Therefore Choose Life: A Response to the Syria Crisis

30 Aug

On this last Shabbat of the year, we take note with great concern the news reports coming out of Syria. According to reports, it appears that Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against its own citizens. For years it has been suspected that Syria kept a stockpile of such weapons of mass destruction. It has has even been suspected that of the 100,000 Syrians Assad has slaughtered so far in the last two and a half years, at least some of them were victims of chemical attacks deployed on multiple occasions. President Obama has said that the use of weapons of mass destruction was a red line that would necessitate US and Western military intervention. Based on the recent reports, that red line has definitely been crossed. There are talks of an imminent missile strike on Syria. Our nation is battle weary from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet we know that failure to act will encourage Assad and other dictators to continue to use weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, just days before Rosh HaShanah, Israelis are stocking up on gas masks and preparing to hunker down in the event of almost certain retaliation against Israel by Assad and his allies if and when the US attacks. I’m not an expert in military affairs or national security. I just know that following the news in recent days has been a somber experience for me.

Our Torah reading on this last Shabbat of the year offers words that provide appropriate perspective, if not comfort.

We read in this week’s Torah portion:

“See, I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life–that you may live, you and your offspring. (Deut. 30:19)

God gives us a choice, a blessing or a curse, but God admonishes us to choose life. The Talmud considers what to do if a funeral and wedding procession both arrive at an intersection at exactly the same time. Who should proceed? Although in America, traffic stops when a funeral procession passes, the Talmud says it is the funeral procession that must wait for the wedding procession. Life takes precedence. The sages were guided by the basic Jewish principle that informed so many of their decisions–“Therefore choose life!” If we were to poll Jewish people around the world and asked what are the five most important Jewish values, I’m confident that love of life would be in the top five for most people Our love of life is sanctified by the blessing Shehechianu– we give thanks to God for giving us life and sustaining us and allowing us to reach this occasion.

As I’ve been following the Syria crisis, one of the most compelling commentators whose commentary on this subject is both challenging and engaging is Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic, who happens also to be an observant Jew. He is a complex thinker and writer, and he is difficult to pigeonhole politically. On domestic issues, he might be described as left-of-center, while in foreign policy he is often a hawk. For months he’s been calling on the President Obama to respond to the humanitarian crisis of the slaughter in Syria much more aggressively.

Wieseltier writes this week
: “Assad’s cruelty against his own population has been steadily escalating in conformity with his view that there would be no retaliation from the West. Until now, his view was correct.” Wieseltier expresses concern that even as the White House plans an intervention, not much may change on the ground. He notes that the Administration is focused too narrowly on Assad’s violation of international law in using chemical weapons and not focused enough on the humanitarian crisis of the slaughter of 100,000 people.

Furthermore, he writes: the White House and its supporters are seeking intervention without interventionism…Assad will be punished and left in place; which is to say, unpunished. If he chooses never again to use chemical weapons, then his slaughter may never again be disturbed. Above all, the memory of Iraq will not be defiled. If we must do something—there is that “red line,” after all—then we will do something; but once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing.

Wieseltier criticizes the ambivalence that many Americans, myself included, have felt over the course of this crisis. He quotes the classical Jewish joke about ambivalence. The setting is a rabbinical court. The plaintiff rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The defendant rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The bailiff rises and says: “But rabbi, they can’t both be right.” “You know, you’re right too,” the rabbi says.

An ambivalent person will recognize that in Syria “[p]eople will die whatever we do or do not do.” Wieseltier writes that we can’t afford for our leaders to be ambivalent: “The relationship of complexity to decisiveness is, well, complex; but at some point arguments must be accepted and arguments must be rejected.” He continues, “I have sometimes wondered about Eisenhower on the night before Normandy. He knew what would happen to the thousands of soldiers who had the misfortune, and the honor, to be the first on those beaches. Ambivalence is inevitable, at least in morally scrupulous people; but ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody. The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes. The recent insistence on the decline of American power is in part the expression of the wish that America be less powerful. But it is too late for that, too. If our might cannot make right, it can at least serve it.

Wieseltier’s critique is jarring and sobering. I don’t know what the right formula is for resolving this crisis. One thing that Wieseltier clarified for me is that by looking at Syria through humanitarian lenses, we adhere to the Torah’s call of “Choose life.”

The Torah reminds us that God has granted us the ability to make choices. Soon will celebrate the new year, an opportunity for new beginnings. It affords us the opportunity to return to the path of righteousness and justice. Once again, we must make life and death decisions that affect millions of people. May God give our leaders the strength always to choose life, and may God grant us that strength as well.

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