Passion and Convictions

Parshat Balak 5774

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Balak we find the Israelites encamped at Shittin.  There the men are tempted – you might say propositioned — by the Moabite women.  In what scholars believe may have been part of the cult of Baal Peor, the Israelite men and Moabite women engage in sexual relations.


The ancient Israelites’ behavior is problematic, not only because they are overtaken by physical desire, but because motivated by passion they align themselves with a system of beliefs and values they might have otherwise disdained.


Though no longer wandering in the desert wilderness, the Israelites of today live in a land thirsty for peace and stability.  We were reminded of this harsh truth one week ago, when the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, were discovered in a field outside Hebron.


In light of this news, emotions, which had been running high since the teenagers’ abduction, hit a crescendo and a solemn sense of mourning took of the country.  This collective grief transcended the divisions that usually dissect Israeli society:  religious and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, left and right.


On Tuesday thousands gathered from all over Israel for the teenagers’ funerals in Modi’in.  But as the majority of Israeli’s affirmed, through mourning, the sacredness of human life – a small minority, driven by rage and anger– lashed out in terror.


Like the ancient Israelites at Shittim, this minority of Jewish Israelis was overtaken by passion –in this case for revenge and vengeance.  And like their ancestors, in following these base desires they discarded the values of their faith – committing acts anathema to the teachings of Judaism.


There are troubling reports of anti-Arab rallies, racist graffiti on Palestinian owned homes and businesses, and most devastating, the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir’ — his death a suspected revenge killing.


These abhorrent acts are not about defending Israel.  Acts of defense are fundamentally about affirming life.  No, this hateful behavior is about denying the humanity of others.  It is a rejection of what Ben Azzai taught is the most important principle in the entire Torah  – that every man and woman is created in God’s image.


Speaking at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv’s Independence Day Celebration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to the Israeli people to “exercise restraint in your actions and words. Our hearts ache, our blood boils, but we must remember that we are, first and foremost, human beings and we are citizens of a law-abiding country.”


Writing in the Times of Israel, the satirist Benji Lovitt expressed a similar sentiment.  Departing from his normally humorous tone, he called all of Israel to account, asserting


We clamor for the Palestinians to take responsibility for their actions, to bring terrorists to justice, to condemn perpetrators of horrible crimes.  When Jews are rioting in Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” and attacking innocent bystanders, they must be condemned.  If it turns out that the Arab boy was killed in an act of revenge, it must be condemned.  Not only by the government, but by all of us.  On Facebook.  In Shabbat dinner conversations.  In our minds.  It doesn’t matter that they killed three of ours, an unspeakable, horrible tragedy.  It doesn’t matter that Arafat said no in 2000 at Camp David.  It doesn’t matter that Hamas are rejectionist animals.  Those have nothing to do with the killing of a boy.  It doesn’t make us weaker or compromise our values to be human and acknowledge suffering when it exists on the other side.


Jewish tradition praises Pinchas – the man who ended the plague in our Torah reading, for the strength of his faith and convictions.  As a Jewish community, in Israel and around the world, now is a time when we need to be strong in our convictions — strong in our belief that even as the shadow of terror darkens our cities and homes, the pursuit of peace remains our task and the sanctity of human life our guiding principal. 


May we blessed to live as according to our highest ideals and may peace yet come to us. – Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.