As the battlefield of ideas spreads across the capitals of the world we need to find a sure sense of direction.
As the Gaza war was being fought in the air, on land and beneath the earth, another war has been taking place around the world. In London, Paris, Frankfurt, Chicago and many other major cities, violent and angry protests have been accompanied by a barrage of vehement criticism of Israel in every communication medium.
There is a growing sense of alienation and anxiety among Jewish communities – a sense of disbelief that so many forces have united against Israel.
What is our response at a time like this? How do we deal with it? How do we find a way forward? The answer is embedded in a few lines from the Torah, which provides a G-d-given framework of values and guidelines for how to deal with this very crisis today. Just before troops go out to war, a kohen (priest), specifically designated for this purpose reads out a declaration to the soldiers. The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:3-4) says: “When you approach the battle, the kohen should come and speak to the nation and he should say to them, ‘Hear O Israel, today you are going out to battle against your enemies. Let your heart not be faint, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them, because the Lord your G-d is walking with you to do battle against your enemies in order to save you.’” As an integral part of the preparations for battle, the designated priest was responsible for reassuring the troops and boosting morale. The verse contains four verbs all meaning, in general, “do not be afraid.”
Hebrew, G-d’s holy language, is indeed very rich; each expression refers to a unique kind of fear, upon which the commentators have expounded. Rashi on this verse quotes the Talmud (Sotah 42a), which explains that these four expressions refer to four “scare tactics” employed by kings in ancient times. “Do not be faint of heart” refers to the neighing of the horses; the armies of the time would stir up their horses so that they would neigh and the noise would intimidate the enemy. “Do not be afraid” refers to the clattering of shields; armies would scare their opponents by rubbing their shields together to create a terrible noise. ”Do not panic” refers to the trumpets which would be blown to induce fear. “Do not be broken before them” refers to the shouts and screams which would scare the opposing soldiers.
The designated priest would read out a declaration to the soldiers, essentially saying: You are going into battle and you are going to hear all these noises; the enemy is trying to intimidate you, but don’t be afraid for G-d is with you.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, one of our great sages of the 20th century, explains that these verses refer not only to the actual battlefield but also to the battlefield of ideas. And that’s what we are experiencing right now; all of the noise and intimidation – the news broadcasts, the protests, the hate speech on social media – are an attempt to intimidate us and to instil fear in the hearts of every single Jew across the world.
And what should be our response? That is clear. As the kohen told the troops in ancient times: “Do not be afraid, because the Lord your G-d walks with you.” At a time like this, we respond not with fear, but by deepening our faith. Hashem is looking after us. It doesn’t mean that things will always turn out exactly the way that we want, but we are in His hands, as is our destiny, and we can take comfort in that. It means that we draw our convictions and our sense of self-worth and our legitimacy and who we are – not from the cacophony of criticism around us, but from our inner truth that G-d gave us thousands of years ago. The legitimacy of the State of Israel does not depend on the Balfour Declaration or on any United Nations resolution. It depends on the fact that G-d promised Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, almost 4,000 years ago, that this land is ours. It depends on our own deeply felt conviction of the justice of the cause of the State of Israel, and that the Israel Defense Forces conduct itself with greater care and moral restraint in avoiding civilian casualties than any other army in world history, albeit that we are painfully aware of the Mishna’s noble statement that the loss of even one life is as if an entire world were destroyed.
Who we are and our sense of right and wrong come not from the affirmation that we seek in the eyes and opinions of others, but rather from the fact that we have an inner truth given to us by G-d through His Torah. And as long as we can stand before G-d with a clear conscience, then we have that peace of mind, that tranquility of spirit, that inner strength to cope with all of the criticism and intimidation and bullying and scare tactics and hate speech and all of the pressures that are brought to bear on Jewish communities anywhere in the world.
And so at a time like this, the Torah’s message to all of us is clear – don’t be afraid, be strong. Upon the conclusion of each of the five books of the Chumash, the first five books of the Bible, the reader says aloud – and the congregation repeats after him – Chazak chazak venitchazek, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.” We say this because the Torah, which gives us our mission and purpose as Jews, is the source of all our strength. It illuminates our path, giving us stability, a sense of direction and solid values upon which to build our lives. We say “Be strong, be strong” because we have to be strong in our commitment to a life based on Divine principles. We then add the reflexive venitchazek, “May we be strengthened,” because it works both ways: to live according to Torah principles requires strength, but it is those principles themselves which give us strength.
Living by enduring principles gives us the strength of moral conviction, it gives us a firm foundation for everything we do. At this time of international pressure, with world opinion inexplicably stacked against us, and many asking us to question our very existence, we must draw our strength from within and from above. From within – from our eternal principles that have accompanied the Jewish People for thousands of years. And from above – from our unshakable faith in Hashem and His mission for us, and His covenant for Jewish destiny.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.