“Dear Mr. Prime Minister…”

Behukkotai By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 28, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Israel

This past Sunday, New York Jewry greeted the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, at a Leadership Assembly at Baruch College sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and United Jewish Communities. To stress the importance of Judaism within the matrix of the organized Jewish community, the sponsors invited the heads of Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College, and The Jewish Theological Seminary to speak briefly. Our participation also projected an image of Jewish unity that actually rests on ties of personal friendship and mutual respect. Since I based my remarks to the Prime Minister on this week’s parashah, I thought I would share them with you.

Mr. Prime Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, berukhim ha-baim! On behalf of The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement, I welcome you to the world’s largest Jewish city where Jews have resided for 350 years. We salute your strong and steadfast leadership of Israel. You have stymied the Intifada and restarted the peace process with the courageous decision to pull out of Gaza. We pray for your safety and success.

As so often, the weekly Torah portion provides the best commentary on what transpires in our lives during the week. Yesterday afternoon, we began reading the last parashah of Leviticus, B’hukkotai. It opens with a concise list of blessings and curses meant to reinforce our embrace of Torah. Surely, the greatest of these godly blessings is that of peace: “You shall dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone (5b-6a).”

Rashi, our most popular medieval commentator, notes that in our list, the blessing of abundant rain and bountiful harvests precedes that of peace. The sequence is instructive. We can scarcely enjoy our food or wine, if we consume them in fear. From this truism, Rashi concludes that peace is the equivalent of all other blessings, for as long as the world around us is drenched in bloodshed, nothing else matters very much. War strips us of the tranquility to savor our good fortune.

Has that not been the existential reality of Israel since its founding, with only periodic respites of non-violence to stem the terror and turmoil? The achievements of Israel in forging a democratic polity, a civilized society, a high-powered economy, and world class culture, while ensnared in ceaseless struggle is as heartening as it is unprecedented. And yet the Zionist revolution remains unfinished without the capstone of peace. May your legacy, Mr. Sharon, ultimately be to bring your beloved Israel closer to that long sought haven.

But there is another way to read the words of our parashah. If Rashi understood the blessing of peace as referring solely to foreign wars, Ramban, a century and a half later, perhaps in the wake of the bitter controversies that swirled around the works of Maimonides after his death in 1204, understood it as also referring to internal strife. In his words: “That peace should reign among you. You should not be fighting against each other.”

No admonition is more applicable to Israel’s internal situation in the face of the Gaza disengagement than Ramban’s. That is, that the voice of Judaism at this critical juncture in the history of Israel should reverberate throughout the land. Disagreement must never be allowed to shred the fabric of Jewish unity, as it has so often in the past. The period between Passover and Shavu’ot, which we mark by the counting of the Omer, is darkened by a painful memory preserved in the Talmud. During these forty-nine days, some 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva died because their relationship to each other had been drained of all mutual respect (BT Yevamot 62b). More concretely, we know that deep internal divisions hastened the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples.

Above all, the riven tombstone of Yitzhak Rabin is a haunting reminder to Jews of all stripes, of the harm that can be inflicted on Israel by those who take the law into their own hands. Mr. Prime Minister, may you be able to protect Israel’s domestic tranquility as you seek to secure her borders, and may the day soon come when peace will reign both without and within.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Behukkotai are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.