BRILLIANT SHABBAT SHIRA SERMON
Haggling over Hagel
RABBI MITCHELL WOHLBERG
Beth Tfilah Synagogue, Baltimore
The President spoke on Monday… the Israeli voters spoke on Tuesday … and now I speak on Saturday! And all three are connected by a verse in this morning’s Torah portion, a verse that must be considered one of the strangest and most difficult to understand in the entire Torah.
Our Torah portion this morning described that glorious moment in time when the Jews, having been emancipated from Egypt, now cross the Red Sea in such a miraculous manner that it caused Moses and the Jewish people to break out in song …a song that gives this Shabbat the special name of “Shabbat Shirah” – the “Sabbath of song.” It was a song of such significance that it is recited every morning in our Shacharit service.
The song begins with glorious words of praise to God. The first verse tells us: “Ashirah l’Hashem ki goa gaaw – I will sing unto the Lord for He is highly exalted.” The second verse tells us: “Zeh keili v’anveihu – This is my God
and I shall exalt him.” But then comes the third verse with the jolting, almost incomprehensible words, “Hashem ish milchamah Hashem shmo – the Lord is a man of war, the Lord is His name.” God is a man of war? This seems to go counter to everything we traditionally say about God. “O’seh shalom bimromov – May He who makes peace in the heavens above make peace
for us and for all Israel.” “Yevorecha Hashem v’yishmercha – May the Lord bless you and keep you … may He bless you with peace …” Countless times, it is God who we turn to in the name of peace. Indeed, in the Book of Judges and in the Talmud we are told that God’s name is Peace.
In fact, when in the bathroom you’re not supposed to greet someone with the word “shalom” because it is considered God’s name. Hashem ish milchomo … God is a man? Of war, no less?
On Monday President Barack Obama delivered his second Inaugural address, meant to set the tone for his second term in office. After proclaiming “a decade of war is almost over,” he went on to speak of foreign affairs in all of 287 words in a speech of over 2000 words. It is clear what his overall agenda is. We’ve spent trillions on war, and now we have to refocus ourselves on the economy and domestic issues that challenge our country’s prominence. Clearly, by their votes, the American people have shown that they support Mr. Obama’s agenda. And truth to tell, it provides the only rational explanation why Mr. Obama has chosen Chuck Hagel to serve as his
next Secretary of Defense.
This choice has evoked quite an uproar, with a paper as liberal and respected as the Washington Post editorializing that Hagel was not suitable for the position. And on paper that seems very clear. On most defense issues – in regard to Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran – Mr. Hagel’s position has conflicted with that of the President and the American people. Hagel is
considered rather brusque and abrupt, and does not have many friends amongst his fellow Senators. As a Republican he broke ranks with his fellow Republicans when it came to Iraqi issues. He has antagonized gays and supporters of Israel. So why did President Obama choose him?
David Brooks, who writes on the New York Times editorial page, is one of the most insightful columnists I know. And when I understand what he is writing, I usually agree with him. But he really hit the nail on the head in his Jan 7th op-ed piece titled, “Why Hagel Was Picked.” He points out that America, in a sense, is now following in the footsteps of Europe.
The European people, having seen enough of war, after WWII chose to decrease their military spending so that there would be enough money to improve their standard of living. The sun has set on the British Empire and all the other empires of Europe whose Armed Forces are a shadow of what they once were. The American government spends seven times more on defense than the combined nations that make up NATO! Now the American people and their elected
President, in light of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and the on-going trillions of dollars on military spending, have decided that the only way America is going to be able to pay for everything from Obamacare and Medicare to Social Security and unemployment insurance, to improved education, climate change and to rebuild our country’s infrastructure, is to cut the defense budget. All other cuts and all the tax increases will not keep the budget balanced; it’s only cuts in the massive defense budget that can provide funds for America’s internal needs.
And who is better suited to make these cuts than Chuck Hagel? Based on his own experiences in combat in Vietnam, which had a profound effect on his thinking, and based on his actions and votes which invariably turned away from the military in favor of diplomacy … all this made him the right man for the job.
Now, one can agree or disagree with the President. That is your right. And similarly, the President has the right to choose his policy and to choose the right people to implement them.
