This Shabbat is the second Shabbat of the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. In 70 CE, on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and three weeks later on the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) destroyed the Temple. Given the repercussions of such a wound, and the subsequent scattering of the Jewish people from their homeland throughout the world, this three-week period has come to be known in Hebrew as a time “bein ha-m’tzarim” (between the straits). It is a time in our calendar in which celebration is absent. We use this time to commemorate and mourn various tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, and we acknowledge that as the years go by, we continue to remain distant from our goals of peace and unity.
This week especially, has been dark and deeply tragic for Jews throughout the world. Terrorists attacked an Israeli tour group traveling to a Black Sea resort on the coast of Bulgaria leaving (at the time of the writing of this bulletin) eight people dead and dozens wounded. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other people quickly identified Iran as the source of the attack, though responsibility had yet to be claimed. A full investigation is expected to follow, with retaliation likely.
The choice of dates for such a planned attack is equally tragic. On July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina(AMIA) in Buenos Aires killing eighty-seven people and injuring more than one hundred. The attack came two years after the bombing of the Argentinean Israeli embassy. Though dedicated investigations ensued after both of these bombings, now twenty years later, not a single person has been convicted or brought to justice for their actions.
As we continue to see such a gross disregard for the inestimable value of human life and a gross perversion of justice in our world, what form should our response to such heinous attacks take? There will be many Jews who will open the Torah for guidance, and seeing that this week’s parashah highlights an Israelite attack on Midian, suggest that we follow a literal interpretation of our sacred teachings. Moses is commanded to “wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian.” The Israelites slay every man, including the kings of Midian, and then take the women and children captive, leaving alive, in the end, every woman who has not been involved in a relationship with a man.
As a proponent of interfaith dialogue and a supporter of relations with members of communities different to our own, this portion of the Torah leaves me scratching my head.
How can we still acknowledge that Torah’s ways “…are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace?” How does a tradition that teaches us to have the utmost respect for human life, seem to deviate from that path, and argue, that regarding Midianites, killing is necessary? Does blood simply call out for blood? Some perspectives within Jewish tradition do suggest that killing, bloodshed and warfare are, only in the most awful of circumstances, necessary evils. Contemporary scholar, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, writes:
Terrible as war may be, the alternative often is worse. Had Gandhi convinced the English to lay down their arms, Nazism would have conquered Europe, if not the world, democracy would have come to an end, and not a single Jew might be alive today. Similarly, if Israel had not been willing to fight wars of self-defence, it would long ago have been destroyed, and its citizens killed. Thus war, while always unfortunate, is not always evil; sometimes, fighting a war is the most moral thing to do (Jewish Wisdom, pp. 427-28).
Jewish tradition continues to recognize that war is dirty. War is ugly. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the harrowing actions committed by the Israelites, all of those soldiers involved in the war against Midian are instructed to remain outside of the camp for an entire week, to purify themselves and to process and reflect on what has transpired. These soldiers need to reintegrate themselves into the normal ways of the world. Torah provides this requirement indicating that a person who kills another person, no matter the case, brings impurity upon himself and upon his community.
Only time will tell what form our response to the Bulgarian attack will take. As these times continue to be bleak for our people and we find ourselves walking in truly dark places, we must mourn together, as a people united. Even as sadness and ugliness fills our world, threatening to tear it apart, we continue to remain a people of hope. May all of our actions, and our responses to tragic, senseless, baseless attacks be based in sincerity, justice, and righteousness. And in this dark period in our calendar, and in our existence as a people, may we ultimately move from darkness to light, from prospects of doom, to thoughts of compassion and consolation.
PS: When writing this piece, the first news about the killing in Aurora, CO are coming out. Our heart goes to the families of the victims.