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On the Virulence of Rage

The Parable of the Tribes (Vayishlach 5775)

by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Originally published December 2, 2014 at www.rabbisacks.org
where you can read more of Rabbi Sacks’ work (audio available)
or follow him on Twitter @RabbiSacks

From beginning to end, Genesis 34 tells a terrifying story. Dina, Jacob’s daughter – the only Jewish daughter mentioned in the entire patriarchal narratives – leaves the safety of home to go out to “look at the daughters of the land.” She is raped and abducted by a local prince, Shechem, son of the king of the town known as Shechem.

Jacob learns of this fact but does nothing until his sons return. Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, immediately realise that they must act to rescue her. It is an almost impossible assignment. The hostage-taker is no ordinary individual. As the son of the king, he cannot be confronted directly. The king is unlikely to order his son to release her. The other townspeople, if challenged, will come to the prince’s defence. It is Shimon and Levi against the town: two against many. Even were all of Jacob’s sons to be enlisted, they would still be outnumbered.

Shimon and Levi therefore decide on a ruse. They agree to let Dina marry the prince but they make one condition. The members of the town must all be circumcised. They, seeing long term advantages to an alliance with this neighbouring tribe, agree. The men of the town are weakened by the operation, and the pain is most acute on the third day. That day, Shimon and Levi enter the town and kill the entire male population. They rescue Dina and bring her home. The other brothers then plunder the town.

Jacob is horrified. “You have made me odious to the people of the land,” he says. What then were we supposed to do, ask the two brothers? “Should we have left our sister to be treated like a prostitute?” With that rhetorical question, the episode ends and the narrative moves elsewhere. But Jacob’s horror at the action of his sons does not end there. He returns to it on his deathbed, and in effect curses them:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—

their swords are weapons of violence.

Let me not enter their council,

let me not join their assembly,

for they have killed men in their anger

and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.

Cursed be their anger, so fierce,

and their fury, so cruel!

I will scatter them in Jacob

and disperse them in Israel. (Gen. 49: 5-7)

This is an extraordinary passage. It seems to lack any kind of moral message. No one comes out of it well. Shechem, the prince, would seem to be the chief villain. It was he who abducted and raped Dina in the first place. Hamor, his father, fails to reprimand him or order Dina’s release. Shimon and Levi are guilty of a horrendous act of violence. The other brothers engage in looting the town.[1] Jacob seems passive throughout. He neither acts nor instructs his sons on how to act. Even Dina herself seems at best to have been guilty of carelessness in going out into the town in the first place, in what was clearly a dangerous neighbourhood – recall that both Abraham and Isaac, her grandfather and great grandfather, had feared for their own lives because of the lawlessness of the times.[2]

Who was in the right and who in the wrong are left conspicuously undecided in the text. Jacob condemns his sons. But his sons reject the criticism.

The debate continued and was taken up by two of the greatest rabbis in the Middle Ages. Maimonides takes the side of Shimon and Levi. They were justified in what they did, he says. The other members of the town saw what Shechem had done, knew that he was guilty of a crime, and yet neither brought him to court nor rescued the girl. They were therefore accomplices in his guilt. What Shechem had done was a capital crime, and by sheltering him the townspeople were implicated.[3] This is, incidentally, a fascinating ruling since it suggests that for Maimonides the rule that “all Israel are responsible for one another” is not restricted to Israel. It applies to all societies. As Isaac Arama was to write in the fifteenth century, any crime known about and allowed to continue ceases to be an offence of individuals only and becomes a sin of the community as a whole.[4]

Nahmanides disagrees.[5] The principle of collective responsibility does not, in his view, apply to non-Jewish societies. The Noahide covenant requires every society to set up courts of law, but it does not imply that a failure to prosecute a wrongdoer involves all members of the society in a capital crime.

The debate continues today among Bible scholars. Two in particular subject the story to close literary analysis: Meir Sternberg in his The Poetics of Biblical Narrative[6] and Rabbi Elhanan Samet in his studies on the parsha.[7] They too arrive at conflicting conclusions. Sternberg argues that the text is critical of Jacob for both his inaction and his criticism of his sons for acting. Samet sees the chief culprits as Shechem and Hamor.