There is only one problem. Chuck Hagel has a problem. You can call it a “Jewish problem,” you can call it a “Zionist problem” or an “Israel problem.” But make no mistake about it … Hagel has a problem … and his problem is OUR problem! And don’t let anyone tell you differently! I can’t think of a single person in the Senate who, by word and deed, has been on the other side to Israel’s perceived best interests as much as he has been. I am sure you have all read the record:
– Hamas shoots thousands of rockets into Israel … Hagel says that we should negotiate with them.
– Hezbollah calls for Israel’s destruction, kills Israeli soldiers and becomes the terrorist arm of Iran … and Hagel comes out against declaring them a “terrorist organization;” something the overwhelming majority of Senators called for.
– Hagel has not only spoken out against military action against Iran, he speaks out against sanctions.
– Hagel makes negative reference to the power of the “Jewish” lobby and proclaims something one can’t imagine another U.S. Senator saying: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here, but I’m a U.S. Senator. I’m not an Israeli Senator.” Not nice, Mr. Hagel!
– The former editor of an Omaha, Nebraska’s Jewish newspaper writes how Hagel never showed any interest in the needs of the Jewish community.
I could go on and on with the list, but there’s just one thing more I would point out about this man; something that few others have pointed out. In the year 1999, Boris Yeltsin, then the President of Russia, was coming to the U.S. The American Jewish Committee sought to put full page ads in newspapers across the country drawing Mr. Yeltsin’s attention to the rising antiSemitism in Russia. What would be more powerful than the ad having the signatures of all 100 U.S. Senators? Well, as it ended up, 99 signed on. Guess who didn’t! It is said that Hagel chose instead to send his own personal letter to then President Clinton. But still … what is your
problem, Mr. Hagel?
His problem is OUR problem … and that is why I find it hard to understand why most every major Jewish organization has been reluctant to come out against his nomination. They all go around saying things like: “We don’t agree with him but …” or “He’s not our friend but …” or “We have lots of questions about him but …” I don’t understand it! From our perspective,
outside of Pat Buchanan and Al Sharpton, I can’t think of a worse choice! So explain it to me: why has Christians United for Israel come out strongly against Hagel, but Jewish organizations have not? Perhaps, collectively, they decided that they were not going to win this battle, so why fight it? Or, let’s not fight it and upset the President. Or, we can’t ask our Democratic Senate allies to buck their party’s President. Or, there will be further battles coming down the line … we have to pick our spots. And make no mistake about it, there are going to be further battles in the years ahead and we, American Jews, better be prepared to fight them.
And here we come to the understanding of what that difficult verse that tells us: “Hashem ish milchama” – that “God is a man of war” really means. The Jews have just experienced the wondrous manner in which God has taken them out of the land of Egypt. They have suffered enough and now are only seeking peace and tranquility. But God finds it necessary to warn them: don’t think the battle for freedom is over! In some ways it has only just begun. And don’t think that I am going to keep pulling off plagues and splitting of seas to save you! You are going to have to fight for your survival. Battles with Amalek and Amon and Moav and the Caananites are going to take place in the years ahead … remember: Hashem ish milchama – “God is a man of war,” which the Biblical commentator, Rashi, defines as “Baal milchama – master of wars.”
What Rashi is telling us is that ultimately God is the deciding power in war. If God is on your side, you will emerge victorious but God cannot fight your battles. Hashem reminds us that man must be prepared to go to war. In the verse before we are told to emulate God. If God is a man
of war, then certainly man must be prepared to be one as well. There is a time for war and a time for peace.
And that is just what the people of Israel proclaimed in their vote this past Tuesday. Do the people of Israel want peace? No question! They are no different than the Jews who left Egypt … they have been through enough. And after what they’ve been through it is only natural that they should want peace. One of the Israeli movies nominated for an Academy Award is the
“The Gatekeepers” which involves interviews with the six previous heads of Israel’s Shin Bet Internal Security Service. All six, based on their experiences in war, have moved toward the left in seeking peace. And indeed, the majority of the Israeli people agree with them! The most recent survey has 67% – 2/3 of the Jews of Israel – in favor of a two state solution … one Israeli and one Palestinian. And yet, that played little, if any, role in the election. Yes, the Israeli people called for change. Like the American people, they want to deal with internal problems like poverty, education, housing, national service. But you didn’t hear them demand cuts in the military budget! No one said, like President Obama, that 10 years of wars are coming to an end.
