16 Tevet 5777 • Toldot • January 14, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis
I feel like I have no right to give this sermon. I feel like I have no right because I have never served in the IDF. I don’t have sons in the IDF. I have never faced a terrorist bent on killing me, my family and my country. So part of me feels like it is not my place to speak about the case of Sgt. Elor Azariah. But as a rabbi, I can’t ignore the story for three reasons: First, it speaks to a growing threat to Israel. Second, it reminds us of why we should be proud of Israel. And third, it offers an important message for us as Americans preparing to inaugurate a new government.
Let me remind you of the background. Back in March, 2016, Azariah, who is a medic, was on patrol in Hevron when a knife-wielding Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier. The terrorist was shot and neutralized. But as he lay in the middle of the street face down and incapacitated, Azaria shot him in the head and killed him. The moment was caught on a video that went viral.
Azaria was arrested and tried. Initially, he justified his actions saying that terrorists “need to die.” But in the trial, he said that he feared the terrorist was still a threat because perhaps he was wearing a suicide vest. Last week the military court ruled. They were not convinced by Azariah’s argument. They said that he acted out of a desire for revenge rather than self-defense. And they unanimously convicted him of murder. Tomorrow, he will be sentenced. In their decision, the court affirmed the position of former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who said simply, “We don’t just shoot people. Not even if he’s a terrorist.”
Now let me be clear. Despite what the UN might say, the vast majority of IDF soldiers follow protocol and act with integrity. This case was an exception. But it captured the attention of Israelis. It captured their attention because Israelis see themselves in Azaria since everyone has a kid in the army, because everyone feels threated by terror, and because deep down there is human desire for revenge. What makes it significant is how it has further polarized Israeli society. Throughout the trial, some government ministers and military leaders sided with Azaria. After the verdict, protests erupted against the court. Some supporters even invoked Yitzchak Rabin saying that those who supported this ruling deserve a similar fate.
This response is a threat to Israel’s very survival as a democracy. As Danny Gordis recently wrote, “After decades of battling Palestinian terror, a sizable portion of Israeli society now believes that any time a soldier kills a terrorist, whatever the circumstances, the killing is just. Despite the military court’s ruling, dark clouds on the horizon suggest that Israel needs to attend to the challenge of teaching an entire society that without the rule of law, Israel’s democracy — and survival — are at risk.”
This is not the first time the Jewish people has faced such a critical challenge. We can turn to our parasha to discover a historical precedent and an essential lesson about building and maintaining a healthy democracy.
On his death bed, Jacob offers a blessing to each of his children. In truth, his words are less blessing and more critique. None more so that his words for Shimon and Levi:
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel. (Gen 49:5-7)
This is pretty harsh, but let’s remember the context. Jacob’s daughter Dinah had been taken by a man named Shechem. He forced himself on her then asked for her hand in marriage. Jacob’s sons were incensed because their sister was defiled. They said to Shechem, “you can’t marry her because you are uncircumcised.” So Shechem and his household circumcised themselves thinking now he could marry Dinah. But when they were incapacitated, recovering from surgery, Shimon and Levi went in and slew them all with a sword. Afterwards, the rest of the brothers followed suit, plundered the city taking the women and wealth as booty. It is a deeply disturbing story, not just that Dinah was attacked, but Shimon and Levi’s brutal response.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Jacob did not condemn the boys. Rather, he said to Simon and Levi: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Gen 34:30). Jacob’s initial concern was for his own safety. Now many years later, and looking back over his life, looking at his sons, he “renders a moral verdict on the act” (JPS).
Let’s examine Jacob’s blessing closely. Unlike the other brothers who are each blessed separately, Shimon and Levi are blessed together. In fact, they are called a “pair,” achim They are brothers. After so much animosity between brothers throughout Genesis, here we finally have a strong sibling bond. They were brothers who cared for each other and for their sister. Unfortunately, they turned their loyalty to each other toward dreadful violence of others (Hirsch).
Now there is no question, Shechem was not a good guy. He raped their sister. But Jacob couldn’t abide Shimon and Levi’s angry, violent outburst. “Their rage may have been perfectly justified but in their rage, they committed murder” (Hirsch). And therefore, they could not in good conscious represent the nation.
