A Preemptive Strike for Peace


At the Cantor’s Lunch and Sing, the group sang Shir L’Shalom. So, it reminded me of something we talked about on our 2014 HNT Israel trip when we stood in Rabin square and our tour guide, Joe Freedman, led us in song, and we discussed the words. So, we’ll sing it together, then I want to point out something about one key phrase.

We sang the song together (Hebrew lyrics, transliteration and translation available on line)

By way of introducing my comment, I want to repeat something I said two weeks ago. The Torah says of Noach that he was eesh tzadik, tamim haya b’dorotav. He was righteous, wholehearted in his generation. And, one of the rabbis says: “Sure, he was righteous compared to the wicked people of his generation, but if he’d lived at the time of Abraham, he wouldn’t have been considered such a big deal.”

When I talked about this two weeks ago, I said that it’s easy for us to think of ourselves as righteous too, depending on who we compare ourselves to. So, when we look at the list of Israel’s neighbors – Syria, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran – when we look at the record of human rights in those countries,  – there is no question that Israel stands out like a beacon of light. And, if we are content to be children of Noah, we can find comfort in knowing that like Noah, we are tsaddik b’doreinu, we are righteous compared to our neighbors.

But, as Janine has often pointed out to me, you can be right or you can be happy. We can be right, and the Israeli-Arab conflict will go on forever. At least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s not our fault. If that’s enough for us, we should keep doing what we’re doing. But, if we have any hope that someday this conflict we’ll end, we’re better off seeing ourselves as children of Abraham, not children of Noah.

What is the difference between Noah and Abraham? According to the rabbis, Noah was reactive. Abraham was proactive. When God said to Noah, I’m destroying the world, build an Ark, Noah said, ‘OK, whatever you say, God.’ But, when God said to Abraham, ‘I’m destroying Sodom,’ Abraham said, ‘now wait a minute, God, let’s talk this through.’

The key to understanding Abraham’s personality is in the opening scene of today’s parasha. The Torah says: Vayera elav Adonai, God appears to Abraham, v’hu yoshev petach ha’ohel k’chom ha’yom/Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, petach ha’ohel.

The word poteach in Hebrew means to open. It also means to initiate. Why was Abraham sitting at the petach? The rabbis say, because he was scanning the horizon for travelers who might need shelter. Abraham was not the kind of person who waited for someone to knock at his door. He was an initiator. And, when the three visitors appeared in his sight line, va’yaratz likratam – he ran out to greet them. He didn’t wait for the mitzvah to come to him. He went out to pursue the mitzvah.

David Gelertner teaches us that when we do petichah/when we open the Ark, we are acting out a core Jewish value. Peticha/the opening of the Ark teaches us that life is not a closed system, that we are not condemned to repeat the same patterns again and again. Peticha means that our lives are open with possibility.

This was Abraham. He sat at the petach. He was open to the new. He believed that new things could happen. By contrast, when the people of Sodom tried to abuse these very same visitors, God blinded them, so that they couldn’t find the door to Lot’s house. The Torah says, va’yilu limtzo ha’petach/they could not find the opening. This was a society that did not see itself as open. A society that does not see the future as open, that cannot envision a better future – this is a failed society.

Now, we can go back to the song. This is the key line: Al tagidu yom yavu, haviu et hayom. Don’t say wistfully, ‘some day in the distant future, there will be peace – ‘ rather, bring about the peace. Do something to make it happen! What is going on here? This is Zionist philosophy at its core. How was the State of Israel created in the first place? A small group of idealistic people said – “Don’t say: someday the Mashiach will come, and then we’ll have a state. It’s our job to make it happen ourselves.”

Israel at its core is Abraham, not Noah. Israel is proactive, not reactive. The quintessential Israeli moment was the first day of the Six Day War, when Israel launched a preemptive strike against the Egyptian air force and destroyed the whole force before it left the ground. It is not Israeli to wait for things to happen and then react. Israel makes things happen.

What’s needed today is a pre-emptive strike for peace. Peace will not happen if we sit around and wait for God to send us the next Sadat. That’s not how Israel was built and it’s not how peace will be built. Israel was built in small increments by idealistic and practical dreamers who milked cows and drained swamps and cleared rocks and built Tel Aviv on sand dunes, brick by brick. And, peace needs to be built in the same way.

What Israel needs to do is to challenge the world and challenge its Arab neighbors with its own vision for peace. It should be far reaching and it should be tough. Israel should stop building settlements in the heart of the West Bank, once and for all. Israel should affirm in ringing terms its desire for a two state solution. And, then Israel should address the Arab world and say in the boldest terms what Israel needs.

First, a cold peace will not do. Israel should challenge Egypt and Jordan to develop true a relationship with Israel – trade, culture, education. If countries we have been at peace with for thirty years still hate us – why should Israel take new peace risks? Israel cannot risk the lives of its citizens for an accommodation with people who can barely stand to look at us. If our neighbors ever want the conflict to end, they are going to have to do better.

Second, the Arab world is going to have to get over its problem with Jewish sovereignty. We’re not living in the 9th century anymore when Jews were grateful to be integrated into Muslim society. That’s never going to be enough for the Jewish people anymore. And, until the Arab and Muslim world understands this, there will never be peace. We need to say this out loud over and over again to the Arab world and the world at large.

Finally, there needs to be a vast education program to change the mis-perception among Arabs and Muslims that the Jews are interlopers in the land of Israel, that we have no deep historic connection to the land, and no history of sovereignty in the land.

Is this an idle dream? I don’t think so. It’s already beginning in a small way. Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartman Institute is a hero of the center right. He has spoken at Stand With Us events. Halevi has teamed up with Turkish born Imam Abdullah Antepli to create the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. It brings 25 American Muslim Leaders to Israel to study about the history of Judaism and the history of Israel.

Iman Antepli was raised an anti-semite. As a young adult, he believed that Judaism and the Jewish people were irredeemingly evil. Somewhere along his journey he came to believe that “the self-destructive, toxic poison” of Muslim anti-Semitism is disempowering the Muslim world” and he was determined to change it.

The MLI program is now on its third cohort. The first two groups were castigated in the Muslim world. They were called traitors to Islam. They received death threats. But, they persisted.

The big change in thinking has to do with the historic Jewish connection to the land. The MLI program deliberately does not take the group to Yad Vashem. Here’s why. On the first day of that first program one of the participants said something like, “So what you’re really saying is that you’re here not because of the Holocaust? You’re here because you have an ancient connection to this land? Did I get that right?”

That question is the point of the program. And, this kind of education is what will eventually bring peace. Israel and the Jewish people as a whole should challenge the Arab and Muslim world to open themselves to this approach. That would demonstrate that we are taking our destiny into our own hands and not simply waiting for the Mashiach to arrive on a white horse.

We need to decide. Do we want to be children of Noah or children of Abraham? Do we want to be like the people of Sodom, unable to find the petach, unable to see an opening, a hope for a better future? Or, will we be like Abraham, and station ourselves b’fetach ha’ohel, at the opening of our tent, actively scanning the horizon for a chance to improve our destiny?