Vayikra 5766: Political Sacrifice

 This week we begin our reading of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus.

This week’s portion, and much of the entire book of Leviticus, is taken up with details of the sacrificial offerings that were made in the Temple. This week’s parsha has a special focus on various kinds of sacrifices that were brought by people who had messed up: the sin offering, the guilt offering, the doubtful sin offering (maybe you sinned maybe you didn’t), and communal sin offerings when the high priest led everyone astray.

In colloquial English usage, when we talk of “sacrifice,” we generally think of either someone who has given his life for his country, or someone who has given up something of value for the sake of someone else – women who have sacrificed their careers to stay home and raise children; parents who make great sacrifices to send their children to good schools.

The implication is the meaning of sacrifice is giving up something of value for a worthy cause. To take our modern mind set and apply it to the sacrifices described in this week’s Torah reading, it would seem that when someone has sinned, they give up something of value as a demonstration that they are truly sorry, and are willing to pay a fine of sorts to make things right.

However, Ramban, Nachmanides, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, tells us the point of the sacrifices was different. Ramban tells us that the sacrifices were supposed to inspire an air of dread in the heart of the person bringing the sacrifice. Someone who was guilty of a sin was supposed to bring a sacrifice and he SHOULD feel terrible that an animal was dying because of his sin. After describing the sacrificial process including the burning of the animals innards on the altar, Ramban says “A person by either doing or watching all of these actions will come to realize that he has sinned against God with his body and his soul, and that he deserves his own blood to be applied and his body to be burned, had it not been for the compassion of the Creator, Who has accepted a substitute.”

So Ramban says the sinner should tell himself, I messed up, I really deserve to die, but God in His mercy is accepting this sacrifice as my temurah, as my substitute—as an exchange for the one who really deserves the punishment.

As I was reflecting on Ramban’s words this week, I was wondering whether Ehud Olmert, who will almost certainly be Israel’s next prime minister, feels like this kind of exchange for Ariel Sharon. Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma, is the one who was the driving force behind starting a new political party in Israel. Yet when anything goes wrong in the next several years until the next election, it is Ehud Olmert who will be offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of public opinion in Israel.

And the odds are pretty good he will end up feeling pretty beat up in a few years—Israeli political opinion is notoriously fickle.

It can be pretty hard for an outsider to try and make sense of the things that happen in Israel on the political front. Six years ago, Israel had a left-wing government under Ehud Barak of the Labor Party. Then, in early 2001, Israel elected a right-wing government under Ariel Sharon of the Likud party. And then earlier this week Israel abandoned both Labor and Likud and elected a centrist government under Ehud Olmert of the brand new Kadima party.

What’s with those Israelis? Can’t they make up their mind? Are they left, right, or center? Has there been some kind of big demographic changes or something in Israel that has resulted in their politics being so all over the map?

Despite appearances, the Israeli electorate has actually been remarkably consistent. They have wanted the same thing all along. What the Israelis want is to live in peace. They are tired of worrying whenever their kids get on a bus. They are tired of paying extra for a cup of coffee to cover the cost of the security guard at the entrance to the café. They are tired of worrying about whether their children will be stationed in the settlements when they fulfill their obligatory military duty.

Six years ago, the Labor Party seemed to provide the path to peace. The Oslo Agreement was signed in 1993. Labor was ready to get on with the difficult process of sitting down at a table with the Palestinians and negotiating a settlement on the final, and most contentious issues of a permanent peace agreement—the borders, the right of Palestinians to return to homes they left behind in Israel, and Jerusalem. Barak’s government, with backing from US President Clinton, made concessions that Israelis perceived as very big; concessions it was not clear a majority of Israelis really supported, including giving up 97% of the land of the West Bank and Gaza and sharing Jerusalem itself with the Palestinians, ceding control over the Temple Mount to them. Now most of us, if we could get 97% of what we were looking for in a deal we would probably say OK it’s not perfect, but we would take and call it a day. Yet Barak’s offer was not enough for Yassar Arafat, so he rejected it—and instead the Palestinians turned to violence, bringing the Second Intifada in its wake, with over 1000 Israelis killed and thousands more Palestinians killed.