The 19th Century, German neo-orthodox rabbi, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch draws out the message in a way that remains timeless and poignant for us at this juncture in our nation’s history. Hirsch writes:
“It is of the most profound importance that here, as the foundation of the Jewish nation is being laid that a curse is placed on a transgression of the laws of morality and justice even if it is done in the interests of the public and the state.” In other words, Hirsch is saying that Shimon and Levi may have had good intentions to serve God and to protect their family. But their act had to be censured. And he draws out a lesson from Jacob’s rebuke of his sons to the modern nation state.
Hirsch continues: “Other states and nations justify themselves by the principle that public and state interests sanctify everything. They reward cunning, trickery and force; for in politics and diplomacy, the only code recognized is the interest of the party or state. Not so for the Jewish nation. Jacob lays a curse on all trickery and violence even if practiced for the most justified cause. Here, Jacob teaches that in public life and in the public interests, not only the end but the means too must be pure.”
It is tragic to think of a father on his death bed cursing his sons rather than reconciling with them. But it is a sign of Jacob’s absolute commitment to truth and justice- “titen emet l’yaakov”- that he could not let their lawless deeds go unpunished or unnoticed. And so with the power of a poem, he condemned his sons and taught us about the absolute necessity of the rule of law.
Four thousand years later, that same commitment to self-scrutiny and self-critique was demonstrated by an Israeli poet and the father of the State of Israel.
In November 1948, with the War of Independence still raging, the poet Natan Alterman published a poem called “For This, Al Zot.” The poem makes reference to an incident in which Israeli soldiers committed some act of violence. Scholars debate what incident is being described. Given the timing, it might have been the killing of non-combatants including Arab men, women and children in the city of Lod or what was described as a “slaughter” in another Arab village. My point now is not the incident but rather what happened with the poem.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, busy at the time with the conduct of the war, was so moved by the poem that he asked Alterman to reprint one hundred thousand copies to distribute to every soldier in Israel. So what’s in the poem? Here it is:
Across the vanquished city in a jeep he did speed – A lad bold and armed, a young lion of a lad! And an old man and a woman on that very street Cowered against a wall, in fear of him clad. Said the lad smiling, milk teeth shining: “I’ll try the machine gun”… and put it into play! To hide his face in his hands the old man barely had time When his blood on the wall was sprayed. …
We shall sing, then, about “delicate incidents” Whose name, don’t you know, is murder. Sing of conversations with sympathetic listeners, Of snickers of forgiveness that are slurred. …
For those in combat gear, and we who impinge, Whether by action or agreement subliminal, Are thrust, muttering “necessity” and “revenge,” Into the realm of the war criminal.
(translation by Ralph Mandel)
Why did Ben Gurion want this sent to all the soldiers? When he read it, he immediately got in touch with Alterman saying, “Congratulations on the moral validity and the powerful expressiveness of your latest column… You are a pure and faithful mouthpiece of the human conscience, which, if it does not act and beat in our hearts in times like these, will render us unworthy of the great achievements we’ve made until now.” Alterman gave voice through critique to the human conscious that beats in our hearts. We must feel that heart beat today as well.
Let me be clear. Azariah and the Alterman references are the exceptional cases of soldiers who violate protocol and ethics. As Jacob says about Shimon and Levi, so too do we say here: they do not represent the nation. My point today is not to criticize Israel for them. It is to raise concern for Azariah doesn’t come from nowhere. The beliefs that inspired him must be addressed head on, at their roots. As Gordis wrote: “With no resolution of the grinding conflict in sight, the self-critique and decency long at the heart of Israeli society are in danger. Israelis would do well to recognize that addressing this educational challenge is no less crucial to the Jewish State’s survival than is winning the wars that Elor Azariah was trained to fight.”
But I don’t just want to raise concern. I want to celebrate because as awful as this verdict must be for the Azaria family, it testifies to the greatness of Israel in the triumph of the law and the morality of the State. Our poetry and our parasha make us proud when they call upon us to hold ourselves accountable when they call us to be a holy nation. In the words of Ben Gurion, “The fact that such works can appear in our country in wartime is wonderful testimony to the freedom of spirit that prevails here.” That is a special spirit that prevails in the heart of Jewish people and we pray it beats in America in the years ahead as well.