Both point out, however, the remarkable fact that the text deliberately deepens the moral ambiguity by refusing to portray even the apparent villains in an unduly negative light. Consider the chief wrongdoer, the young prince Shechem. The text tells us that “His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as my wife.’” Compare this with the description of Amnon, son of King David, who rapes his half sister Tamar. That story too is a tale of bloody revenge. But the text says about Amnon that after raping Tamar, he “hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and get out!’” (2 Samuel 13: 15). Shechem is not like that at all. He falls in love with Dina and wants to marry her. The king, Shechem’s father, and the people of the town, readily accede to the Shimon and Levi’s request that they become circumcised.

Not only does the text not demonise the people of Shechem. Neither does it paint any of Jacob’s family in a positive light. It uses the same word “deceit” (34: 13) of Shimon and Levi that it has used previously about Jacob taking Esau’s blessing and Laban substituting Leah for Rachel. Its description of all the characters, from the gadabout Dina to her excessively violent rescuers, to the plundering other brothers and the passive Jacob, the text seems written deliberately to alienate our sympathies.

The overall effect is a story with no irredeemable villains and no stainless heroes. Why then is it told at all? Stories do not appear in the Torah merely because they happened. The Torah is not a history book. It is silent on some of the most important periods of time. We know nothing, for example, about Abraham’s childhood, or about 38 of the forty years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness. Torah means “teaching, instruction, guidance.” What teaching does the Torah want us to draw from this narrative out of which no one emerges well?

There is an important thought experiment devised by Andrew Schmookler known as the parable of the tribes.[8] Imagine a group of tribes living close to one another. All choose the way of peace except one that is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. What happens to the peace-seeking tribes? One is defeated and destroyed. A second is conquered and subjugated. A third flees to some remote and inaccessible place. If the fourth seeks to defend itself it too will have to have recourse to violence. “The irony is that successful defence against a power-maximising aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power.”[9]

There are, in other words, four possible outcomes: [1] destruction, [2] subjugation, [3] withdrawal, and [4] imitation. “In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.” Recall that all but one of the tribes seeks peace and has no desire to exercise power over its neighbours. However, if you introduce a single violent tribe into the region, violence will eventually prevail, however the other tribes choose to respond. That is the tragedy of the human condition.

As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2014, Israel was engaged in a bitter struggle with Hamas in Gaza in which more than 1,000 people died. The state of Israel had no more desire to be engaged in this kind of warfare than did our ancestor Jacob. Throughout the campaign I found myself recalling the words earlier in our parsha about Jacob’s feelings prior to his meeting with Esau: “Jacob was very afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32: 8), about which the sages said, “Afraid, lest he be killed, distressed lest he be forced to kill.”[10] What the episode of Dina tells us is not that Jacob, or Shimon and Levi, were right, but rather that there can be situations in which there is no right course of action; where whatever you do is wrong; where every option involves the abandonment of some moral principle.

That is Schmookler’s point, that “power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually but inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies.”[11] Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end everyone was either contaminated or dead. It is indicative of the moral depth of the Torah that it does not hide this terrible truth from us by depicting one side as guilty, the other as innocent.

Violence defiles us all. It did then. It does now.

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[1] Disapproved of biblically: see Deut. 13: 13-19, 1 Samuel 15: 13-26, Esther 9: 10, 15-16.

[2] The Midrash is critical of Dina: see Midrash Aggadah (Buber) to Gen. 34: 1. Midrash Sechel Tov is even critical of her mother Leah for allowing her to go out.

[3] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9: 14.

[4] Arama, Akedat Yitzhak, Bereishit, Vayera, Gate 20, s.v. uve-Midrash.

[5] Nahmanides, Commentary to Genesis 34: 13.

[6] Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 444-81.

[7] Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parshat ha-Shevuah, third series, Israel: Yediot Aharonot, 2012, 149-171.

[8] Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. Berkeley: U of California, 1984.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Quoted by Rashi ad loc.

[11] Schmookler, ibid., 22.

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A Presidential Farewell in the Knesset (full text)

Farewell speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres

24 Jul 2014

 

I came to thank you for the privilege you granted me to serve our country and its people for the past seven years. There is no greater privilege. Thank you.

Israel, this small country, became a truly great state.

