July 12, 2007
Enemy in Our Midst
Parshat Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
God awarded the land of Israel to His chosen people, but He didn't just give it to us on a silver platter. He expected us to work for it by draining the swamps, working the soil, planting our crops and, yes, driving out the indigenous nations whose crimes against God and humanity no longer allowed them to remain in the Holy Land.
God was very careful to warn the Jews to be extremely thorough in the process of removing the enemy from the land. Anything short of complete segregation was unacceptable. By allowing a remnant of the evil culture to remain in our midst, we would not be fully removing the cancer; it would grow back and infect us with a vengeance. These nations would become "pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides."
God then warns the Israelites what will happen if we don't complete the task (Numbers 33:56): "The very thing that I intended to do to them I shall instead do to you."
A debate once ensued between two schools of rabbis. Would the Israelites be worthy of punishment if, despite their best efforts, they were simply unable to drive out the indigenous idolatrous peoples from the land of Israel? Or, put another way: Are the tragic consequences of allowing the enemy to remain in our midst Divine retribution from God or simply the cause and effect of allowing bad people to live together with us?
If this was a Divine punishment, then we would expect God to understand if, despite our best efforts to heed Him, we simply weren't strong enough to finish the job. On the other hand, if the Torah is describing a natural cause and effect, it shouldn't make a difference whether we've tried our best or not. The foreign nations and their gods would harm us irrespectively.
One rabbi therefore understood God's admonition that He would do to us what He intended to do to our enemies as a punishment for our sloth and noncompliance, and that this was a continuation of the previous verse of the nations being thorns in our sides. The other rabbi argued that, no, the first verse is a natural cause and effect and has nothing to do with how hard we work. Only the second verse addresses what will happen if we slack off on our task.
It certainly behooves our military and political leaders in Israel to study our parsha and its simple and obvious message. In a utopian, messianic world, Rodney King's plea of everyone getting along is wonderfully appropriate. Unfortunately, our enemies have yet to beat their swords into plowshares, and as much as we would like to dismantle our own military, we have to deal with the cards that we're dealt.
Similarly, even though Robert Frost was speaking critically of the man who said, "Good fences make good neighbors," the criticism was due to the neighbor's lack of desire for openness and friendship.
Sadly, when the neighbor is hostile and bent on my destruction, good fences, barricades and walls do make for as good of a neighbor as possible under the circumstances. (Of course, this fence-building does not preclude efforts at converting our bad neighbors into good neighbors and trying to get them to like us. But until they do love us, the fence must remain.)
Whether or not one gets catharsis from pointing a finger at the current Israeli leadership, the result is the same. The Torah teaches that it really doesn't make a difference whether it's our fault or not - for our own survival, we must segregate ourselves from those who wish us harm. Without strong borders for the people of Israel, we will continue to suffer from the "pins" and "thorns" our enemies continue to lob at us, be it in Sderot, Kiryat Shemoneh or in any other city in Israel.
As we go through this three-week period called the Bein HaMetzarim, a period of introspection over our own contribution to the breakup of the nation of Israel and our exile from the land, it's worthwhile to contemplate two things: One, what can I do on a religious/spiritual level to help my people, especially my brethren living in Israel today? Two, what can I do on a natural/physical level to make our people more secure from terrorist attacks and future wars?
Judaism has always called upon us to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Let us take charge and make ourselves a better, stronger nation.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.