This was without question the hardest d’var I have ever had to prepare. I had more false starts, more crumpled up pieces of paper, more feelings of desperation in the wee hours over this than I ever had before and certainly more than I ever hope to have again. For most of the portion for this week--the one I chose included-- we want to shudder and say ‘God who?’ Many of God’s commands to the Israelites fly in the face of everything we have learned and come to know, some of our most treasured values about tolerance, patience, acceptance of strangers. There are things I gleaned from this portion, certainly, as measured by my desire to rant and harangue, speak too much about some peripheral matters and not enough and not in the right way about the meaty ones.
In the end, I decided that I will focus tonight on just two sentences. One is a verse from the section of Torah you just heard: (Numbers 33:50-56) Verse 55. The other is from a newsletter I received at an Israeli support rally earlier this week. In the section you heard, after telling the Israelites that they have come to their homeland, their inheritance, God admonishes them that they have work to do; they must possess the land and take it for their own in the face of opposition from the Canaanites. In verse 55, he warns them “...if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be lesikim be'eyneychem “stings in your eyes and velitsninim betsideychem “thorns in your sides” and they shall vetsareru etchem “harass you in the land in which you live. I used the Hebrew words because if you say them three times fast--once you get your tongue untwisted-- it almost sounds like a swarm of buzzing, stinging insects.
And these words have echoed with me; they seem so prophetic. They are reminiscent, too, of a story a little later in the book of I Samuel in which King Saul is ordered to destroy all of the Amalakites, including women,children and livestock. The Amalakites were noted Jew-haters. King Saul did as he was told--except that he spared the life of Agog, the Amalakite king, and some livestock. As far as I know, the cows were harmless, but Agog was left to propogate and promulgate, and he was the ancestor of the infamous Haman. There is some modern midrashic opinion, I believe, that Haman and his sons were not killed in time to prevent them from having offspring, one of whom was the ancestor of Hitler.
I do not think that most people or people are Jew-haters, but there has always been a remnant of Jew-haters and Jew-baiters. They have existed in almost all places and in almost all times in history since there have been Jews. They have been known as the Crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoa--and the Intifada. They have been called Haman, Hitler, Farrakhan, among others--and Hamas and Hezbollah.
Their currency is lies--inventions to justify their hatred of Jews and of Israel. These are the “stings in the eyes,” of verse 55 which blind otherwise good people and confuse them--e.g, the blood libel or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The thorns in the sides are provided by the deceptive practices--sometimes intentional, sometimes not--of some of the people whom we thought we could trust: The media, who talk about militants, dissidents or even freedem-fighters--who in any other context would be known simply as terrorists. Religious leaders who refer to murderers as martyrs. And all of the misguided and misguiding souls who drive us nuts with their earnest analyses of the Middle East: occupation, settlements, fictional massacres in Jenin and elsewhere, refugees, economic factors, the WALL( which becomes higher and more forbidding with each mention); they do not mention that all of these are not causes but products of Jew-hating and attempts to destroy the state of Israel from day one.
The second sentence, found in a special issue of a newsletter entitled “The State of Israel Today,” provides wise counsel regarding a response. At least to me, because I’m inclined to become angry when discussing these issues, and, in addition to talking too much and too loudly, I tend to get incoherent and inarticulate-- and, despite my efforts, no one listens. The sentence reads “We must speak quietly, say little and tell the truth.” The State of Israel must do battle now with guns and rockets, but our best weapon here, our best response to the lies and deception, is clear, reasoned truth. Not to the creators of the lies (They don’t want to know) but to their targets--an uninformed public.
The truth that is Israel is not harsh or difficult. No other country in the world has provided a refuge, a haven, a home to Jews from all over the world, while welcoming people of other religions and ethnic groups. Few countries have lived in a continual state of siege, beset by almost daily attacks, and still managed to maintain a democratic government, a relatively stable economy, universal health care, and extremely humane and ethical standards regarding all human beings. And Israel invented cell phones. We don’t have to apologize, or rationalize or lie.
I think that we can also be consoled somewhat by another truth, supported by history, that, while bullies may prevail for short periods of time and may do a lot of damage in that time, they seldom thrive or survive over the long haul-- but the people of Israel have. Stings and thorns can hurt and distract us, but they’re not nearly as large or powerful as they seem.