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D’var Torah by Rabbi Yosef Blau at the Encounter Gala

by Rabbi Yosef Blau | Published on May 10, 2011

Judaism is a complex blend of partic­u­larism and univer­salism. As a Religious Zionist leader, committed to Israel as a Jewish demo­c­ratic state, I felt it impor­tant to learn directly from the Palestinians with whom we share living in the Land of Israel — to broaden my under­standing of the land so central to my passionate and reli­gious concern. Encounter created this opportunity. 

I want to share a message of Torah by opening with a corre­spon­dence that I had with a Palestinian leader I met on my trip. After the attacks in Itamar, I exchanged emails with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American busi­nessman living in Ramallah. We did not always agree, but the dialogue was conducted in a spirit of mutual listening and respect. I wanted to know his response to the massacre. His response captured the danger of demo­nizing an entire popu­la­tion, the impor­tance of seeing our so-called enemies person-by-person and one-by-one. He wrote me that when in 2004–5 the Israeli Defense Forces was bombing Ramallah with F-16s during the second Intifada, he told his young daugh­ters that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was piloting each bomber plane flying over their heads. It was the only way he could think of to convince them that this was not being done by “Jews” or “Israelis”, but rather one indi­vidual political/military figure who was respon­sible. He wanted to teach them to direct their anger at one man and one man only; he refused to allow his daugh­ters to perceive all Israelis as war-mongering and violent.

This message is espe­cially rele­vant today, on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, preceded yesterday by Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day, commem­o­rating those who fell in the wars fought to create and main­tain the state of Israel. How are we guided by our Sages to cele­brate mili­tary victory and Israel’s Independence? What is the Jewish atti­tude toward our adver­saries in a time of war and loss on both sides? 

After the split­ting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers Moses and the Israelites sang Az Yashir, a song of cele­bra­tion. According to the Talmud, the angels want to sing as well, but G-d stopped them. “My crea­tures are drowning and you want to sing.” G-d teaches His chil­dren to affirm the humanity and dignity of our adver­saries, even in the face of violence and war.

Our foun­da­tional Biblical story of being freed from slavery sensi­tizes us to the humanity, dignity and suffering of all other human beings. In the context of war and grief, our foun­da­tional commit­ment is most tested and stretched. Many of us begin to reduce the world’s complexity to black-and-white terms. But to do so is to forget G-d’s message that all humans are His crea­tures. Encounter forced me to confront the humanity of those who had been “other”- to inter­nalize their humanity emotion­ally. This is perhaps one of the greatest expres­sions of this core message of our Torah.

Click here to see a video of the speech.

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