Friday, 16 January 2009

Hate evil, love good, establish justice at the gates - A sermon on Operation Cast Lead

Odd isn't it how opening a page almost at random it will often fall on the very truth one most needs to hear.

I felt this this week in particular as in my Talmud study this week I came across a verse from the Book of Amos I hadn't though about before.

  שִׂנְאוּ-רָע וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב, וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט; אוּלַי, יֶחֱנַן יְה-וָה אֱל-הֵי-צְבָאוֹת[1]

Hate evil

Love Good

Establish justice at the gate

And maybe God will be merciful to you


Let me take part of this verse in turn.

I want to apply it to the situation still unfolding in Gaza


Hate evil - שִׂנְאוּ-רָע

Couldn't be more clear to me that what Hamas are doing is evil.

Not only is their goal  - the destruction of the State of Israel – an evil goal, but the methods they use to meet that goal are despicable.

To launch rockets indiscriminately

To hide behind human shields,

To bully and bribe a people into supporting you through the ballot box so you can better wage war fro the streets and cities of Gaza.

All this is hateful.
And I hate it. - שִׂנְאוּ-רָע


Love Good רָע וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב

I believe Israel to be good.

Indeed I love Israel.

I believe in Israel's right to exist, right to exist in safe, secure borders.

I applaud the extraordinary steps towards building a nation that Zionists have taken these past hundred years.

I applaud the way Israel has looked to make peace with its neighbours, when it has looked, I believe Israel wants peace.

I love the good.

וְאֶהֱבוּ טוֹב

So far so, more or less, straightforward.


But this is not the whole of the verse.

The verse continues with this demand.

וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

Establish at your gates legal discipline - mishpat.

Now this is fascinating..

Relying on emotions is not, it appears, enough.

It is not enough for me to be swayed by my loves and my hatreds.

I need to modulate those emotional pulls, test these emotional tugs, challenge my own subjectivity with legal process.


Bible mandates that judges should not be swayed by the bribes of the rich.

Well that much is obvious, but it also[2] mandates that a judge should not incline to favour a poor person either.

The over-riding commitment, despite how I, or you, or any of us might feel – emotionally, subjectively – has to be to legal process.

It's not glamorous.

This subjugation of emotion to process.

It's much more fun to rant and rave, to overturn the tables of the moneylenders, but this is not the Jewish way.

We are, as Jews far more precise.
We cut loose far less easily, even if our emotions tell us that things should be clear.


Even in extremis,

Even in a time of war

Even when faced with our enemies.

Even when faced with enemies as revolting as Hamas.


We learn in the 5th Century Vayikra Rabba

Rabbi Jesse the Galilean states: "How meritorious is peace? Even in time of war Jewish law requires that one initiate discussions of peace."[3]

You can't just wage war, you have to wage peace also, work for peace, even in the midst of conflict,


Take this teaching of Philo, a Jewish writer writing in the first century


The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done little or nothing amiss, shows what I would call a savage and brutal soul.[4]


Judaism recognises the presence of the non-combatant, the person swept up in violence who is not responsible for the enmity that exists. Judaism does not countenance running away with ones emotions, even at a time of war, even when faced with hatred.


Perhaps nowhere is this made more clear than in the obligation, codified by the Rambam, regarding how to lay siege to a town.


. כשצרין על עיר לתפשה, אין מקיפין אותה מארבע רוחותיה אלא משלש רוחותיה, ומניחין מקום לבורח ולכל מי שירצה להמלט על נפשו,[5]

When you lay siege to a city to capture it, do not surround it on all four sides, rather three, and leave a place for escape for anyone who wants to save their soul.


It's a crazy way to lay siege, on three sides of a city only.

But it couldn't be clearer that there is a limit on the way in which Jews are allowed to wage war.


Jews are also commanded not to wreck a longer-term destruction on the city than is absolutely necessary.

This is the command not to destroy the trees surrounding a city when the city is besieged.


 [6]כִּי-תָצוּר אֶל-עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ, לֹא-תַשְׁחִית אֶת-עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן

19. When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an ax against them;


The verse is often used as an ecological call to arms, so to speak, but my sense is that it is more about helping a conquered city return to normalcy as soon as possible, not fostering an attitude of division and despair in a city beaten by Israelite military might.


וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

It is easy to get carried away in waging war.

It is easy to forget that human beings are made in God's image no matter whether they be Israelite or not.

The command is that we patrol our emotions, even in hating evil, even in hating Hamas and even in loving good, even in loving Israel.


In this week's parasha Moses is commanded to remove his shoes before the encounter with God at the burning bush.

My teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, suggests that maybe Moses is instructed to walk in bare feet in order that he will feel more pain as he takes on the Egyptians, spreading death and destruction in his wake. Shoes isolate us from whatever we trample over as we make our way through the world. Walking barefoot ensures we take extra care with every step. This is not a comfortable message. We live in a contemporary society that preaches spiritual comfort and prefers clear-cut solutions to messy compromises, but our world is too complex for such naivety. We must all learn to walk barefooted, in discomfort, in our wars if we are to find a way to respond to violent outrages while still preserving our spiritual identity, if we are to be ready to admit the importance of placing justice at our gates.


Let me be clear, and I was clear too last week, I am not a pacifist, Judaism is peace-loving, but Judaism is not a pacifist religion.

We know that hating evil may require a call to arms.

But I am terrified that we are going too far in Operation Cast Lead.

I am afraid we may be breaking the obligation to leave open a gap in our siege for those who wish to flee.

I am afraid that we are destroying the trees and moving the day when Palestinian children can be succoured by the fruits of their own endeavours, their own orchards situated – as they must be – side by side with Israeli farms.


There is a famous statement of Golda Meir that has often been applied to the work of Hamas and terrorists acting in the name of the Palestinian people.

We can, she said, forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we cannot forgive them for turning our children into killers.

That, of course is true.


But it reminds me of a different saying, a saying recorded in the 5th Century Bereishit Rabbah.

As Jacob hears that his estranged brother Esau is approaching the Bible tells us he was frightened and distressed.

The Rabbis have to know what difference there is between these two emotions.

We are told[7] Jacob is "frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill"


We must hate evil, love good and be terrified lest our emotions carry us away in our pursuit of war, we need to remind ourselves, our governments and the government of the State of Israel

וְהַצִּיגוּ בַשַּׁעַר מִשְׁפָּט

That even in war they must establish justice at the gates.

אוּלַי, יֶחֱנַן יְה-וָה אֱל-הֵי-צְבָאוֹת

And maybe God will be merciful to you


Shabbat shalom


[1] Amos 5:17

[2] Ex 23:3

[3] VR Tzav 9

[4] The Special Laws 4:224-225

[5] MT H Melachim 6:7

[6] Deut 20:19

[7] BR 76:2

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