Bemidbar - Shavuot - 5778
This week the Jewish world embarked on the study of Bemidbar (Numbers), the penultimate book of the Torah. Beginning shortly after the encounter at Sinai and continuing through the later stages of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, the Book of Bemidbar is held by our Sages to include the most idyllic period in Jewish history. And this might well be the case, for during our period of wandering, the Jewish people were directly sustained by God’s benevolence and divorced from worldly concerns.
Alas, it is impossible – as a person or a people – to live indefinitely in a state of “Bemidbar”. The naiveté of our formative years invariably gives way to growing awareness and growing responsibility for our own well-being and sustenance, and as these responsibility settles on our shoulders, their weight can be crushing and painful.
Such, I believe, was the lesson of the past week as recorded by the global media. As the world looked on, the American ambassador, the Israeli prime minister and other dignitaries formally opened the new American Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, a moment of recognition so long sought by the Jewish people, a moment that should have been the pinnacle of our national pride and joy, as Jewish Americans and as friends of Israel.
Yet for many of us the joy of the moment was seriously diminished by events transpiring less than a hundred kilometers away. At the border with Gaza, Israeli troops were enmeshed in a deadly confrontation with rioters attempting to breach the barrier and enter Israel with violent intent. In the course of protecting Israel’s borders, the soldiers fired on the protesters, in some cases with live ammunition, resulting in more than fifty deaths and leaving hundreds of Palestinians injured.
While there are those who would rejoice in the Israeli army’s “victory” in this encounter, the Israeli prime minister among them, I believe that there are few among the soldiers asked to employ lethal force to subdue their enemies, many of whom were little more than children. I would equally hope that there are few among Israel’s friends and supporters around the world, who would find cause to celebrate an encounter that resulted in so much bloodshed. Rather, as we contemplate the sorrowful turn of events, we take consolation in the knowledge that in defending their border, the IDF likely averted a yet more expansive and deadly conflict.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people has been forced out of the ethereal space of our historical “Bemidbar,” a period in time when we wielded little power and so held limited ability to affect our own future or that of others. Now as a people in control of a country and, yes, an army, we are being asked to make torturous choices, often from a set of unpalatable alternatives.
In the text of the daily Amidah, a prayer composed in its current form during our period of exile, we ask that God grant us the leaders and advisors “of yore”, men and women who could navigate world affairs adroitly and with the desired outcomes for all, but as we are living now in an era of national empowerment with all its complexities, perhaps we need to augment this prayer with a plea that God offers our leaders and advisors, and us as a people, a set of choices that ensures us physical and emotional security while also bringing us true peace of mind and soul.
Wishing everyone everywhere a Shabbat of Peace (Shalom) and a Shavuot holiday of unalloyed joy,
Rabbi Rachel Safman