I know of no other country on the face of the earth or throughout history, which amazed and surprised so much.

Gathering in its people. Making its wilderness bloom. Resurrected from the ruins, surviving a terrible Holocaust. Fighting back in seven wars. Bringing a language back to life. Respecting its traditions and adopting modernity.

And at the same building a country which continues to develop. A country which carries values and practices democracy. A country without natural resources, which utilized instead the resourcefulness of its people. Our human resource is far more precious than wells of oil or mines of gold. A country which was established upon a historical core and became an outstanding state in the new scientific world. A country of song. A country of literature. A country which seeks peace day and night.

I leave the presidency without parting from my faith. I will continue to serve my country as a deep believer that Israel is an exemplary state.

We are a people that experienced unimaginable agony. And we are a people that reached the lofty heights of human achievement. We made great efforts. We paid a heavy price.

We will never forget our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust. We will remember those who fell in battle, who brought new life to a redeemed people.

It is a great privilege to be a citizen among citizens who know toil and struggle. Who made a supreme effort and carried determined hope until the first dew of our dawn.

We returned. We built. We fought. We prayed. Until we began to see contours that even surprised us. We are an ancient people who are getting older. We are a people, first and foremost, that rebuilds itself time and again.

Israel was born as a precedent and created precedents. Despite being small in number among the nations, our people carried a faith as great as any. The first to rebel against prejudice was Moses. A nation that rebelled against Pharaoh. That smashed idols. That shattered illusions. A nation that walked through the desert to reach its home, its destiny.

We climbed the mountains and came down with the tablets, with the Ten Commandments which became the foundations upon which our nation was built and which were adopted by Western civilization.

We continue and will continue with this great legacy. There are still idols to be smashed, slaves to free, lives to save and justice to uphold. There is still a world to fix. Even if we remain the minority among the nations. Even if we serve as a target for evil – we will not deviate from our moral heritage.

Challenges are not invited. They occur spontaneously. That is how the current challenge occurred. I did not imagine that in the last days of my presidency I would be called upon, once more, to comfort bereaved families. Tears in their eyes. And faith in their hearts.

I did not imagine that it would happen again, after we were hit with rockets which were intended to harm innocent civilians. And after we uncovered tunnels meant to kill, intended to penetrate into the heart of civilian communities and fire at mothers and children. We must alert the world to the madness of the terrorist threat.

Terrorism aims to spill our blood. And leads to blood being spilled among its people. Never has such a minority torn apart the fabric of whole societies. So cruelly sent children to serve as shields for its crimes.

Hamas has once again put hundreds of thousands of the citizens of Gaza in harm’s way, into a field of fire. The terrorists have transformed Gaza, which is over 3000 years old, into a man-made tragedy.

We left Gaza of our own free will and even helped to rebuild it. Unfortunately, it was taken over by fanatical terrorists, who uprooted the structures for rehabilitation and wasted them on a machinery of terror and murder.

Israel is not the enemy of the people of Gaza. The opposite is true, Israel built the Erez Crossing to open a gateway to Gaza. We did not open fire. We returned fire when fired upon. We fought the terrorists to bring peace to our people. They were also cruel to their own people, taking food away from babies to fund terror. They sowed death and they reaped death.

They forced their children to serve as human shields, and sent them into the fire. I say it again, I say it clearly, the Arabs are not our enemies. The policy of murder is the enemy. It is also the greatest danger to the Arab World.

Hamas fired but it cannot answer two simple questions.

What is the reason for the fire? Gaza is not occupied, and when they don’t fire it is open.

Secondly, what do they want to achieve? You can accomplish things without fire and you lose them when you open fire.

For 68 years terror has been harming its people. It has never been victorious. It brought only darkness to its people and destruction to its land.

Terror has no answers and does not draw the right conclusions. Israel will be victorious over terrorism because we search for peace and we are just in defense of our home.

Israel will win because of the IDF. Because of its excellent commanders and dedicated soldiers. There is no other army like the IDF. Its power is great. Its equipment is advanced. Its values are clear.

The country is proud of its army. The people love the army. The nation trusts it.

