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The Beginning of Bloodshed

10/13/2023 03:36:30 PM


Shabbat Shalom. I have never before spoken about Israel from the bima, but I have felt devastated this week, and I cannot keep silent. I was heartbroken and worried for my people on Saturday and Sunday, alongside the rest of the Jewish world, after hearing about the largest single massacre of Jewish people in decades. I was horrified by the footage of Gaza completely in rubble. I was furious with the swiftness with which Netanyahu declared fullblown war. I was sickened by the responses from armchair activists around the world online, from all sides. I felt betrayed by some of the responses here in Prince William County, and overwhelmed by some others. It has been a hard week. 

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Bereshit, the beginning of the whole Torah. Yesterday, I joined a call hosted by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, to grieve and kvetch with other rabbis feeling just as torn apart from all directions. We also had the opportunity to share and learn from each other with some textual offerings. In one of the source sheets shared, Rabbi Matthew Dreffin says, “The Genesis 1 creation story is remarkably devoid of any moral language. Here in the haftarah, Isaiah injects a moral purpose to creation from the very beginning: ‘Thus said the ETERNAL God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what it brings forth, who gave breath to the people upon it And life to those who walk thereon: (6) I GOD, in justice, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by your hand, and I created you, and appointed you as covenantal people to be a light unto the nations.’” Now that’s a nice drash on a Haftarah, and bridging the gap between “In six days God created …” to “For this purpose did God create.” But what really struck me about it, was that I had noticed earlier in the week on the Sefaria main page, the Haftarah for this week was Samuel, not Isaiah. So I looked that up, and learned that when a Rosh Hodesh begins on a Sunday (as it does this weekend), the haftarah for the day before is this particular reading from Samuel, while the Isaiah reading is the one paired with Bereshit most months. That may not be that interesting to you, but I had to know why there were two haftarah offerings for today. 

What is interesting to me about the reading from Samuel, is that it is about Jonathan’s love for David, and his willingness to give up his right to claim his father’s kingdom. I will not make direct comparisons to the power struggle in modern Israel, because I do not think either side has a more legitimate claim to a safe homeland, I do not believe that God has anointed one over the other, or that one’s accident of birth triumphs over the other’s family misfortunes. However, I can’t help but feel deeply moved by Jonathan and David’s ability to see past their competition, past the politics, past Jonathan’s crazy father’s interference, to just focus on their love for one another. In this haftarah, Jonathan helps to hide David from King Saul’s murderous intent, helps him escape. Eventually, later in the Book of Samuel, David tries to spare Jonathan in his war against Saul for the throne (while both would-be kings are simultaneously fighting the Philistines - very Game of Thrones). But Jonathan dies anyway, because that is what happens in war. We can’t always protect the ones we care about while fighting with their families or neighbors. And sometimes we have to be willing to truly ask ourselves where our values lie. Is it more important to put King David on the throne at the cost of great bloodshed, including that of the innocent and even potentially righteous such as Jonathan? Or is it more important to protect life, even if it allows power to someone with a paranoia schizoid disorder like King Saul? How do we do a risk/reward cost analysis of human lives, when the options seem to be to kill and be killed now, or wait it out and risk potentially greater future dangers just with less immediate or less certain death tolls? 

I have my answers to these questions, but I am not a military strategist, nor an international diplomat. I don’t have all the information or any of the power to enact a solution to the current situation in the Holy Land. All I have is my faith in a God that mourns with us, the text and history and community that grounds me and gives me hope for a future, and my love for all of you. Toward the end of Parashat Bereshit comes the first murder in the history of the world. When God tells Cain that his brother’s blood cries out to God from the ground on which it was spilt, the Hebrew uses a plural word for blood. It is on this verse that the Talmud is commenting when it says, “One who ends a life, destroys an entire world,” a principle repeated in the Quran’s retelling of the Cain and Abel story. Many worlds have been destroyed because of petty jealousy like Cain’s, because of fear and power struggles like those of Saul/Jonathan/David, because of fighting over resources or the perceived needs of empires, such as in the time of Isaiah. But the Mishnah and the Quran also tell us that to save a life is to save an entire world. We may not be able to stop others from killing, but we can do what is in our own power to mitigate the collateral damage. We can support peace efforts, send supplies to refugees and those trapped in their homes in a war zone. We can refuse to buy into the politics of xenophobia and jingoism. We can hold close those in our own communities who are grieving.

May the one who makes peace in the heavens bring peace down upon us, May the Holy One of Comfort bring comfort to all those who are bereaved, and may we see peace in our homes and in our homelands in our lifetimes. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784