Reflections: Past and present

Indeed, it seems as if ‘in every generation’ we experience... these same troubles.

A view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.
In Judaism – our religious civilization, to use Mordecai Kaplan’s definition – past and present are constantly intertwined, and the line dividing them is fine indeed.
We are frequently reliving the past as if it were our own personal experience.
That is the meaning of the words in the Haggada, “In every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he had personally come out of Egypt.”
We have experienced this phenomenon in an extreme fashion these past few weeks when, while living through the terrors of the war in Gaza, we were at the same time reliving the period of the Three Weeks, commemorating the wartime events leading up to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.
Each Shabbat during this difficult period, we read a section from the Prophets called “a haftara of punishment.”
The past and present met in a way that only added to our feelings of concern, to put it mildly.
Indeed, it seems as if “in every generation” we experience – albeit in very different circumstances – these same troubles.
But what should be remembered is that the period of the Three Weeks, with their readings of punishment, are followed by this week’s reading of comfort from Isaiah – Shabbat Nahamu.
Moreover, during the next seven weeks, only positive readings are chanted.
Of course, as I write these words, I have no way of knowing if this will indeed be a Shabbat of comfort or if the battles and struggles will continue.
Clearly, I hope that here, too, past and present will converge in a positive way and our pain will cease. There has been enough killing, enough wounding, enough traumatic occurrences, enough running to safety.
Hopefully Hamas will feel that it is time to put an end to the suffering of its own people, by at last stopping its targeting of Israeli civilians. Had it done so at any time – or even better, had it not started it – there would have been no killing of its civilians or destruction of their cities.
Anyone who thinks that either the IDF or the Israeli public at large desired the death of these civilians does not understand the complexity of the situation in which Israel found itself. The last thing the Jewish state wanted was to be dragged into a land war in Gaza where the terrorists and the civilians are so intertwined that any attempt to eliminate their capacity to attack Israel inevitably brings about the terrible results that we have seen. There may be some individuals in Israel who rejoice at that, but these few fanatics do not represent the public.
Obviously, much of the world will not accept or understand that, and those who hate Israel and despise Jews will take advantage of these terrible pictures to build a case against us. Would that it were not so, and would that we had not been forced into this position.
Unfortunately, it is not only our enemies who condemn us, but also some of our friends who cannot understand why this is happening. I was particularly pained when one well-known American rabbi, who I happen to know is not an extremist and certainly not anti-Israel, felt it necessary to write a piece in which he stated that these killings could not be simply called collateral damage – and that the responsibility for the civilian Arab casualties was Israel’s, which he connected with biblical quotations concerning vengeance. The implication, intended or not, was that the actions were fueled by a desire for revenge for Arab killings of Jews, such as the tragedy of the three kidnapped and murdered yeshiva boys.
Let me assure him and others who are of the same opinion that vengeance had nothing to do with this. There was no intention of killing civilians, but sometimes it could not be avoided.
Were there mistakes made? Undoubtedly – because that is what happens when there is warfare, and in the heat of battle, when we are trying to protect our troops, decisions must be made rapidly.
What is true, however, is that there is a small number of so-called religious leaders in Israel who teach that Jews are superior to Arabs, and that Jewish lives are worth more. As I have written before, Israel cannot afford to tolerate such teachings and must do everything possible to deprive such rabbis of their positions and influence.
Unfortunately, Hamas does not want to live in peace with Israel, and as long as it continues in its desire to eliminate the State of Israel, it will use violence.
Not only will we suffer, but their own people will suffer as well. But this does not mean that we in Israel have no responsibility to try to bring about peace, and stop the suffering for all – Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has shown himself in this conflict to be a moderate, resisting the calls of extremists and doing whatever he could to avoid violence. Considering some of his actions in the past, it may seem strange to deem him a moderate, but this seems to be the case – certainly in contrast to some other members of the cabinet, and to some members of his own party.
Now, the real test will be whether or not he will bring the same moderation and determination to the actions needed to work toward peace, recognizing the other Palestinians who are committed to a political solution as well as those Arab states that have expressed a desire for peace. Their conditions may not meet our requirements, but there is still a basis for discussion and negotiation.
Unless we embark on that path with the same determination we have shown these past three weeks, the future holds little promise of anything but a repetition of the past.
Let us hope that this Shabbat of consolation and the weeks of consolation that are to come will echo the consolation that followed Tisha Be’av in the past, and bring a new beginning of hope to this embattled land.
The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, an author, lecturer and two-time winner of the Jewish National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights), and his newest work, Akiva, is scheduled to be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2015.