Chief Rabbi Ephraim MirvisRabbi \Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He was formerly Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
This Shabbat we begin the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses, prior to his passing, warned the Israelites of trying times ahead. We will be challenged, he said, by ra’ot rabot vetzarot – many evils and distresses (Deut. 31:17).
Playing on the word tzarot, which can mean either ‘distresses’ or ‘competing’, the Talmudic sage, Rav, explained that Moses is warning us of ‘evils which will compete with one another, like a bee and a scorpion’ (Tractate: Chagiga 5a).
In Talmudic times it was believed that one should treat a scorpion bite with hot water and a bee sting with cold water; the reverse would be dangerous (Avoda Zara 28b). Rashi explained that Rav is describing a situation in which a person has been bitten by a scorpion and stung by a bee in the same place. What is the remedy? Hot water will be helpful to the scorpion bite but detrimental to the bee sting, and the reverse if cold water is applied. Soothing one will aggravate the other.
During these challenging times, our brethren in Israel have been faced with exactly this type of dilemma.
“Every decision has the potential to solve one problem but exacerbate another.”
The IDF is forced into impossible dilemmas by Hamas’ disregard for the safety of its own citizens. Hamas is purposefully endangering Gazans, using them as human shields by firing rockets and digging tunnels in densely populated civilian areas, including homes, hospitals and schools, and often forbidding civilians to heed Israeli warnings to evacuate these areas.
All governments have a moral duty to protect their citizens from harm. It is with a heavy heart that Israel conducts operations in Gaza to reduce the danger to its citizens from Hamas, which indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians with ongoing barrages of deadly rockets.
As long as such a threat remains, so does the obligation on Israel to act to defend its citizens. As a result of Hamas’ embracing of a culture of death, evidenced by callous disregard for the safety and wellbeing of its citizens we are witnessing a consequent tragic loss of innocent life. As necessary as such operations are, the death and suffering of innocent Gazans causes me deep pain and anguish.
In the search for long-term peace and security, there is no perfect or easy solution for Israel to turn to.
While every use of force alienates potential partners for peace, every concession has the potential to strengthen those who seek to destroy the Jewish state.
With all these challenges, I am deeply concerned by the associated rise in ant-Semitic attacks across Europe and the use of Nazi imagery and language. Freedom of expression is an important right, but when protests against the policies of a government turn anti-Semitic and when Jews are verbally and physically assaulted, the alarm bells should ring loudly for us all. We have been here before.
I am proud of our youth groups whose trips to Israel this summer have proceeded uninterrupted. Their courage together with the support shown by parents is inspiring and is to be commended. My own plans to visit Israel during the summer are unaltered and I know that many other British Jews will visit Israel to show support and solidarity. I congratulate Prime Minister David Cameron for the strong leadership he has shown on this matter and for his support and understanding of Israel’s plight and its need to defend its citizens.
After warning the Israelites of future adversity, Moses charged Joshua with the words chazak ve’ematz – ‘be strong and of good courage’ (v.23). In so doing, Moses was teaching a timeless message to the Jewish people. When confronted with attempts to destroy Jewish life, we must be strong and courageous in the decisions we take to address complex scorpion and bee dilemmas – to secure peace while minimising bloodshed and to neutralise the threat against the citizens of Israel while continuing to maintain high moral standards and protecting civilian life.
I along with our community stand side by side with the people of Israel. Their loss is our loss. Together with them we mourn the fallen and console the grieving.
I pray for the time when the prophecy of Isaiah will come true: “…and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning forks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall learn war no more.” Let us build a future of hope and aspiration for Israeli and Palestinian children where they need not know rocket fire nor bomb shelters. I encourage all parties to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of a true, just and lasting peace for the entire region.
May the Almighty bless us all.
Original article published in Jewish Chronicle on 31st July 2014