The story of the Golden Calf is a moment when the Israelites made their first decision proving that they were in charge of their fate and also recognizing the consequences of being masters of their destiny. In fact that double edged sword revealed that in spite of all the miracles from God they did not get off to a good start as masters of their destiny. If it had not been for Moses who intervened and ultimately challenged God to stay the course of his ancient promise to the Patriarchs, the Israelites might have faced the most absolute existential threat-the wrath of the Almighty. The ancient Israelites had the freedom to make their own decisions. The sad part was that they fell prey to their own insecurities and exploited that new found power. The result was Golden Calf.
Then a millennium later the Jewish people were still struggling to be masters of their fate. Whether we are speaking about the intrigue of trying to take the Promised Land from the indigenous clans in Canaan or even after becoming a regional power in the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, the Israelites needed to walk a tightrope. Biblical history teaches us that Israelites or Jews, depending on what period of Jewish history, were in a constant state of struggle to maintain Jewish independence and autonomy. Our ancestors fought against the Assyrians in the 8th century, the Babylonians in the 6th century, the Selucid Greeks in the 2nd century and then the Romans and the 2000 year exile that followed their occupation. Finally the Nazis sealed our commitment to becoming the masters of our fate which inscribed the 11th commandment,” Never Again.” We have learned that being in control of our fate is a bedrock concept of Jewish history and a fundamental principle underlining modern Zionism and thereby the foreign policy of Israel and ultimately world Jewry.
We heard this concept intoned by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the recent AIPAC convention. The Prime Minister did an effective job of communicating that concept and it resonated on many levels with the American leadership as well as with the Jewish people. What is the tension that we Jews face with regard to being masters of our own fate? The tension is facing the consequences of being in charge of one’s destiny and using our new found powers wisely. What does this idea of being in control of our fate say to us about Jewish identity in the world today? It is up to all of us to be personally involved in the fate of our people if we are to follow Israel’s lead to be the masters of their fate. We too must speak out for this faith and its people at these critical moments.
I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is a man who has a deep respect for Jewish history. His father is a respected historian and he was raised with Jewish history in the house and it obviously had a profound impact upon his vision of Israel. He articulates that narrative, not just a political narrative, but it is a spiritual one which is that we will never again put ourselves in position of being dependent upon greater powers who will determine the fate of the Jewish people.
It is also spiritual message because every Jew has some sense of understanding that history has proven that when we lived as guests in the larger non-Jewish society we gave up our autonomy. Our Diaspora history is about Jews being forced to relinquish control of our fate. It did not mean that we did not have alternative resources to influence events to preserve our community and survive the unpredictable outcomes of religious persecution or nationalist rampages or pogroms. It meant always living in the shadows of our vulnerabilities but internally fighting to preserve Judaism and the way of life we cherish.
The tension is that when we actually wait for 2000 years to get to the point where we can be masters of our own fate that we face the consequences of what comes with that responsibility. With regard to Iran and its rhetoric to wipe Israel off the map do we not recall the same bravado of the Arab armies preparing to cast us into the sea right before the Six Day War in 1967? Our faith in God and in the mitzvoth, Judaism teaches us, will protect us. At the same time we have learned from the sages “Pray as if everything depended on God and act as if everything depended upon you.” And Israel’s unforgettable preemptive strike against the Egyptian air Force led to its miraculous victory now revered in the annals of Jewish history.
Prime Minister Netanyahu knows as does the Israeli and American political and military establishments understand that a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities will trigger consequences that might very well cause loss of Israeli and American lives in Israel and around the world. The tension is readily apparent because what people forget is that Israel abhors having to wage war. Its superior military readiness is a reminder that Jews have learned their lessons from history and that we will never return to the dependency role we assumed for millennium as subjects to authorities who would be the masters of our lives. But do not forget that Israel always seeks peace first and foremost. The tension I refer to is a spiritual one that plays itself out in the real politick. It is that Israel must be the military power not because Israel relishes being a regional military power but because if they do not assume that role Israel would be dust in the wind. It is a necessary precondition for Jewish continuity but not one that we or the founders of Zionism had hoped Israel would have to contend with in relations with their Arab and Muslim neighbors in the Middle East. It is a tension that tempts Israel to become as violent as our adversaries and Israel does its best to resist that urge to respond with restraint against its adversaries. The tension is to resist being like our adversaries even though we must use that power for the right reasons.
No doubt Prime Minister Netanyahu feels the same way worrying about what could go wrong in a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as the unintended consequences that might follow. Should we not be careful as we think about this preemptive strike idea against Iran? We have come a long way since the Purim story when we had to depend on the strategic thinking of Esther who requested her uncle Mordecai and the Jewish community of Persia to fast the day before she would ultimately launch her effort to violate Persian Law to see the King without being summoned by the king to reveal Haman’s plot against the people. Jewish life hung in the balance of whether she would break the rules to speak to the king or not. The fact that the positive results led the Jews to take out 75,000 Persians in another preemptive strike which foiled Haman’s plan showed even then that we had to do what was necessary to preserve our existence.
In many ways Prime Minister Netanyahu holds our fate in his hands too. We wait. Whether it is our own President or the Israeli Prime Minister we are now at the table with the ruling authorities staring face to face at each other. We are not victims anymore, yet, neither can we feel that the Jewish people worldwide let alone in Israel will avoid the consequences of a preemptive attack against Iran. Being in control of our own fate, as Prime Minister Netanyahu says, is not a time to release ourselves from prayer and deep introspection about preparing ourselves for the outcome of an eventual attack. We are released from the bondage of victimhood. We are not released from the responsibility of our humanity to experience fear or resist the temptation of relishing the act of committing a justifiable act of violence against another. No doubt that if Israel acts, proving once again it is the master of its own fate, it will bring down condemnation from many corners of the world as well as silent affirmation and appreciation. It will be up to us and the rest of world Jewry to speak out for Israel before our friends and neighbors from other faiths. We are all playing a role, as did Moses so many times, as defenders of the faith and its people.