחֲמִ֗ים וְלֹ֣א מָצָֽאתִי׃

(20) You know my disgrace, my shame, my humiliation. You see all my enemies. (21) This disgrace breaks my heart. I am mortally wounded, hoping for consolation, but there is none. I seek someone to comfort me, but find no one. 

We feel this in the safety of America. How many times more intense must be the grief and horror of our Israeli brothers and sisters? Israel remains a tiny country, where no one is ever more than one degree of separation from anyone else. Truly אין בית אשר אין שם מת. “There is no family that has not lost a loved one.” 

And in involved communities like ours, even across the Atlantic, with our Israeli synagogue members and Israeli family members, we are hardly more than two degrees of separation. Some of us have children serving in the IDF. Others have friends and family among the hostages. Many of us know someone who knows someone who lost a loved one. Many are fearful for friends and family called up into the reserves, preparing for the next dark phase. 

Where can we find the strength to go on in these days? Just to put one foot in front of the other? First, when you feel helpless, figure out how you can help and who you can help. Earlier in the week I wrote to the congregation with suggestions for charitable contributions, and urged you to be in contact with Israeli friends and family sharing messages of love and care.

In the coming weeks Israel will engage in a violent campaign against a wicked enemy.  I hope we can also draw strength from the worthiness and justice of this fight. 

I’m sure you’ve heard that old saying: “All’s fair in love and war.” This is false. As we sometimes say when arguing over the Talmud: punkt farkert! Completely the opposite is true! In these enormously weighty areas of life – intimacy and violence – the ethical stakes are higher, not lower, and so moral standards are especially necessary. 

So, no, all is not fair in war. There are rules. Indeed, that is how we know confidently – as Israelis and Jews know this week above all – that when the rules of war are broken, it is a monstrous crime. 

For centuries, people have thought deeply and argued over appropriate moral standards for the use of violence. We call this a theory of “just war.” 

You might think our religion – or any religion – should never accept violence. That religion should tilt toward pacifism, וגר זאב עם כבש ונמר עם גדי ירבץ, and “the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard nestle with the kid.” But when Isaiah 11 says this, it is a messianic vision of a future world, not a description of today. Judaism does not have a strong pacifist tradition and after World War II, I don’t see how a Jew can be a pacifist. Sometimes you face enemies who would torture or murder you, so sometimes you have a duty to fight back. 

But when, why and how? 

We begin with principles that clarify when fighting is warranted and not wicked. For instance a just war must be: 

  • Fought for a just cause, waged with proper intention. The best reason to fight is to protect the innocent from the vicious.
  • A just war has a strong probability of success. It cannot be a suicide mission, a futile gesture that would only worsen the suffering. 
  • A just conflict is a last resort. We should only fight when we have no choice. 
  • A just conflict is proportional to the threat you face and the injury you’ve suffered. You cannot scorch the earth for every assault.

By these measures, as Operation Iron Swords begins, this is undeniably a just war. 

Israel has been attacked by a cruel enemy that knows no restraint. That enemy is not the Palestinian people, with whom we must live together in our small shared homeland, precious to us both. The enemy is Hamas, who are murderous fanatics, motivated by Jew hatred and a worship of death. Whatever happens to Hamas fighters and leaders is too good for them. They cannot be left to rule Gaza, just kilometers across from Israeli citizens.

Hamas’s attack was not motivated by Israel’s occupation of the 1967 territories or even the suffering of Gazans today. They attacked because Israel and Israelis and Jews exist at all. 

Online this week, I watched a number of sermons by Hamas clerics, and – assuming the translations are correct – they made it absolutely clear that they are in an unending religious war against Jews and Judaism. (We Jews have fanatics on our side, too, and we better restrain them.) Hamas’ mission is to kill Jews and destroy their homes and erase Israel from the map. Now, these videos were posted on an Israeli government website, so you might wonder whether Israel selected the very worst examples and tweaked the translations, but since lots of people speak Arabic, I assume the translations are faithful. They certainly faithfully reflect Hamas’ behavior. If you’ve spent time in Israel during waves of suicide bombings or when Gazan rockets fall throughout the country, then you know: if Hamas doesn’t kill you personally, it won’t be because they are not trying to. 