When Barak’s peace overtures failed, and the violence broke out, most Israelis remained committed to their vision – they wanted to be able to live in peace. What changed is they no longer felt that Labor, the party on the left, offered a way to that peace. I was living in Israel at the time, and the attitude among Israelis was clearly, “Labor had their chance, they weren’t able to bring peace, we’ll give the other guys a chance.” The Palestinians responded to our offer with violence, so we needed to defend ourselves. The Israeli electorate voted in the hawkish former general, Ariel Sharon, who promised to do more than blow up empty buildings, which is how Barak responded.

And Sharon did do more. Ariel Sharon came in on a platform of no compromising with the terrorists. He launched aggressive military attacks against the terrorists. The Israeli government sent the IDF in after terrorists, they assassinated terrorists who were planning further attacks, and they started building a security fence (originally proposed under Ehud Barak, by the way…).

But a funny thing happened after a few years. Sharon came to realize that there was a new reality on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

First, what was the old reality? After the war in 1967, Israel acquired some new territory – Gaza and the West Bank. This was territory that in essence was “ownerless.” It was under Egyptian and Jordanian administration, but that was only because Egypt and Jordan conquered those lands and occupied them after the war in 1948. According to the UN the Palestinians were entitled to a country, but they never actually got around to declaring one. For many years after 1967, the West Bank and Gaza were important to Israel as a security buffer providing a little breathing room in between Israel and the armies of Egypt and Jordan. The wisdom of keeping that buffer was proven in 1973 when the Arab armies once again attacked Israel. The Talmud in fact tells us that “frontier towns,” the ones that are on the borders of Israel, are very important to keep the enemy away from the heart of the country.

But the new reality is different.

Israel’s biggest threat is no longer Jordan, Egypt, or any other Arab country. Israel has the strongest military in the region, and Israel is reputed to have over 100 nuclear weapons. Israel no longer needs to rely on the West Bank and Gaza as a buffer – the Israeli Air Force provides all the buffer that is needed. The West Bank and Gaza, in fact, have moved from being an asset for peace to being a liability for peace.

Back in 2001 Sharon campaigned on a platform of “say no to giving away territory.” Yet he changed his mind. As Sharon once said, “the view from the Prime Minister’s seat is different.” You get a different perspective when you have to make the hard decisions.

World opinion will not allow Israel to maintain the status quo, which does smack of apartheid, in the West Bank. The West Bank and Gaza continue to be breeding grounds for terrorists and hate. Israel cannot simply annex the West Bank and Gaza because all of those additional Arab citizens would eventually mean the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The new reality is that the vast majority of Israelis recognize it is in Israel’s best interests for Israel to withdraw not just from Gaza, but also from most of the West Bank.

As the most recent election approached, what most Israelis wanted was the same thing they wanted back in 1999 when they elected Ehud Barak of Labor to be Prime Minister. They wanted a government that would bring about a life of peace.

The left had their turn, and it didn’t work – the Palestinians weren’t ready to accept a deal. The right had their turn, and it hasn’t worked – keeping the territories just results in more pain and cost. So now the electorate has turned to the center – a center which says if we don’t have someone we can negotiate with, let’s withdraw to defensible borders, build a fence, and let the Palestinians go their own way.

Despite voting for three very different parties, the Israeli electorate has not changed their goal – what they want, more than anything else, is peace. The Israeli voters, in fact, have followed the teachings of the Torah in the way they have done this.

The Torah commands us when we engage with an enemy, the first thing you must do is offer terms of peace. Only if the other side rejects peace do you go to war. The Israelis voted for a party that offered peace; the overture was rejected, so they voted for a party to go to war. Offering peace didn’t work, fighting wasn’t working so well, so now they have voted to withdraw and go their own way.

There was probably a similar mentality among the Palestinians with the election of Hamas. They tried the path of the “left,” negotiate; it didn’t work, largely because their own leadership didn’t step up to the responsibility. Now they are in their “right wing” stage, giving the other guys a chance. Nothing will happen peace wise until the Palestinians also make that move toward the center, and abandon calls for the destruction of Israel.

Psalm 34 charges us bakeish shalom v’radfeihu, seek peace, and pursue it! Israelis are so dedicated to pursuing peace they have voted for parties on the left, they have voted for parties on the right, and they have now voted for a party in the center, in hopes that it will result in a lasting peace. Only when peace comes will Israeli politics really have a chance to be focused on other issues of critical importance—economic policies, social justice, and civil liberties, for example.

Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, please grant the new leaders of Israel the wisdom to make the difficult decisions in the days to come, the courage to follow through on those decisions, and the grace and sensitivity to foster a sense of k’lal Yisrael even among those who disagree with their decisions,


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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