In the years
1945-1947 Marie Syrkin (who would later become a Professor of English
Literature at Brandeis) traveled to the DP camps in Europe to meet with
Holocaust survivors, and then to Israel to meet with the leadership of the
Yishuv. There was enormous fear and worry in the Yishuv; they knew a state was
forthcoming in the near future, but worried that the neighboring countries
would succeed in battle and push Israel into the sea.
In those anxious
days of 1947, Syrkin penned the following poem:
Suppose, this time, Goliath should not fail;
Suppose, this time, the sling should not avail
On the Judean plain where once for all
Mankind and pebble struck, suppose the tale
Should have a different end: the shepherd yield
The triumph pass to iron arm and thigh,
The wonder vanish from the blooming field,
The mailed hulk stand, and the sweet singer lie.
Suppose, but then what grace will go unsung,
What temple wall unbuilt, what garden bare;
What ploughshare broken and what harp unstrung!
Defeat will compass every heart aware
How black the ramparts of a world wherein
The psalm is stilled, and David does not win.
This poem in many
ways tells the story of Israel. (Benny Morris included it in the prefatory
pages to “1948”.)
“Suppose the tale should have a different end.” These are haunting words, written after the
Shoah, with a potential sequel of genocide hovering in the air.
Disaster seemed all too likely in those
pre-Independence days. Martin Gilbert, in his history of Israel, tells of Ben
Gurion’s May 1948 consultation with Yigael Yadin on the Haganah’s preparedness
for a possible Declaration of Independence. Yadin responded: “if I wanted to sum it all up and be
cautious, I’d say that at this moment, our chances are about even. If I wanted
to be more honest, I’d say that the other side has a significant edge.”
Nearly 70 years
later, we stand on the cusp of a three day conference, where 18,000 people will
arrive in support of the State of Israel.
I, along with
many of you, will be there.
And I am going to
the AIPAC Policy Conference because I still wonder: what if Goliath had won?
Had Goliath won, I think the covenant would
have become too difficult to bear for too many Jews.
Through the ages,
Jews have been beaten by Goliath, but we have never been defeated by Goliath.
And no matter
what, we continued to hold firm to our covenant, our love affair with God.
But the Shoah is
the one time Goliath came close to defeating us. Goliath came and destroyed six
million innocent souls. And we as a people were broken, and broken hearted.
long grappled with the Shoah. There are multiple issues to be considered; why
do bad things happen to good people? How can the human heart harbor such sadism
and wickedness? But for Jews, there was always another question: What happened
to our covenant with God? Does he still care for us? For the first time in
2,000 years, Jews questioned whether we still had a covenant with God.And theologians like Richard Rubenstein, Emil
Fackenheim andYitz Greenberg were
willing to consider a taboo subject: is the covenant over?
Now what would
have happened had the Arab armies destroyed the yishuv?
Would our souls
been capable of handling it? Perhaps. Perhaps. But only perhaps.
We need to
consider how the creation the State of Israel made a profound difference to all
Jews in the post-Holocaust years. And in particular, it made an enormous
difference to those who survived the Holocaust.
More than once I
have heard survivors talk about how Israel was their hope and consolation. One
friend of mine, a survivor, likes to say that “Israel was our nechamah (consolation)”. And for those who had
seen the depths of exile, the blue and white flag of redemption was nothing
short of miraculous.
friends are expressing an idea that would feature in the theology of Eliezer
Berkovits and Rav Soloveitchik: the State of Israel is God knocking on the door
of his beloved, a reminder that God continues to hold fast to His covenant with
the Jewish people.
In 1948, with
David’s victory, we heard God’s voice. And I still hear it.
But there is
another lesson here as well. If Goliath had won, a meaningful tradition would
have been lost: the love of life above all.
It is the
hallmark of the Jewish people to love life, even the lives of our enemies.
Dr. Jose Faur in
an article “Jewish and Western Historiographies: A Post-Modern
Interpretation," (Modern Judaism 12 (1992), 23-27) notes that the Western
type of historical narrative that is told only from the perspective of the
victor, who glories in the exercise of power. Faur quotes a Marrano writer
(Samuel Usque) describing the crowds at the auto-de-fe of the Spanish
Inquisition “exult and rejoice at
seeing...limbs burn in the bonfire”.
This type of
sadism is antithetical to the Jewish tradition.
We revere life.
We do not exult
in the fall of our enemy (Proverbs 24:17).
We care for
ourselves and our enemy too. And that’s the way it should be.
Even when Israel
has had the military advantage, she has always held her hand out in peace; and
Israel has made peace with any neighboring country willing to do so.
And Israel has
offered peace, right from her Declaration of Independence, the only Declaration
of Independence ever to ask for peace!
