Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It should be clear that the last thing the Obama Administration wants is to get caught in another Middle Eastern war, with no “good guys” and no viable exit strategy. What else can explain American passivity in the face of 70,000 Syrian dead and 1 million refugees in two years? What else can explain the President’s hedging on his pledge to act if Syria crossed the “red line” of introducing chemical weapons, now that indeed Syria has crossed that “red line?”
So much for the Biblical command, “Thou shalt not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (Leviticus 19:16)
Bill Clinton confessed that his greatest regret was not acting to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Will Barack Obama make the same confession about Syria one day?
Yes, Syria is embroiled in a nasty civil war. Yes, the Syrian rebels, increasingly radicalized Islamists, are a mixed bag. Yes, Al Qaida is involved. Who should the US support?
In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” (April 30, 2014 – “On the Ground in Syria”) the New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, who has covered the wars in Libya and Afghanistan and spent time on the ground with Syrian rebels, understands Obama’s resistance to get involved in Syria.
Chivers says that though the rebels distrust and hate the west, they want the west to get involved because they cannot match the Syrian government’s superior fire power. The west, ironically, is their only hope. They do not want American troops in Syria, but they do want weapons, and, a no-fly zone to protect the people from the air.
“Put yourselves in the shoes of the Syrian people,” Chivers said. Your village has been occupied by the Syrian army and then shelled. Everyone has lost someone. Obama says that the “red line” that will provoke American action against the Syrian government is its introduction of chemical weapons, and the Syrian people think:
“My life isn’t what you care about. It’s the nature of my death. So if I die by high explosives, if I die by a bullet, if I die by disappearance because I’m rolled up at the checkpoint, never seen again, that’s OK. That’s a green line? And a SCUD missile’s OK? An airstrike’s OK? But chemical weapons, that’s not OK. I mean there are more than 70,000 killed in this conflict. And to the Syrians, they say those don’t count? But if someone takes the cork off chemical weapons, that’s different. They feel they’ve been abandoned by the world. “
Chivers is a distinguished journalist and observer of this kind of warfare. He is also a former marine who has seen his share of death. He confesses that he has no good recommendation to offer the President were he asked.
Despite American claims to the contrary, there has been a covert airlift of weapons to the rebel forces, probably orchestrated by the CIA, which creates a long-term problem. These weapons have a long life, and one can never know into whose hands they will end up. Maybe they will be used against the US and Israel.
An American response to chemical weapons is meant to deter other countries in the future from using them, but again, to the Syrian people that “red line” was set pretty far out to the right. The chemical weapons have come so late that the west has already tolerated great cost in human life.
The quandary of the Obama Administration is that people are suffering and there are reasons to arm them and reasons not to arm them.
Chivers notes that the Syrian leaders have played perfectly and with cunning calibration (as opposed to Qaddafi in Libya) the tactics of the war to what they thought the West could tolerate. The Syrian government began the battle with arrests, and with each step of the way introduced more violent actions; first came batons and then bullets; then came the army, mortars, and 107 millimeter rockets; then the artillery and air force, helicopters followed later by jets, and then ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.
It’s been like dropping a frog in water and bringing the water to a boil slowly, pushing the “red” line step-by-step forward until so many people have become desensitized by the violence.
“Thou shalt not stand idly by!”
But, what to do? A no-fly zone? Bomb Syrian government positions? Give more weapons to the rebels?
And then what?
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May 2, 2013 | 2:46 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment – the moment in which a person finds out once and for all who s/he is.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
So often it is the inner voices (from tradition, society, family, friends, and mentors) and not our own that influence how we think, feel and behave in the world. These voices either lead us to or take us away from realizing our best selves. When the voices do indeed lead us astray, we need to be able to release them, a thought that came to mind as I read a verse in this week’s parashah describing the institutions of the Shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years: “You shall proclaim a dror (“freedom” or “release”) throughout the land for all its inhabitants…” (Leviticus 25:10)
This dror specifically refers to land, people and debts in the seventh year. The Shmitta year requires that land lie fallow (i.e. no planting, pruning or harvesting) and that slaves, employees and animals are free to eat what is left in the fields. Deuteronomy 15:1-6 adds that creditors must remit debts owed to them by their neighbors and kinsmen.
The deeper purpose of the Shmitta year is to enable the land to rest, to wipe our slates clean from debt and to return the world to its original pristine order.
The rabbis, however, raised two serious questions about the Shmitta year:  What happens to the livelihood of the community during Shmitta? and  What happens to our willingness to make loans to the needy according to the spirit of a mitzvah in Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart.”
Noticing that the people were not loaning money to the poor because of the Shmitta’s remission of debt, Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE) instituted a legal formula called the Prozbul, whereby a creditor could still claim his debts after the Shmitta year despite the biblical injunction against doing so. The Prozbul was a document that turned over supervision of the loan to the beit din (Jewish court) which would collect and repay the debt thus encouraging generosity, enabling the poor to borrow and the rich to secure their loans (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 37a).
Since the laws of both Shmitta and Yovel only apply in the land of Israel, and Yovel applies only when all the Jewish people are living in Israel, until the Zionist movement Shmitta and Yovel mattered little to Diaspora Jewish communities.
However, Zionists complained that if farmers did not work the land the nascent settlement movement's existence would be threatened. In response, lenient rabbinic authorities justified setting the laws of the Shmitta year aside based on the principle of sha’at hadechak (“undue hardship”).
In 1888-89, a Hetter Mechira (“A Bill of Sale”) was developed to permit Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews (i.e. Arabs), similar to the selling of hametz (leven) to non-Jews during Passover, so that the Jews could continue to work the land and survive even during the Shmitta. After the Shmitta, the land would revert back to the former Jewish owners.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote of another problem in not showing leniency towards the Biblical law:
“Even worse is the potential condemnation of Judaism and widespread rejection of Torah observance that could result from a strict ruling…”
Rav Kook reasoned that a strict ruling would demonstrate that Judaism is incompatible with the modern world and the building of a Jewish state.
The principle of taking into account the impact of Biblical law on individuals and community and the necessity of reinterpreting tradition in the modern era is a core reason that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived 3500 years, longer than any other people anywhere in the world.
On a personal level too, this portion challenges us about the importance of becoming who we really are. In this spirit, I suggest that we consider this question: From what and how will I release myself (dror) this year and thereby find out who I really am?
May this year become a dror (release) for each of us.
The next Shmitta year is 2014-2015 (5775)