For Israel to fail to fight this enemy would be massively immoral, a dereliction of its duties to protect its people. It is not that we fear Hamas might fire more rockets and bomb more buses. They actually carried out attacks of pointless savagery against civilians – literally killing babies before their family’s eyes, raping and torturing, burning people alive, beheading people, shooting people in their beds, murdering hundreds of young people at a dance party, and kidnapping people of every age, children and the elderly, men and women, boys and girls, to hold as hostages. 

Israel must nullify Hamas’ capability of carrying out such attacks ever again. Hamas will not be persuaded to become better neighbors. Israel is duty-bound to engage this just war. 

Already there are those – around the world and here in America – calling for cease-fire. Peace is almost always better than war, so that is an understandable reflex emerging from basically good instincts. But to expect Israel to absorb such a savage assault and leave Hamas’ power intact? That calls to mind an old joke about the UN and the Middle East: “Hamas wants to kill Jews. Jews don’t want to be killed. We call on all parties to come to a negotiated settlement.” 

Israel is not in Western Europe or North America. This is a violent neighborhood. And if you don’t recognize that there is a worthy cause for Israel’s military response to such a brutal attack launched by the power that governs the Gaza Strip, then I have a very hard time taking you seriously as a moral observer. Anyone who thinks it is unjust for Israel to fight back against Hamas, I believe has forfeited the standing to assess Israel’s conduct. 

We have heard of people defending Hamas, apologizing for this attack – even comparing it to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising [?!]– or claiming Israel’s policies made such an attack inevitable: “look what you made me do.” I’m sorry, but there is something wrong with you. 

I don’t expect Palestinians to be Zionists. We are in a real national conflict over our shared homeland. There are two sides here. I’m on one and you can be on the other, and it does not necessarily make you anti-Semitic. I don’t even think every Jew has to be Zionist. I am. But I think people can be anti-Zionists or at least non-Zionist, and still be good Jews who study Torah and keep mitzvot. But I am astonished at the warped “postcolonial” rhetoric that not just criticizes Israeli policy, or argues that the Jewish state should give way to a bi-national state, but frankly celebrates the murder of dance party hippies as a blow for justice. 

Students for Justice in Palestine – which has more than 200 chapters in colleges and universities – proclaimed last Shabbat: 

Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near. Catching the enemy completely by surprise, the Palestinian resistance has captured over a dozen settlements surrounding Gaza along with many occupation soldiers and military vehicles. This is what it means to Free Palestine: not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors.

Not every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite. But you are. If you believe Jewish babies should be beheaded and Jewish grandmothers kidnapped for the cause of justice … words fail.

But such revolting nonsense can also become a source of our strength. Because, Jewish people and state of Israel, our enemies are wrong. And we are in the right. רק חזק ואמץ מאד, “just be strong and take much courage,” We must fight and we must win. 

During the Nazi era and for much of our history, Jewish blood was cheap. In his famous essay, Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said one of the important features of Zionism is that it meant Jewish blood will no longer be cheap. We are morally warranted to fight for ourselves against a monstrous enemy. 

Again, military ethics asks: when, why and how to fight. I’ve spoken about the when and why of this moment. Now, let’s talk about how. This is a just war. How can we fight it justly?  

Here are three principles for fighting ethically:

  • Discrimination: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants.
  • Proportionality: the harms you inflict must match the military gains they bring.
  • Military necessity: you should use the minimum force you can to achieve your military aims.

The first and most important rule is to distinguish between warriors and civilians. That is why the Hamas attacks – like all terrorism, like every suicide bombing – were so horrifying: not only did they not distinguish between combatant and non-, they actively sought to harm civilians. In fighting Hamas, Israel should be the opposite. 

Let me illustrate this principle with a hypothetical: clearly a Hamas fighter with a gun is a combatant. How about a mechanic who built the paragliders they used in sailing over the border, or who changed the tires on the jeeps they used in the attack? I would say yes, that constitutes participating in military operations and makes one a legitimate target. 

How about people who make food, delivering it to Hamas fighters perhaps among other neighbors too? I would say no. That is human behavior and not a military operation. If feeding people among the enemy population warrants being shot or bombed, then you’re actually saying every single person on the other side of the border should be killed. And that’s not a just war, justly fought. 

Thinking about Israel fighting Hamas, you very quickly run into the asymmetry of the war. There is (a) a massive differential in military power and (b) a massive differential in moral conduct. This is an asymmetrical conflict both militarily and morally. 