When I came to comfort, these past days, those who had lost that which is dearest to them, I feel a sadness that has no comfort, but I also learn again the magnitude of our fallen. The fire cut short their lives and revealed their greatness. It lit up the depths of their personalities alongside the courage of their hearts.

Nobody had to explain a thing to them. They knew the reality. By themselves. They moved towards battle even before the call to the front lines came. They volunteered for dangerous missions and fought like lions. Fast but not reckless. They carried the legacy of our forefathers and the bravery of youth.

Their hearts were filled with love for their families, for their country, for their people. The parents educated and the boys exceeded the expectations of the country.

I visited communities which had been bombed. Communities which created wonderful societies and plowed new fields. I met the founders surrounded by fruit trees. And children who advocate for freedom and brotherhood. They are all aware of the danger. But convinced of our ability to overcome it.

Members of Knesset,

Allow me to say from upon this stage – there are none like them.

I will add, Israel’s strength is drawn from its unity. A unity of a nation which fights and builds. A nation of good citizens, who enlist when they are young and volunteer for reserve duty long after.

Israel is a nation that dwells alone. But we have friends. In America and in Europe, in Asia, in Australia and in Africa. I am grateful to them.

It is difficult to understand how across the world in the streets and the squares protesters come out in support of terrorists and condemn those who defend themselves. They hold signs aloft without providing an answer to terror. They encourage and incite violence.

It is also hard to fathom how a council which bears the words “human rights” in its name, decided to establish a committee to investigate who is right. Is it the murderers or those who refuse to be murdered?

If the right to life is not the first right among human rights, what is the value of other rights? The terrorists try to restrict the freedom of air traffic. We must not submit to them. Governments must paralyze the terror and not suspend the flights. In countries governed by law, the sky should be open and the terrorists stopped.

Members of Knesset,

There is no place to doubt our victory. We know that no military victory will be enough. There is no permanent security without permanent peace. Just as there is no real peace without real security.

There is no chronological order when it comes to our founding principles. In our search for peace, we must not forsake security. In our efforts to ensure our safety, we must not forgo the prospects for peace. A people which can win wars can also bring peace to its children. Even when peace seems to elude us, our reach is determined enough to grasp it. We have witnessed it in the past.

I remember when experts used to say that Egypt will never sign a peace treaty with us. That Jordan will never agree to peace with Israel before Syria does so. That there will never rise a camp against terror among the Palestinians. That never will Arab leaders raise their voices for peace and against terror, in their own language and not just in English, in Arab countries and not just in Europe. Arab leaders that condemn kidnappings and are open to land swaps. Arab leaders that are for two states while one of them is clearly the State of Israel which is a Jewish homeland in its nature and in its constitution.

There was never an expert that could have predicted that one day the Arab League which engraved upon its flag the three “No’s” of Khartoum, would publish an initiative which refutes them all, and would instead suggest a proposal of its own for a path towards peace, not only between Israelis and Palestinians but with all Arab countries. Even if we cannot accept this proposal in its entirety, we cannot ignore its value.

As Ben Gurion said: “There are no experts for the future, only experts for the past.” Indeed, the future requires believers, not necessarily experts. The future is built. Not inherited from prophets. In order to secure the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel adopted the solution based on two states for two peoples. A Jewish state – Israel. And an Arab state for the Palestinians.

This solution is accepted by a majority of the peoples of the world and by a majority of the Arab world.

Members of Knesset,

I have come to bid you farewell as a citizen, as a man whose dream is still alive. As a man who has learned from experience that the greatness of Israel’s reality is greater than the dream which begot it at its dawn.

I am taking leave of my position as President, but not from my duty as a citizen. I was a President who loved his people. As of now, I am a citizen in love with my people. I will not give up my right to serve my people and my country. And I will continue to help build my country, with a deep belief that one day it will know peace.

That Israel will uphold social justice and will raise its eyes to the realized dream of its prophets. That Israel will continue to be Jewish in its legacy and democratic in its practices. That it will safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of research. That it will continue to excel in its scientific level on a global scale. That it will be a moral country. A country which will practice equality for all its citizens – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and Circassians. So we promised in our Declaration of Independence. So we proclaimed in our book of laws. So we practiced upon the commands of our authorities.

