Vayera 5784

The Torah readings this week and last are exceedingly difficult ones for us to read at this time of calamity in Israel.

In last week’s Torah reading, Lech Lecha, God told Abraham lech lecha, Go! Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s home, to the land I will show you.”

And that land, of course, is Israel.

It feels like Abraham barely gets to the land of Israel when his nephew Lot is taken captive, and Abraham frees his nephew with a small army of 318 armed and trained men.

And then in this week’s Torah reading, Vayera, God asks Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice: to sacrifice his son. In the end, an angel stays Abraham’s hand, and the son is spared.

Unfortunately, in real life, here in the land of Israel, too many people have been asked to sacrifice their sons, and their sons have been sacrificed, on the battlefield, in an effort to free captives and destroy Hamas’s ability to harm us.

Is a willingness to sacrifice our sons (and daughters) the price of admission to the land that God promised our ancestors in last week’s Torah reading? Is a patch of dirt worth such a high price?

Israel, of course, is much more than a patch of dirt. It’s home. There are 26 countries around the world that have a form of Islam designated in their constitution as a state religion. There are fifteen nations around the world that still have a form of Christianity as the official state religion. There is only one country that has Judaism as an official religion: Israel.

Israel is the easiest place in the world to live as a religiously observant Jew. The national holidays are our religious holidays. It’s so much easier to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath in a place where those practices are normal. One reason I made aliyah is in Israel it feels like we are living a more organic, natural, real form of Judaism than in the Diaspora. Just living here feels like being a part of something historic and important.

In a time of crisis such as this one, Israel really does feel like one big mishpacha, like family. I moved to a new place in Jerusalem about two weeks before the war broke out. I met my neighbors in the building’s bomb shelter. All of the political divisions we may have had before October 7 have, for the moment, melted away as everyone pitches in to help those more directly affected by the terrible events, whether soldiers, people who have been evacuated from their homes near Gaza or Lebanon, and those who lost family or who have family among the captives.

But we’re not like Abraham at all, not really. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because God told him to. No one I know is willing to sacrifice their children willingly. We are willing to put them in harm’s way, not to fulfill a command from God, but to protect our home. And it’s our home whether you’re religious or not, whether you believe in God or not.

Back in 1973 then Senator Joseph Biden visited Israel, and apparently when he was briefed on the security situation his worry became apparent. Golda Meir famously told him, “Senator, don’t look so worried…We Israelis have a secret weapon.” Biden of course asked, “What is Israel’s secret weapon?” Golda replied, “We have nowhere else to go.”

For those of us who do have somewhere else to go – those of us with two passports – being here for this war makes that decision very real in a way nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Twenty-three young women who did the same exact job my youngest daughter did in the army were either killed or captured in the attack of October 7. But for timing and assignment, that could have been her. I can’t even begin to imagine the guilt I would have felt if anything had happened to her. My then wife and I brought our children here when we could have had an easy life in America.

It’s one thing to talk about stuff theoretically. “If you’ve got nothing worth dying for, you’ve got nothing worth living for,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s one thing to put yourself on the line for a cause. It’s a whole ‘nother level when you realize, for real, you’re putting your children on the line. It’s terrifying. 

But most Israelis – Jewish or not – are not blessed with two passports. Most Israelis truly have nowhere else to go. After the Holocaust, the countries of the West didn’t want them. When they were kicked out of the Arab countries after the founding of the state of Israel, other countries didn’t want them. They truly have nowhere else to go.

But my fellow Jews and Israelis, we need to remember that’s also true for the Palestinians.

The story of Abraham (Ibrahim) being willing to sacrifice his son for God is not only in the Torah, it’s also in the Koran. Sadly for them and for us, the Palestinians seem all too ready to sacrifice their sons for an ideological cause. They are all too eager to become martyrs.

And the Palestinians have the same secret weapon. They have nowhere else to go. The rest of the Arab world has made it very clear the Palestinians are not welcome. How else do you explain that fact that more than 75 years after the War of Independence there are still Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, in addition to Gaza and the West Bank?

Palestinian writer Raymonda Tawil once told a Jewish audience, “We Palestinians are the Jews of the Arab world.” Just as Jews were homeless for a long time, the Palestinians are homeless now. More than that, I think in many ways Palestinians have been sometimes admired, often disliked, and difficult to absorb in the Arab world.

Hamas will not drive us into the sea, and Israel will not be able to expel the Palestinians to Egypt and Jordan. One way or another we are going to have to figure out how to live together, how to share this troubled land. There is no other answer.

I fervently pray that when the dust settles, and we move on to whatever comes after this war, that both sides will realize we need to sit with each other and figure out how to live together. Let us stop sacrificing our sons and daughters. Let both peoples be blessed with leaders that have the will, the courage, and the wisdom to bring lasting peace to these two peoples who have nowhere else to go. Let us turn the Promised Land into a Paradise and may our two peoples live side by side in peace.


Note: As I wrote these words, a siren went off here in South Jerusalem and I ran for my building’s bomb shelter, and shortly afterwards heard the booms of Iron Dome intercepts. 

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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