Israel's Operation Protective Edge is entering its eighteenth day, and the world--and the Jewish world--daily offer commentary and predictions. As the violence escalates, it becomes harder and harder to frame coherent thoughts. In such times, we can turn to our sacred tradition to offer us guidance on how to respond to the tragic loss of peace.
He Comes to Peace As He Rests Upon His Bed:
Reflections on a Month of Violence in Israel
On June 12 of this year, Naftali Fraenkel (נפתלי פרנקל), Gilad Shaer (גיל-עד שַׁעֶר), and Eyal Yifrah (איל יפרח) were hitchhiking home from their yeshivas in the cluster of settlements east of Jerusalem called Gush Etzion. Hitchhiking like this is a way of life for countless young yeshiva students in the Gush – the slang term for it is tremping. But tragically, these three young men were stolen from their lives, kidnapped and murdered by still-unidentified assailants.
This horrific crime launched a series of events that led to Israel’s army launching a ground assault in Gaza. Operation Protective Edge is Israel’s most recent military action against Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. Now entering its nineteenth day, Operation Protective Edge has resulted in over 3,000 Israeli military strikes, over 2,000 Qassam rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, and the deaths of more than 800 Palestinians and 36 Israelis. Riots have broken out in the West Bank, ending in five deaths, dozens of arrests, and thousands of mobilized police officers. Once again, Israel and its territories are ablaze, and the best we can hope for in the near future seems to be a shaky, temporary cease-fire.
Like many of you, I have spent the past month hypnotized by the events unfolding in the Jewish state. We have prayed for the safe return of the three Israeli teenagers and mourned their deaths when it was clear they had been murdered. We have condemned the brutal revenge killing of sixteen-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the hands of extremist Jewish Israelis. We have fumed as Hamas rejected a cease-fire proposal, and we have anxiously and helplessly watched as the casualty numbers rose higher and higher. Like many of you, my emotions have been a storm: anger, fear, hope, shame. Day after day, I have nervously scoured the news, desperate to read of some brief respite from the violence, and day after day I have gone to bed wondering how many more civilians and soldiers will have to die before we feel a loosening of the grip of terror.
Sadly, I have found no comfort in the headlines. So I turn instead to Torah.
This week we read once again about the death of Aaron. Aaron the priest ascended Mount Hor at the command of the Eternal and died there, in the fortieth year after the Israelites had left the land of Egypt (Num. 33:38). The first account of Aaron’s death, which we read four weeks ago, adds, And the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days (Num. 20:29). Aaron’s mourning period of thirty days is the maximum possible in Israelite society—no one else aside from Moses himself receives such an honor.
For Aaron was a man of peace, much beloved by the People of Israel. Aaron sought to alleviate conflicts between fellows, to calm tensions between husband and wife. Hillel, the famous first-century rabbi, calls Aaron אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם (oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom), a lover of peace and a seeker of peace. While Moses has always been a symbol of justice, Aaron has served as Judaism’s paragon of peace.
It is no wonder, then, that the Israelites literally cannot move after Aaron dies. Our Torah potion this week catalogues the many journeys of the Children of Israel through the wilderness, but upon Aaron’s death, the people stop their wandering. They are paralyzed, in shock, unable to move forward until they can overcome their sorrow.
We today also confront such grief as we face the deaths of so many in Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. We know too well the Israelites’ feeling of paralysis – what can we do in the face of such enormous violence? Where can we go? What is there to say?
Perhaps we cannot conjure words that can address the complexity and gravity of the situation before us. But we can turn to our sacred texts for guidance. Perhaps a midrash, with its artistic license and sacred resonance, can help us make sense of our predicament. The following story illustrates the moment of Aaron’s death, describing with tenderness the loss of peace. And it also warns us of what may befall our people when we lose faith in one another.
Moses asked, “Is dying acceptable to you?”
Aaron replied, “Yes.”
Moses said, “Then let us go up to הֺר הָהָר (Hor Hahar), the mountain on the mountain.”
At that, Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s son Eleazar went up in the sight of all Israel.
When the three reached the top of the mountain, a cave opened up for them. In it, they found a burning lamp and a bed, both wrought by Heaven. Then Aaron proceeded to remove his garments one by one, and Eleazar donned them [one by one], until finally a celestial cloud enveloped Aaron’s body. …
Then Moses said to Aaron, “My brother, go up [and lie] on this bed,” and Aaron went up. “Stretch out your arms,” and he stretched them out. “Shut your eyes,” and he shut them. “Close your mouth,” and he closed it. At once the Shechinah [the divine presence] came down, and as it kissed him, his soul departed. Then, as Moses and Eleazar kissed him on his cheeks, the cloud of glory rose up and covered him. The Holy One commanded them, “Go from here.” The moment they left, the cave was sealed.
