Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Mattot: Promises To Keep
On a beautiful day at Niagara Falls, the crowd gathered saw a tightrope walker setting up, preparing to perform his feats of derring-do over the perilous depths. To their astonishment and delight, the acrobat walked the thin line with seeming ease, walking back and forth across it, even taking a wheelbarrow across with no seeming difficulty. When he was back safely across, the crowd roared their approval with applause and cheering. The tightrope walker bowed, raised his hand to hush the crowd, and said “do you think I could do it again?” With some laughter, everyone cheered and applauded again. At this, the acrobat gestured and said, “wonderful. Whoever does believe I could go across again may indicate as such by getting in the wheelbarrow.”
I wonder how many of us are any different? How many of us would have enough faith in the acrobat to get in the wheelbarrow? Or are we happy to cheer from afar, spectators gazing from a safe distance?
We see the same attitude in this week’s portion, Mattot. In it, two of the tribes, Gad and Reuven, ask if they can stay and occupy territory on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Gilead. That is, on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, the place across from where Israel is supposed to inherit. That they mention this as Israel prepares to invade and retake their land causes Moses to explode. "הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה" "Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?" Instead, they offer to go in as the shocktroopers, forging ahead of the rest of Israel as they strive to take the promised land. It would be as if one of the spectators didn’t just get in the Wheelbarrow, but traded places with the acrobat!
Today our brethren go to war again, and we are sitting here; the war in Israel, the war of anti-Semitism that is now again revealing itself in Europe, and Boston and California. Our brethren go to war, and we are here; not by choice, I imagine, but by virtue of our physical location and circumstances. We are anxious for our brethren, heartsick over the decisions being made by Israel’s political leadership, worried about the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. How can we not have a lump in our throat when we read facebook posts like my friend’s the other day: when asking about whether her daughter liked her birthday party, she replied, “yes, but not the air raid siren part.”
So how can we get in the wheelbarrow? There are the usual forms of support, of course. We can offer financial support for those suffering, through Federation and ARZA; and physical, by going to the rally on Wednesday. But that’s not enough. That still makes us spectators. We need to get out there. We need to correct misinformation when we hear it or see it on social media. We need to share every article about what’s going on from a real perspective—not what CNN or NPR will share, but Israeli media itself. We need to counter those naïve but well-intentioned voices that would see this as a David-and-Goliath struggle, asking why can’t Israel just make peace while rockets rain on its head. Even more than that, we need to actively engaged those who speak for BDS and show how their protestations of antizionism and not anti-Semitism is bearing bitter and violent fruit worldwide, and isn’t as innocent as they might have us think.
AND, we need to show our own skepticism. Faith is not blind, and getting in the wheelbarrow still comes with fears and anxieties. Our support of Israel must also come with our concerns that the political leadership in Netanyahu’s cabinet is perhaps more trigger-happy than they ought to be, concerns shared by leading Israeli military and intelligence officials. Recently Bibi talked about how there can’t be a two-state solution in an Israeli press conference. If a Palestinian Authority spokesperson said such a thing, we would go bananas. That Bibi says it in the midst of a war against Gaza—a time when we’re told to put politics aside…? I may be getting in the wheelbarrow, folks, but I reserve the right to check the tightness of the bolts and kick the tire, as should the rest of us.
"הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה" "Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?" God made a promise that this land is ours, and we have made a promise: all Israel is responsible for one another. We need to hold up our end of responsibility: to support with enthusiasm and support with skepticism. And we need to pray with all our hearts, our hands, our actions, that we may fulfill the words of the psalmist: "May Peace be within Your walls, and tranquility within your palaces". Amen.