No one said: peace is at hand. The two parties that emphasized the pursuit of peace, Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s Movement won a combined 14 votes out of the Knesset’s 120 seats! After all is said and done, with all his flaws, Netanyahu and his party received the most votes. And for all practical purposes Netanyahu’s whole campaign was based on one note: his strength in facing the outside forces that threaten Israel. President Obama is quoted as expressing that Netanyahu does not understand what is best for Israel. But Netanyahu is not the problem … it is the Israeli people who are the problem! They are the ones who have the temerity, the gall, the outright
chutzpah to think that they know what is in their own best interests! And their best interests, they feel, is not to rush to give away any territory with the Middle East situation being the way it is. And this is going to create a conflict between the U.S. and other countries in regard to Israel.
It is reported that the European Union and many in the upper echelons of the U.S. government and media all seem to agree with what Sen. Hagel once said: “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab/Israeli conflict.” Oh, right! They are killing each other in Syria because of the Arab/Israeli conflict! This week the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that the entire Arab world is stagnant because of the Israeli occupation! Are these people out of their cotton-picking minds? Iraq is moving closer to Iran because of the Arab/Israeli conflict! Women and gays in the Arab world are suppressed and oppressed because of the Israeli settlements. And certainly Pakistan and Afghanistan and Bahrain are all being torn apart because of the Arab/Israeli conflict! If not for Israel the Taliban would be singing Hava Nagilah around the campfire? There will be more and more pressure for Israel to make painful compromises for peace. But understand: It is easy to take risks for peace when your neighbors are Canada and Finland. It is quite another thing giving up territory when you are surrounded with an Egypt having a President who tells his people to hate the Jews and claims that Jews are the descendants of apes and monkeys. Not nice, Mr. Morsi! And with Syria falling apart and its
leader killing tens of thousands of his own people. Not nice, Mr. Assad! And he may be replaced by Islamists. And with Jordan unstable and with the Palestinians in Gaza still calling for Israel’s destruction, and for the Palestinians in the West Bank never having offered any compromise and still calling for their “right of return” into Israel. And with Iran continuing its march toward a nuclear bomb. And with it’s right arm, Hezbollah, in the North having 50,000 rockets aimed at Israel … you know, those people Mr. Hagel doesn’t consider “terrorists” … the Israeli people have said: We want peace … we want change, but we still need a leader who stands ready to fight for our rights and fight our wars if necessary.
Today is a special day in the Hebrew calendar. Today is Tu B’shvat – the 15th day in the month of Shvat, what is traditionally called the “New Year for trees.” Dates play an important role in the culture of a people. For the Palestinian people there are two significant days on their calendar.
One is May 15, which they call the date of the Nakba – the Catastrophe. Why did they choose that date? Because that was the day after Israel was established in 1948. Their important date expresses their desire for the negation of Israel’s existence. Recently the Palestinians placed another date for importance on their calendar. It was back in November when the United Nations, with very few dissenting votes, voted to declare Palestine a state. The Palestinians could have arranged for this to take place on any date in their calendar, but they specifically chose for it to be on Nov 29th – which they are making into the date the State of Palestine was created. Why did they specifically choose Nov 29th? Because it was on Nov 29, 1947 that the United Nations voted for the establishment of the state of Israel. You should know that Nov 29th is the only secular date that is given any importance in the Israeli calendar. There are streets that are named the 29th of November … so the Palestinians came along once again to negate that.
And we have Tu B’shvat. Yes, according to the Talmud it is a new year for trees … the day on which the ages of the trees and their destiny is decided. But for Jews, Tu B’shvat means much more. Do you know that right after 1948 when the state of Israel was established the first session of its Knesset – it’s Parliament – took place … when? On Tu B’shvat! Three decades earlier, in 1918, when the Hebrew University placed its cornerstone, what date did they choose? You got it! Tu B’shvat! And in 1924 on Tu B’shvat the Technion in Haifa laid its cornerstone. All chose that date for its symbol of rebirth and renewal. That is what our calendar speaks of.
When the Palestinians learn to do the same, then and only then, will the words of the prophet ring true: “Lo yiseh goy el goy cherev lo yilmidu od milchama – nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they know of war anymore.” Amen.