Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some Tough Talk

In Israel the whole country is abuzz with the issue of whether to draft Hareidim into the military or national service. The law which exempted the Hareidi Yeshiva students, who now number some 60,000, was found unconstitutional and will expire the end of this month. The majority of the citizenry of Israel has long felt it unfair that an exemption be given unconditionally to all who study Torah. They argue that the burden for the national defence must be shared equally. To that end, 20,000 young people gathered in the streets of Tel Aviv last Saturday night to call for an end to a privelege that makes those who serve, especially those who do reserve duty, feel like 'suckers' or what they call in modern Hebrew "freiyers" for making significant personal sacrifice while others get off free.

The Hareidi, or what is often called in America the 'black hat' community, is more than a little alarmed. The exemption for Bnai Torah from the military is as old as the Jewish State itself. They make the point (over and over) that the learning of Yeshiva boys is as much a part of the national defence as is the contribution of front line troops. Quoting traditional sources they argue that Torah protects us and any compromise of Torah learning endangers. Moreover, of course, they want to sit and learn and not be compelled to leave the bait medrash for any reason.

The battle lines are drawn. The drama is being acted out daily in the Knesset as efforts go on to draft a law that will set the norm for the future. Parties on both sides of the issue threaten to quit the coalition if their position is compromised.
Spokespersons from both the Hareidi Torah camp and from the more modern Israeli world have not been shy about expressing their sentiments, and all seem to have taken hard-line positions. No one seems ready to compromise.

It is in the context of this furor that I want to explore the parsha of this week, that of Pinchas, to see if it has anything to teach us.

You recall the portion begins with the aftermath of last week's compelling drama.
Many of the Israelites were seduced into idolatry by the daughters of Moab. G-d told Moshe to order that the elders kill all those who commit this grave sin, to hang them publically. At the same time, in response to G-d's wrath, a plague breaks out, with devestating consequences. It seems (according to the Ramban's understanding of the texts) that even before the Judges could put to death the sinners, a prince from the tribe of Shimon and a princess of Midian coupled in the presence of Moshe and the elders, thereby flaunting a defiance of the edict and the law.
Moshe became paralyzed by the outrage. The judges were now hesitant to carry out their mandate to kill and hang the sinners. It seemed all was in suspension. Yet the sins went on as did the plague.

It was into this void that Pinchas entered. He took matters into his own hands. In an act of zealotry he slew Zimri and Cozbi the prince and princess and restored the nation to its senses. In the opening of this week's parsha Pinchas is granted a special covenant of shalom from G-d Himself and an everlasting priesthood for his great act of zeal for the honor of the Divine.

What interested me as I explored this story this year was the reason G-d gives for bestowing the special gifts on Pinchas. G-d names not only the fact that Pinchas stood up for His honor. He also gives reason that because of Pinchas "...I did not entirely destroy the Children of Israel in my zealotry ." In other words, Pinchas's act of zealotry killing Zimri and Kozbi saved the nation from G-d's zealotry which would have resulted in their almost certain annihilation.

The question we might ask is why? Why did all Israel warrant destruction for the sins here of idolatry and lasciviousness? Those who committed the sins should be punished. But why the whole nation? What wrong did the nation do as a whole?

The answer is clear. If the People of Israel had been sufficiently invested in and committed to the honor of G-d the few could not been seduced into behaviors so repugnant. The would-be sinner needed to have a host environmnt that would tolerate their moral lapse. If Israel had been staunch in its revulsion to idolatry and intolerant of promiscuity with the heathen women no segment of the community would have dared to sin. That such evil happened in their midst condemns the nation as a whole even as it condemns the sinners. Both need repentence and a moral correction.

And why am I struck by this insight this year and this week? My sense is that it is deeply relevant to the current issues that so engage us. The Hareidi community is angry that its contribution to the Jewish State goes unrecognized. That so many want to draft Yeshiva students, in their eyes, reflects a lack of appreciation in the society as a whole for the value of Torah study, not only for the learner, but for the community. They say the problem is not with them but with the lack of true traditional Torah perspective in the largely secular nation.

But does that attitude of blaming the wayward one and exonerating the self really play? Lets get real. If the black hat Yeshiva world in Israel is thought of as apart and not sufficiently participating in the wellbeing of the whole, the army service issue is but an example and not the cause. The Hareidi Yeshiva world may say they are learning Torah as a gift to the defence of the nation, but what they do shows otherwise. This is no Yissachar-Zevulun model. No one experiences a sense of partnership. The bnai yeshiva learn for themselves. If they cared for the Israel as a whole, if they were learning to do their part in the national defence then why no effort to reach out to the larger community? Why no 'mishebairach' in the black hat yeshiva for the soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces? This is a case of 'show, don't tell!". If you want the nation to support your learning as in the best interest of the State of Israel show that your learning is indeed about caring for the Jewish People as a whole and the survival of the Jewish State. You can't make a peace for yourself and then expect others to appreciate that what you are doing is for them.

Surely the Nation of Israel exonerated itself in the sins of the worship of Baal P'or. They said "we did nothing wrong". But the truth was otherwise. If not for Pinchas all would have been lost. Wrongful behavior would not endure in a society that made it unacceptable. Here too, if the general society in Israel perceives learning as irrelevant to their wellbeing and safety it is no accident. That so many minimize the blessing of Torah learning to our social health means that they don't experience blessings eminating from the walls of the black hat yeshiva. On the contrary they feel ignored by that yeshiva world and labelled 'traife'.
While so many spend years in the army as an expression of national service, no one experiences the learners in these yeshivas sitting in the beis medrash as a service to the nation! Of course they then object to the free ride!

The reaction of hareidi leaders to the threat of yeshiva young men being drafted is misguided. Rather than become defensive and attack back they would do well to look at themselves and say "what are we doing wrong that leaves us so vulnerable".
If they did a true self-examination I think the answers would be as clear as the remedy. Show your selves true and caring partners and the draft issue will go away!
Continue to demonstrate a lack of identification with the society in which you live and resentment is inevitable. Show, don't tell, that you are truly doing your part for the safety of the nation and noone will object to your learning.

Sometimes all it takes for problems to be solved is a change of perspective.
Obstinacy and self-righteousness are the prescription for destruction. The story of Pinchas is the best example. If not for his heroism Israel would have been entirely destroyed in its self-righteousness and resistance to see the problem as theirs as much as the sinners themselves.
The Torah world of hareidim needs to turn inwards rather than blame and posture.
It needs to ask how can we make the Torah learning we do part of the national armor of Israel? How can we who learn show that we too are carrying the national interest at heart?

Shabbat Shalom

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