Tag Archives: Syria

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.

Israel’s aid to wounded Syrians shines light in world of indifference

9 Aug
The Israel-Syrian border

The Israeli-Syrian border


One of Elie Wiesel’s most eloquent, prophetic statements is: “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.”

In following current events, there is a hardly any place on earth where the world as a whole has shown more indifference than Syria. The tragedy of the civil war there is beyond measure. The brutality of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad knows no bounds. According to estimates he has slaughtered over 100,000 of his own people over the last two years in his desperate effort to cling to power. The only tragedy greater than the loss of life in this conflict is the world’s indifference to it. I say this with great sensitivity to the fragile situation. It’s easy to blame our government and others for not intervening more than it has on behalf of the uprising, though I understand the caution on their part. The United States fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were costly in both blood and treasure, and our nation is understandably war-weary. Our economy is weak, and we have a lot of nation-building to do at home. Furthermore, it’s hard to know exactly who the rebels are and what connections they might have to anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists. The presence of American boots on the ground in Syria could spark a direct war between the US and Assad’s chief patron, Iran, and Israel would face certain danger. What is happening in Syria, therefore, is a humanitarian and geo-political nightmare. Yes, there are all of these grave concerns. And yes, the world has still been indifferent.

In the midst of this impossible situation in Syria, the New York Times published a report this week that provides a glimmer of hope. Scores of Syrians injured in the fighting have been discreetly spirited across the border into Israel for advanced medical treatment. This story is remarkable given the official state of war between Israel and Syria and the tight security around the border. According to the report, the first patients were young men in their 20’s and 30’s who were suffering from gunshot wounds. More and more, women and children are also being treated for injuries sustained in explosions.

While Israel is careful not to open its borders to refugees as Turkey and Jordan have done, the Israeli government has authorized and is picking up the bill for the treatment of these wounded Syrians. They are careful to protect their identity out of fear that when they return to Syria they will face abuse for accepting treatment in Israel.  Details as to how the Syrians are crossing into and out of Israel are not entirely known, except that this humanitarian operation is coordinated by the Israeli military.

It would be easy for Israel to seal its border completely and not allow anyone in. Israel has an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. And yet, with the background of the Syrian cauldron of hatred and war, we find Israel bringing a semblance of peace, compassion and healing.  When it would be politically expedient for Israel to be indifferent to Arabs in surrounding countries slaughtering each other, Israel is not indifferent.

Indeed, the Torah instructs us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 18-21: 9), a portion dedicated to establishing a just society, expands on this theme and concludes with a peculiar ritual surrounding an unsolved murder. The text reads:

“If…someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke and…they shall break the heifer’s neck….Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken….And they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel’” (Deut. 21: 1-9).

In the context in which this text was written, the spilling of innocent blood pollutes the Land of Israel and causes the Divine Presence to leave the community’s midst. In the absence of prosecuting the murderer, the ritual of the eglah arufah (broken-necked heifer) fills the void created by the murder in the community’s pursuit of justice. In modern terminology, the ritual is intended to provide a sense of closure following a senseless act. It also forces the community to bear the burden of responsibility for the breach of justice among their neighbors. The town elders ask for forgiveness that they may have caused in some way the death of a single human being.

Regarding the elders’ statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood,” R. Yitzhak Meir Bunim, a Hasidic sage comments:

“If a murdered person is found, the elders of the city have to make confession, as stated in this verse. They are to an extent to blame, for if they had led the people better such a tragedy would not have occurred. While the word in Hebrew for “have shed” is read as shaf’khu, in the plural, it is written in the traditional Hebrew text as shaf’kha, in the singular. This is because the elders are never able to say that “we did everything possible with our two hands to prevent such an event.” Whatever we did was with only one hand, and we will always be to blame for not having done enough” (A. Greenberg, Ed., Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 268).

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz writes on this portion in Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion: “The Torah instructs us not to be bystanders. It teaches us not to profess indifference. If there is any way for us to make a difference in the world, then we must act immediately. If there is a life to be saved, a person to be fed, a sojourner to be housed, a solitary individual needing hospitality, we must be there. While the elders were not suspected of actual murder, they could not even profess indifference to the plight of another human being.”

As the world looks upon the Syrian blood bath with indifference, the Israeli medical response is an inspiration that the world does not have to accept the status quo. It’s my sincere hope that Israel’s modest but significant action will remind the world not to be bystanders, not to be indifferent.

As Wiesel states: “Indifference is never an option. It is not the beginning of a process; it is the end of a process. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of education is not ignorance; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”