Dear Zachary,

You have asked me for some guidance on how to approach the events of recent days off the coast of Israel and Gaza. I’m going to do my best.

First of all, I am proud of the fact that you are torn. I am proud that you are troubled by the use of force, that you respect non-violence, that you long for peace. I am proud that your Jewishness leads you to feel that the IDF is acting in your name—even if that may make you feel ashamed. I am proud that you want Israel to be an or lagoyim, a light unto nations, and that your heart is broken when it fails to be that. I am proud that you wrestle, that you carry on the mantle of Yaakov Avinu, our ancestor Jacob: “For you have wrestled with God and with men and proved able.” (Genesis 32:28)

I say all of this because it is a unique inheritance of being Jewish. What other people has this kind of self-critical tradition? Nevi’ei Yisrael, the prophets of Israel, who are invoked in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, gave us this model: holding ourselves to the highest standard, criticizing ourselves when we fail to reach it.

Their tradition has animated Israeli society and the Jewish world for the last 62 years. In what other country besides Israel would the public be so animated in discussion and criticism of a military operation? In what other country would a member of parliament—representing an ethnic and religious minority in the country—be found on a flotilla trying to break the blockade its own military has opposed? I am proud of our people, I am proud of the Jewish state, for embracing the challenge of the Prophets, for testing the limits of speech in a democratic society.

Crucially those same prophets always spoke from a place of love, from a place of enduring faith and commitment to Am Yisrael, to the Jewish People and its mission. Beginning with Moses and continuing through Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Zacharia, the nevi’im would not only chastise the Jewish people for their failures, but advocate for the Jewish people in their moments of crisis. When God wants to wipe out the Israelites and begin again with Moses, he responds by reminding God of their merits, and convincing God to relent. When God proclaims that the Jewish people will be punished, Isaiah immediately delivers words of consolation and a vision of a renewed Israel.

So when you tell me that you are conflicted, I tell you that it makes me proud. It tells me that you have a prophetic sensibility, that you ask questions about the use of power, that you on guard against corruption. But it also leads me to remind you that the prophets combined their critique with love, that they spoke from a deep sense of ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel—people, land, and Torah—and of longing for the Jews to live up to their calling.

That is not easy, and there are many Zionists who would argue that it is not possible and perhaps not appropriate. The state of Israel should be a state like any other, not held to a higher, perhaps impossible, prophetic standard. And there is truth in this as well. First and foremost Israel today is a modern, democratic nation-state, with all of the blessings and curses such arrangements bring. Its legitimacy comes not from the Bible, but from the United Nations, and as such it should be held to no higher or lower standard than any other country.

But for we whose souls are bound up with the Jewish people, whose stories are intertwined with the enduring story of the Jewish people, Israel has always been something more. Our hope has been that of Moses, that the peoples of the world would look at us and say, “Surely this is a wise and discerning people.” (Deutermony 4:6) I hope you don’t ever give up on that vision, and that, like Moses and the prophets of Israel, you never give up on the Jewish people either.

B’vracha, In Blessing,

Rabbi Josh

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