by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 8, 2010
In the beginning of the second book of the Torah, Sh’mot (2:11-12), we are told of an encounter of the young future leader of the people of Israel, Moses, with a cruel Egyptian. “It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, and he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
The above anecdote brings to mind another anecdote that occurred in more recent history. In mid-1929, after Jews in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) were subjected to a rash of Arab rioting, destruction and killings and it became apparent that the British condoned the Arabs’ lawlessness, the then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Y. Kook called the representative of the British mandate Charles Loch demanding that the British deal sternly with the rioters. Upon being questioned what he expected to be done, Rav Kook exclaimed, “Shoot the murderers”, to which the British representative replied, “I have not received an order to that effect”. In response, Rav Kook thundered, “I order you! I demand it in the name of human conscience!”.
Later at an official reception that the British government arranged for the leaders of the Jewish community, Mr. Loch extended his hand to shake that of Rav Kook. However, in light of their earlier strained conversation, Rav Kook refused, stating emphatically that he would not shake a hand dripping in Jewish blood. Further on in that meeting, Loch warned Rav Kook, “You Jews protect yourself, but don’t attack others”, to which Rav Kook responded, “You who transgress ‘Do not kill’ should not preach to us!”.
Jews began to heatedly quarrel over Rav Kook’s bold stance towards the British diplomat. While many lauded the proud and courageous stance of Rav Kook, others feared the repercussions that may arise from the British ruler. Wherever Rav Kook would arrive, heated debates would break out as to the correctness of Rav Kook’s stance.
One day not too long after Rav Kook’s exchange with Mr. Loch, at a brit milah to which Rav Kook was invited, as had become customary, a heated debate again broke out concerning the exchange. Seeing the quarreling, Rav Kook motioned to his trusted, scholarly and clever assistant Meir Shutland to calm the tensions.
Shutland hopped to his feet and asked the unruly crowd in a powerful voice: “Soon a newborn will be ushered in to fulfill his entering the covenant of our forefather Abraham and we will all greet him with our rising and calling out ‘Blessed be the one who enters’. This matter puzzles me twofold. First, why do we not greet in the same way a bar mitzvah boy or a groom at his wedding?..Second, why do we not part from the newborn after his circumcision with ‘Blessed be the one who leaves’?”
As a hush purveyed among the crowd, Shutland continued: “Now I will answer the two questions I raised. To our chagrin and embarrassment, Jews are impressed by every uncircumcised individual and gentile and attempt to honor him at every opportunity – if necessary or not. Consequently, we rise in honor of the newborn who is yet uncircumcised and we warmly greet him. But after the newborn is circumcised and has entered the camp of Israel, he warrants no more greeting.” The crowd understood the message.
While Jews should not be show needless and unwarranted inconsiderate behavior towards their gentile neighbors, and, in fact our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a) enjoin us to perform certain acts – called by the Sages “paths of peace” – in consideration of gentile sensitivities for the sake of keeping the peace with our gentile neighbors (assuming they are basically on good terms with us), we often forget our Jewish neighbors and their sensitivities, despite the Sages’ also enjoining us to perform various acts – “paths of peace” – in special consideration of the sensitivities and needs of our own brethren for the sake of keeping the peace among our own people.
Jewish society today, especially in Israel, has become a patchwork of backgrounds, countries of origin, affiliations, shades of color and levels of religiosity. So many different types of Jews can be found: Non-religious, modern religious, hareidi, of Ashkenazi origin, of Sephardi origin, Yemenite and Polish, American and Iraqi, Indian and Argentinian, devotees of one rabbi or rebbi or another, fair-skinned and dark, shop-keepers and physicians, plumbers and lawyers, gardeners and accountants. We the Jewish people have it all, except for one very important thing – peace and unity among ourselves. We are so quick to ignore and/or belittle individuals or entire groups of Jews who do not think as we do. Certainly, we have our differences – in thought and behavior – and we cannot all be right. But there is a world of difference between disagreeing with a fellow Jew and not caring for him. There is a major difference between disagreeing honestly and intellectually with our fellow Jew and calling him derogatory names. There is a monumental difference between disapproving of a fellow Jew’s behavior and letting his family and children starve. Yet we too often overlook this. Instead of appreciating and respecting the finer characteristics in our fellow Jews, we are quick to denigrate and belittle the poorer characteristics that we find and those that are outside our clique or do not behave or look just the way we do are brushed aside or treated with disparagement. We forget that when G-d addressed the Jewish people, He commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18).
Moses first and foremost, after growing up, pays attention to the pain of his brethren, and, despite his own regal stature at the time and the possible danger to himself, takes the chance of sacrificing his own well-being at the hands of the gentiles due to the pain of a fellow offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. More important than all the honor and respect that he received from the gentiles around him was the anguish of a fellow Israelite and the desire to help him at all costs. A Jew should be concerned towards the feelings of the gentiles around us, as the Talmud instructs, but foremost should care for the needs, concerns and feelings of his fellow Jew, as the Torah instructs. This is the message that our greatest leader imparted at an early juncture in his life and this is the message learned and passed on further by one of our more recent rabbis at a critical juncture in his life.
Let us make the effort to instill “paths of peace” among ourselves, the Jewish people, and play a role in fulfilling the blessing of the kohanim: “May G-d bless you and guard you. May G-d illuminate His countenance toward you and endow you with grace. May G-d lift his countenance to you and establish for you peace.”