“The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues” (?)

As this d’var Torah goes to print, we are in the middle of a second cease-fire, wondering whether this one will last beyond its three days. Nearly half of the casualties from this war are civilians, including hundreds of children.

I believe that Israel not only should continue to exist but should thrive, with the eyes of God always upon it, that her citizens of all races and religions should gather in the corn, the wine and the oil, and should eat and be full, as it says in our Torah portion (Devarim 11:12, 14). But that, today, is not enough, because it is not possible in the context of a conflict that does not end, and an endless occupation that cannot end through military action. In this setting, I find parashat Ekev, a portion full of blessings and exhortations to conquer the land of Israel, deeply painful to write about.

But triumphalist as it is, in parashat Ekev we are not only exhorted to conquer the land but also warned, in each section, that once the land is conquered we must take great care. Ekev suggests that it is not failure but success that poses the greatest challenges to us. In the Torah, the bounty of the land and the blessings of God make us think overly well of ourselves: when we have enough, we tend to think that it is because of our own actions. We are warned: when we have the land, we should take care not to believe it is due to our righteousness.

In Devarim 8, God begins and ends by reminding us that in order to inherit the land, we must “beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” In the next chapter, we are reminded, “say not to yourselves, ‘The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues… Know that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people.’” And in 10, we are told what is expected of us:

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day, for your good. (Devarim 10: 12-13) You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10: 19)

Each of these warnings should drive us to ask ourselves whether being right in the moment is, indeed, enough: is it the whole story? Are our stiff necks getting in the way of seeing that our response is built not in the moment, but over years of responses? Is it possible that there are other ways to see the events in which we are mired—and is it possible that there are other ways we could react to them?

The shrill conversations that I see daily on both social and traditional media ask us to ignore the antecedents of the current conflict and to react as if every flare-up was a discrete and unrelated event. I won’t repeat here the savvy arguments of, for instance, Peter Beinart (why the myth of Gaza being free has misled us), Dalia Scheindlein (the one-sided narratives that the media repeats over and over), and Gershom Gorenberg (on the shifting meanings and history of the current outbreak of violence), though I encourage you to read them yourselves. But the weight of their data and analysis leads me to conclude that the heavy civilian casualities might have been avoided had we used the opportunities to negotiate earlier; that if not for the expanding cohort of “Greater Israel” extremists, who see their mission as acting for God in determining that there can be no negotiations and constant expansion, things might have taken a very different path. It seems these Jewish extremists believe they are walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s commandments. But they have missed the forest for the trees.

I beg that we take a fresh look at the current eruption of the conflict. Although it is surely true that we are more righteous than Hamas, with even many Arab countries turning away from them, that is not the standard we should aspire to. The recent fighting has been characterized by a great deal of self-congratulatory professions of our compassion, our morality, and our justness. But the Torah rebukes us. Once we are in the land, we are expected to do better than those who surround us. It is not enough to say, “We are righteous”—we must make sure that in our haste to protect ourselves, we do not miss opportunities that would build true peace and true bounty, not only for us but for all who dwell in the land.

It is difficult at this moment—when we are despairing over the constant violation of ceasefires by Hamas, when there seems little we can do to reach out and work for peace and when Hamas seems determined to undermine any such attempts—to think carefully about how to meaningfully move forward and prepare the ground for a secure future for both Palestinians and Israelis. But it is necessary—for all of us.

If we would dwell in the land in peace, we know what we need to do: we need to negotiate with those who have stated that they will negotiate with us, instead of undermining them by constant settlement expansion. We are past the age of conquest and into the era of living in the land. Today, we need to focus on the second part of the exhortation: walk in God’s ways.

 

Rabbi Alana Suskin is Director of Strategic Communication at Americans for Peace Now and a T’ruah board member. She is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Jewschool.com

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