The Honey and the Sting
Thursday, 22 October 2015 | 9 Heshvan, 5776
The Honey and the Sting
It’s one of Naomi Shemer’s most well-known and popular sings, it resonates still today not only because of its poignant words but also because of its soulful tune. It’s “Al Kol Eileh” or “For all these things”:
For the honey and the sting
For the bitter and the sweet
For the burning fire
For the crystal blue water
The lyrics and the haunting melody encapsulate the bitter-sweet of life as well as the mix of fear and joy that characterise life in Israel:
Over all these things
Please watch over my house my good God…
Over the garden and the fence
From agony, fright and war
Guard the little I have…
It’s been another week of agony and frightfulness in Israel with more random killings and more outrageous lies and distortions. Among the most unbelievable must rate the perpetrators of stabbings being called victims or held up as heroes. If it was Joseph Goebbels who mastered the art of lying suggesting that if you tell a big enough lie and repeat it often enough, people will eventually come to believe it, his spirit was alive and well across the Arab world, its media pronouncements and its attempt to have UNESCO recognise the Kottel as part of the Al-Aksa Mosque. One of the most egregious of the lies has been that Israel was trying to change the status quo of the Temple Mount.
It’s the stuff of despair and desperation and helps one understand some of the ugly reactions of Israelis on the street. It leads to the horrible events like the mistaken killing of the young Ethiopian in the Beer Sheva Bus Station. Sadly it also helps explain how there can be a Halachik debate about eliminating a neutralised terrorist, i.e. after a terrorist has been apprehended and no longer presents a danger to the public, may a civilian kill the terrorist? This has been the subject of an ongoing argument in the Israeli press and in Israeli rabbinic email listserves. Rabbi David Stav, head of Tzohar (National Religious Rabbinical Organisation) issued a call for citizens to refrain from taking the law into their own hands on moral and perceptual grounds.
Rabbi Stav argues that harming the perpetrators would lead to a “moral breakdown” in Israeli society: “These days, when the blood boils it’s important to maintain our moral superiority, to avoid harming a person who is not involved in murderous activity and to avoid harming those who have already been neutralised and no longer pose a danger. It’s not because they are innocent…they deserve to die… (but) it causes double damage…the main damage is harming our moral norms…the collateral damage is when these images are distributed (to the world).”
Rabbi Stav’s position is vociferously opposed by Rav Shmuel Eliyahu who argues that when Moses intervened to save a Hebrew slave from his Egyptian slave-master he didn’t care about who was watching him. He also invokes the Torah concept of the “Goel Hadam” the permission to take vengeance on a murderer saying: “We don’t need to take any precautions; we need this (terrorist) not to emerge alive for any reason in the world.” I imagine Rabbi Eliyahu was also thinking about the terrorists who have been imprisoned and later released only to take more innocent lives.
Notwithstanding this, and even as I sit comfortably from afar, I can’t help but worry deeply about Israel succumbing to the moral nihilism of its enemies. Israel’s strength lies in its restraint, in its affirming of life and the value of a life (created in the image of God or Betzelem Elokim)in its belief in due process and the rule of law .. Israel has never taken the pacifist Gandhian or classical Christian approach of turning the other cheek. It has rightly recognised the Talmudic dictum that “if someone comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). In fact one of the early Zionist thinkers Ahad Ha’am noted that: “If I practise love to the extent that when you smite me on the right cheek, I offer you the left also, I am thereby encouraging injustice. I, like you, am then guilty of the injustice that is practised.”
Despite those who claim that Israel shouldn’t care what people think, in an age where perceptions and actions are shaped by social media we have no choice but to care. But more than this if our mission is to be a ‘light to the nations’ how do you project light if you don’t positively and proactively promote your views? And with respect to Rabbi Eliyahu’s point I would argue that Moses looked around ‘this way and that way’ before he killed the Egyptian precisely because he cared about collateral damage, because he was worried about public reactions. Rav Eliyahu’s other point that revenge killing is permissible is also debateable as this was only in very prescribed circumstances, e.g for a family member; further it hasn’t been practised in Jewish law for thousands of years.
Admittedly we can’t be slaves to the perceptions of the world especially when seen through the distorted lenses of Aljazeera and it’s ilk . Concerning those who hold Israel to standards of morality that they apply to no other country, contemporary American Rabbi Irving Greenberg has quipped: If we Jews are 5% better than the rest of the world, we can be a “light unto the nations. “If we are 25% better than the rest of the world, we can bring the Messiah. If we are 50% better than the rest of the world, we’ll all be dead.”
Woody Allen has put it masterfully: “The calf and the lion shall lie down together but the calf won’t get any sleep!” In the 21st Century Israel and Jews cannot and will not be like a quivering calf (or sheep) in the face of their hostile and aggressive enemies. But we also dare not sink to the level of our enemies.
So what’s the sweetness and honey in this thorny and bitter story? It’s in the Shabbat Project happening this week, not only in Melbourne and Johannesburg, but in London and Tel Aviv. In fact I received an invitation to one of the largest Shabbat dinners happening in Tel Aviv this Friday night.
Shabbat is about restoring perspective to our lives. US Senator Joe Liebermann wrote a book in 2011 called “The Gift of Rest” which is about “rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath”. He writes about how the Shabbat not only refreshes him but also gives him the quiet time to think about and discern patterns in his personal and work life: Stepping back from the noise, confusion and demands of the daily hustle allows us to gain a broader perspective of what is really valuable, important and essential to our well-being.
In the Havdalah blessing at the end of the Shabbat we sing “May He who distinguishes between the light and darkness, sacred and secular…forgive our sins.” In other words we pray that the Shabbat has helped us to differentiate better, to make wiser distinctions, to see more clearly…
So as the sting of this week of bitterness subsides, let’s allow the sweetness to seep in, let’s celebrate the Shabbat together across our community. Join us at CHC on Shabbat afternoon (approximately 7.00pm) for a scintillating panel discussion. Almost 200 young adults will be joining us for the inkr572 dinner on Friday night.
In conclusion, the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are both uplifting and pertinent:
“Shabbat is our weekly return to the harmony and serenity of the Garden of Eden. As the day ends, we, like Adam and Eve, prepare to reengage with the world – a world often fraught with dangers. We pray to God to be with us in the days ahead, to protect us from harm, and to bless the work of our hands.”