As Moses and Eleazar were coming down, all Israel stood waiting apprehensively to see Aaron because he loved peace and pursued peace. When they realized that while three had gone up, only two had come down, Satan began circulating among Israel, trying to incite all of them against Moses and Eleazar. Israel split into three groups holding different views: one said, “Moses slew Aaron because he was envious of him.” Another: “Eleazar slew him, wishing to inherit the high priesthood.” And the third: “Aaron died by the will of Heaven.”
The people seized Moses and Eleazar and demanded, “Where is Aaron?”
Moses replied, “The Holy One has hidden him away for life in the World to Come.”
The people said, “We do not believe you. It may be that he said something that did not suit you, and you imposed the death penalty on him.” And they were about to stone Moses and Eleazar.
What did God do? The Holy One beckoned to some angels, who opened the cave and brought forth Aaron’s coffin, which then floated in the air, while other angels intoned praise before it. Thus all Israel saw Aaron, as it is says in the Torah, “All the congregation saw that Aaron was dead” (Numbers 20:29).
And what did the angels intone? “He comes to peace [יָבוֹא שָׁלוֹם, yavo shalom] as he rests upon his bed” (Isaiah 57:2).
This midrash captures both the despondence that descends when peace eludes us as well as the anger and the fear that may tear us apart in its absence. We can almost feel the soft kiss of Aaron’s brother and son against his cheek as he dies, and we can almost hear the angry roar of the crowd of Israelites in denial about the death of their leader. Our ancestors immediately broke into factions. Some blamed their political leadership. Others pointed the finger at religious fanaticism. And the rest threw up their hands, resigning themselves to the inevitability of fate.
Sound familiar? In the face of this war in Israel, our community is fractured. We cast about for someone to blame: We revile Hamas for the terrorism they sponsor, denouncing them for cowering behind human shields. We recoil at the brutality of the State of Israel, watching with alarm as the death toll in Gaza nears one thousand. We castigate the media for reporting with bias, and we demand that nations around the world assert political pressure to end the cycle of violence. As attacks against synagogues and mosques alike grow in frequency and scale, we worry about the intentions of our neighbors, fearing that baseless hatred may drive our society deeper into the arms of violence.
All of these camps are right. Yet none of them explains the entire picture. A recent YouTube video circulating around Facebook proclaims that the conflict in Israel is “probably the easiest conflict in the world to explain.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Overlapping narratives stretching from the Torah to today interweave into an unimaginably complex tapestry of rights and wrongs. Let’s give up trying to determine who’s to blame. Instead, let us allow ourselves simply to mourn with the entire People of Israel the absence of peace.
Still, in the midst of our mourning, we seek a nechemta, a note of consolation. Our midrash notwithstanding, we cannot expect a repeat performance of a miracle from God. But there is news from Israel that brings hope, news that few would expect, from the most unlikely of places.
The current tragedy in Gaza began with the heartless kidnapping of teenagers near the settlements of Gush Etzion. Amazingly, it is to Gush Etzion that we return to find our nechemta. For it was there, on July 18, that Muslims and Jews gathered together to find common understanding. Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who until a year ago had never met a Palestinian, helped to organize a joint break-fast at the conclusion of the daily fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. Settlers—Jews who live in the West Bank and who are often labeled as religious extremists—sat side-by-side with their Muslim Palestinian neighbors, exactly at the place where tensions have run hottest in recent years. They broke bread together and proclaimed that, while they may not be able to bring peace to Israel today or tomorrow, they may yet plant seeds of hope that can sprout in a future generation. Inspired by their lead, Jewish and Muslim communities around the world fasted in solidarity with one another and came together to share a meal of brotherhood. The relationships forged during those joint break-fast meals add more bricks to the road to reconciliation, giving us a glimpse of a pathway out of the terrible cycle of violence.
Our haftarah reading this week concludes with the reminder that the People of Israel have always called God אָבִי (avi), “my father” (Jeremiah 3:4). As well, our tradition asserts that Abraham was the father of Muslims and Jews alike. As one family, then, we pray that Aaron’s legacy may not die with him. Two Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders, Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, leave us with the following prayer of hope:
Let us light candles for peace.
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve.
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.
 http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11191-mourning. Note that the Egyptians mourned Jacob seventy days (Gen. 50:3) while Joseph mourned him but seven (Gen. 50:10). No mourning period is designated for Miriam.
 Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12.
 Legends of the Jews 3:329.
 Pirkei Avot 1:12.
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