Sunday, February 5, 2012

How do we defeat hatred? Parashat B'shallach

Parashat B’shalach
(A nuclear armed Iran: How do we defeat hatred?)
It is chilling and frightening to digest continuing news reports as Israel contemplates when and if to launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. I say this not just because of the repercussions, both intended and unintended, for Israel let alone for the United States.  I say this because following the course of this scenario gives rise to an unknown and unpredictable apocalyptic chain of events.  For those events to unfold Israel will determine that it will have no choice, as though it was backed up against the wall with no place else to go, except to strike out against Iran. The potential of a nuclear Holocaust arises from the ideological triumphalism that stokes the hatred of the religious and political leadership of Iran.  On the other hand, can Israelis definitively know whether such a justifiable and legitimate preemptive attack, despite their enormous military arsenal, will serve Israel’s security interests and its diplomatic reputation in the world?
Rest assured Israeli society and its policy makers, military brass and its political leaders are grappling with this question.  Yet the Torah portion, B’shallach, reminds us from the annals of ancient history, in vastly different circumstances, of a situation when we felt our backs were up against the wall. The last 70 years were full of threats from the Arabs that they would drive us into the sea. In this week’s parasha we see the origin of that horrific thought when Israel began their trek out of Egypt. Bolstered by the devastation of the plagues, they stood at the shore by the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh, violating his promise to let them leave Egypt, pursues the people with his armed forces to the Sea. Here our story could have ended and the Israelites would have not even been a footnote in history.  But the Torah narrates the drama of Israel’s faith and its fears to take the leap into the sea.. Even Moses is not sure how his people could  avoid the wrath of Pharaoh’s triumphalism and hatred. Once again it is an existential moment of life or death for the Jewish people.
The point in the story I want to highlight in the Torah mirrors what we are experiencing today with Iran. We see the power of unrestrained hatred in the hardened heart of Pharaoh. It was ugly and destructive for us and for Egypt as well. In chapter 14 of Exodus, all we have to do is to imagine the rhetoric then and apply it to today’s Iranian leaders as they set their sights to annihilate Israel.
“He (meaning Pharaoh) made ready his chariot and took his people with him. He took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over all of them.” The Egyptians were headed to the Sea and thirsting to wipe the children of Israel off the face of the earth. The drama intensifies as the Israelites debate what to do. Some cried out to God for salvation. Others demanded that Moses lead them back to Egypt to resume their place as slaves.  Moses himself is not entirely sure what to do and how to navigate through this crisis. God even becomes vexed at Moses and scolds him.
“The Lord said unto Moses:  “Why cry to Me?
Tell the children of Israel to march forward.
As for you lift up your rod,
Stretch your hand over the sea and divide it
And the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground.” (vs15-16)
Yes there was a miracle coming from God but there was also another message which was that Moses and the people had to own their own survival too. They had to take decisive action along with divine intervention if they wanted to survive Pharaoh’s onslaught.
We have witnessed this scenario play itself out before in Israel’s modern history. In 1948, for example, King Abdullah of Jordan rode in front of his army to the banks of the Jordan River and fired the first shots against Israel near Kibbutz Degania and then returned home. Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1967 and Sadat in 73 also threatened to cast Israel into the sea.   Now President Ahmenijhad has stoked fear into the hearts of Jews world –wide. History teaches that the names change but the goal is always the same.
Once again Israel stands at the shore of the sea deciding what action to take when a modern day Pharaoh seeks our destruction. Once again we witness the internal struggle that only Israel can wage with itself to make its decision as the threshold for stopping or delaying the Iranian momentum to wage nuclear war narrows. Time is running out, the experts say, before Iran is immune to Israeli military intervention. Some  Israelis say we will have to learn to live with this reality in the Middle East. Still others, especially past American leaders, have recently been quoted as saying caustically, that Israel should not worry so much since Iran has only one bomb and Israel has 300. I still cannot fathom the moral underpinnings behind that sentiment.
Who can fathom the deep seated hatred against the Jews that circulates through the heart of the Iranian political leadership? There are ways to counter a military force. There are weapons and military strategy and luck. But how does Israel defeat hatred? Divine intervention freed us but we will never know if Pharaoh ceased to hate the Israelites.  The only answer is to never given in to hatred.
 In fact the sages of the Torah addressed this obsession to hate. In the Midrash the sages observed that Pharaoh himself made ready his own chariot to destroy the Israelites. From that they inferred a principle that hate disrupts protocol. In other words he uncharacteristically saddled his horse and chariot from the uncontrollable hatred. Kings usually stand by, while servants prepare their chariot and harness.  Drunk with hatred for Moses and the Israelites, Pharaoh prepared and harnessed his own chariot. As soon as his courtiers saw what he was doing they followed him.
Trickle down hatred is an old syndrome which appears in the soul of the so-called Supreme Leader of Iran. Hatred infected his courtiers, the revolutionary guards and  Ahmenijhad the Iranian president. Nothing has changed today when it comes to the intoxicant of hatred and how it can corrupt and become self destructive in any human being let alone people in political power.
We cannot forget that symbolically speaking world Jewry is standing at the shores of the Sea with our people in Israel. We will support them and advocate that our America be there with and for Israel at this hour. The real lingering question that remains, the thorniest one of all, is how to counter the hatred not only of Iran but in the Arab world? In other words, how do we beat back hatred of us? Alas this has plagued us for far too long. But it is our burden to bear. This time Israel can defend itself with its military prowess. But the long term battle of defeating hatred and winning over enemies as friends may be the most complex and frustrating strategic effort that Israel and world Jewry must battle against for years to come. We will need more than military might to defeat the advocates of hatred.
 The only way you can defeat hatred is by not giving into it. We will need to retain our own faith in God not because we expect God will split the sea again. We need God to enable us to check our own emotions and spirit to not let the bitterness of someone else’s aggression and hatred dampen the Jewish spirit to win the peace. We cannot let our adversaries see us descend into cynicism or hatred. We cannot give up the Tikvah the hope of our place as a light to the nations or that we would return to the fleshpots of Egypt. In other words we too have a dream that Isaiah spoke of when he said that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor will they study war anymore.”  That vision belongs to the Jewish ‘We have a dream speech.’