The social vision of the prophet Amos, as the political vision of the prophet Isaiah, are our guiding lights. They commanded us to take social justice and world peace as guiding principles for our actions. Israel was born on the foundations of its principles. Today it grows on the shoulders of science. There is no contradiction between the two and there shouldn’t be.

During my visits to the many unique and diverse corners of Israel, I entered each place with an explorer’s curiosity and returned with a heart full of pride. I discovered everywhere, and every time, hardworking people, endless talent, wonderful children and surprises which cannot be described.

Therefore, as I leave my official position I will remain a citizen filled with hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for peace. Hope that the dream of today will create an exemplary reality. When I return and meet the beauty and strength of the State of Israel, I find myself shedding a tear. Maybe excited slightly more than my younger friends. Because throughout my years I witnessed the entire incredible journey, and the miracles of Israel.

Alongside David Ben Gurion I saw it fighting for its life. With few resources but endless dangers. And today, I see her standing strong. Secure. Flourishing. Successful in every field. I see my country promising an exciting future for our sons and daughters.

Friends, Reuven Rivlin, the next elected President of Israel,

I wish you success, that you should serve the nation in your positive way, as you already do. With your great heart. With your face full of light. You already have what is expected from a president. I am sure you will succeed in our way and strengthen the future of the State of Israel

Members of Knesset,

The nature of parliamentary democracy is ongoing, passionate debate. This is democracy. This is how it should be. If I may, particularly in these days when we must stand united, in these difficult days in which they eyes of the nation are on its leaders, on you. Please – do not lessen the debate. It is the essence of democracy. And it must remain. But do it with mutual respect, with a sense of shared destiny and with great respect for the Israeli public, like which there is no other. They are worth of nothing less from their representatives.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
 
 
(source: http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/PressRoom/2014/Pages/Farewell-speech-by-President-Shimon-Peres-24-Jul-2014.aspx)

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If you haven’t already…


Read the text A Peace of Jerusalem

An innovative proposal for long-term Semitic harmony in the Middle East
based on ideas from hundreds of ordinary people
 – 2,000 words (or less!)

A Peace of Jerusalem

crowdsourcing peace since 2009


HAVE YOUR SAY — OPEN TO ALL

 
 

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APoJi 2012 – Special Notice

(UPDATE: December 12, 2013 Obviously, many more changes have taken place over the course of this past year. The link given in the letter below shows the state of the document as posted on February 4, 2013, after which the primary document location was shifted to its own page. The latest edit can be found here: apoji.org — Ed.
 
 
(UPDATE: January 29, 2013 A number of revisions to the document have taken place since the start of the year and are expected to continue sporadically for the next month or two. Last minute ideas? Better late than never. — Ed.)
 
 
Dear Reader,

We will soon suspend editing of the document A Peace of Jerusalem, possibly for the last time, so it seems fitting to restate the objectives declared for this initiative more than three years ago…

In late 2009, we set out on a simple mission:

1) to collect Mideast Peace ideas from anyone willing to offer them;
2) to integrate these notions into a contradiction-free proposal; and
3) to limit the evolving document to no more than 2,000 words.

We had (and still have) no illusions about our prospects for defining a perfect peace; reality and perfection suffer each other none too well — except perhaps in art and existentialism. Our broader aim was (and still is) to foster constructive dialogue about peace in the Middle East, and to create a modest document that would, in theory, become a little ‘less imperfect’ with each iteration.

On behalf of myself, the other Editors, and the Composing Group, I would like to thank everyone who has participated in this collaborative venture. To those who kicked in a few bucks to defray mailing, hosting and advertising expenses, much appreciation is due. And to those hundreds of souls who came bearing nothing but dreams, a very special thank you for sharing them with us.

If you’re reading this after December 21, 2012, you can explore the final document at https://imahd.ca/2009/11/05/a-peace-of-jerusalem/, where it has resided in various forms since its first posting on November 5, 2009.

For a shorter URL, try APoJi.org.

May peace be upon us all.

Sincerely,

Editor S.

A Peace of Jerusalem initiative (APoJi)
http://apoji.org   email: periji@apoji.ca

 

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Journey on, Andrew Mac

Andrew MacNaughtan, in memoriam

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MLK

“Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., March 25, 1968, ten days prior to his death

 

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