But this is
something that isn’t fully understood by our enemies. They think if you love
life and love peace, you must be weak; you must be lacking in courage and
Even Anwar Sadat
told Nicolae Ceausescu that the fact that Israelis mourned every soldier meant
he could defeat Israel in 1973, because they could not tolerate the losses a
major war would impose upon them. And this idea remains a favorite among
Israel’s enemies, and is oft mentioned in Arab media. (See “The Rav, Volume II”
by R. Aharon Rakefet, page 126)
In recent years, this has become the catchphrase of Hamas PM Ismail
Haniyeh, the ruler of Gaza. He repeats over and over: "We love death
like our enemies love life! We love Martyrdom, the way in which [Hamas] leaders
died." [Al-Aqsa TV (Hamas), July 30, 2014]
Haniyeh should know how much Israel loves life, because Israeli
hospitals have treated virtually his entire family in recent years - that’s how
much Israelis love life. Since 2012, Israelis hospitals have treated Haniyeh’s
mother in law, sister, daughter and granddaughter. (It might be time for him to
take out a Kupat Cholim card.)
But to understand how significant this tradition of loving life is,
imagine if Netanyahu’s family were in a Gaza hospital. Tragically, you don’t
have to wonder what would happen then.
We are proud of our values, of our absolute love of life. As Rav
Soloveitchik put it in a lecture: “In
Judaism when someone dies, a whole world... collapses”.
In the summer of 2014, I was speaking with my friend Stuie in Tel
Aviv. a young man from his neighborhood, Guy Algranati, had been killed while
entering a boobytrapped UNWRA clinic to check for Hamas fighters. As the
funeral was about to start, several ambulances pulled up; everyone was a bit
shocked and uncertain as to why the ambulances were there. And then the
paramedics opened the doors of ambulances, and out came wounded soldiers, on
stretchers. These were Guy’s comrades in arms, coming straight from the
hospital to pay tribute to his life.
tribute to a fellow soldier is one more example of how much we love life, and
how heartbroken we are by death.
Love for life is
David’s song. And had Goliath won, this nation, thatpassionately pursues life in middle of a war
zone, would have been lost.
But we need to
consider one more question. The question of “what if Goliath won?” has a second
part to it, which is: “what if Goliath attacked, and you did not help David?”
answered this question the right way, and answered this question the wrong way.
Even in the Bible, we get it wrong and we get it right; Joseph is sold by his
brothers, yet after that, Joseph reconciles with his brothers in Egypt.
And in the 20th
century, we have gotten it wrong, and we have gotten it right. Jews in the
United States did not do nearly enough during the Shoah. Rabbi Lookstein, in
his book “Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?: The Public Response of American Jews
to the Holocaust, 1938-1944” reviews the halfhearted actions of the American
Jewish community during the Shoah. His final sentence concludes: “The Final
Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been
unbearable for them. And it wasn’t”.
Holocaust, we were not our brother’s keepers.
Yet 20 years
later, the Jewish community changed. The activists of the Soviet Jewry movement
insisted on being their brother’s keepers. They remembered the lessons of the
Shoah, and refused to repeat them. Yaakov Birnbaum, the founding father of the
Soviet Jewry movement, spoke at the initial meeting of the Student Struggle for
Soviet Jewry on April 27, 1964. In a speech that launched a historic campaign
to release millions of Soviet Jews, Birnbaum declared “we, who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we
keep silent now?”
And due to
Birnbaum’s exhortations, American Jews were not silent. Twenty years later,
American Jews would finally learn how to be their brother’s keepers.
It is this spirit
of solidarity that we must continue. We must always be our brother’s keepers.
Rabbi Sharon Shalom, (an Ethiopian Rabbi and
author) related a wonderful anecdote when he spoke at my synagogue in Montreal
last year. In the early 1980’s he was rescued by the Mossad from a refugee camp
in the Sudan. He was a child of 8 or 9, and Israel was smuggling groups of Beta
Israel children to Israel by spiriting them in middle of the night to a beach,
where they were carried onto a waiting boat that took them to the Sinai. Sharon
remembers being picked up and hugged by a big Israeli commando, who carried him
to the boat. As he carried Sharon, the commando had tears streaming down his
eyes. Sharon remembers as a young boy, how he couldn't understand why the big
strong soldier would be crying - what does he have to be afraid of? Now, of
course, Sharon understands. The soldier was crying because he was picking up
his younger brother and saving him from danger.
This is the
spirit we must have today in the United States. We must be our brother’s
keepers. We must continue to support Israel, which faces existential threats
from multiple aggressors, whether it be Iran or Hamas or Hezbollah. Even
today,Israel remains a David facing
What if Goliath
wins? He won’t, not if I can do something about it.
That’s why I’m
going to the AIPAC Policy Conference.