Israel has all the military might. These monsters struck the Jewish state very badly, murdered the innocent, traumatized the captives and their families and the whole country and the whole Jewish people. But the rules of war apply to everyone, even when we are shocked and grieving. Our vast military advantage places significant ethical burdens on Israel. Israel is duty-bound to destroy its brutal enemies, but it must be in a way in which we can live with ourselves afterward. 

And that’s not anti-Semitic UN blather or ivory tower, human rights thumb-sucking. That’s the Torah [Deuteronomy 23.10]:

כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א מַחֲנֶ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וְנִ֨שְׁמַרְתָּ֔ מִכֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֥ר רָֽע׃

“When you go out to war against your enemy, be careful of everything bad.” 

My favorite commentator, Ramban [13th century, Spain] explained: “The Torah is warning us that in war, wickedness becomes rampant. People steal and rob and shamelessly commit every foul dead. The most virtuous people become cruel.” 

When it’s over, we will have to look ourselves in the mirror. 

One of our Bar Mitzvah boys, Nachshon Ruskay, just quoted a famous line by Rabbi Heschel. Nachshon said it just the way everyone always does: “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Even if you didn’t break the world, it’s still your job to make it better. Lovely, deep, and true. But actually, this is a partial quotation. The full statement is: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I hope we can remember, fighting a just war in a just way, that most Gazans are themselves trapped under Hamas’ tyranny. They didn’t choose this government. They don’t want radical Islamic fundamentalism, and they did not want these awful attacks which were 100 percent guaranteed to inflict massive misery on the Gazan population. They are victims many times over. 

In that context, for Israel to suggest that more than a million people should just flee south, where there would be no shelter, food or medicine, for Israel to hermetically seal off water and electricity, even to hospitals … לא זו הדרך, this is not the way to fight a just war with just means. 

Of course I know what Hamas has done to its own people. That it is blocking them from leaving Gaza City, so it can use them as human shields, amplifying Israel’s supposed cruelty. And that Hamas – with Egypt – has prevented them from crossing to safety at Rafah, worsening their suffering. 

But this is what it means to say the conflict is morally asymmetric – not just militarily. Morally asymmetric. Because we are the people of the Torah, faithful to its vision. So I must object when Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, called Hamas חיות אדם, “human animals.” I wouldn’t say that even about the fighters, who deserve to be crushed by the IDF. But we must be especially scrupulous not to let such language apply to the whole Gazan population, as it almost inevitably would be. 

Today it is a profound coincidence that we read Bereshit, the first five chapters of Genesis, including the creation of Adam HaRishon, the first human being. On Yom Kippur night, I said – not for the first time – that the Torah’s most important ethical teaching, that humans are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image, appears three times in whole Hebrew Bible: Genesis chapters 1, 5 and 9, all before Abraham and Sarah show up on the scene, all before there is any Jewish nation. Tzelem Elohim is not conferred upon us because we are Jewish; it is conferred on every human being, from every human family. 

On that note, let me share with you one of Judaism’s most famous teachings on this very passage [Mishna Sanhedrin 4.5]. 

לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וּמִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ. 

Why was the first person created singly? To teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered as destroying the whole world, and whoever sustains a single life is considered as sustaining the whole world. Moreover, [the single creation] fosters peace among people, for no one can say: My ancestor was greater than yours. 

The first clause of that selection is more famous. But I want to focus on the second. In this terrible conflict, we must remind ourselves that everyone in the human family, even our enemies, has a single ancestor, created in the image of the one God. I am a mortal human being, with limits to my powers of empathy. I love Jews more than I can love Palestinians. Sometimes, in this terrible conflict, I succumb to rage and hate. But if I thought for a moment that God loves Jews more than Palestinians, that would destroy the religion I hold dear.   

State of Israel, the IDF, Israeli citizens and the wider Jewish people: I pray that we can draw courage and strength for this war from the deep knowledge that our cause is just. May we also use the tactics and strategies befitting our cause and not those that would drain all our moral power. 

One last source of hope for the future: Israel’s military is mighty. Israel’s morality is mighty. But the mightiest thing about us is the resilience, faith and unity of our people, Am Israel. We have spent the last 10 months yelling at each other, as only Jews – especially Israeli Jews – can. In the last week, we are reminded of how much we need each other. How much we care for each other. How much we love each other. May we stand together through the upcoming road in unity, faithfulness, commitment and care. עם ישראל חי. We are still alive.