Tomorrow at sundown, Jews around the world will welcome in the festival of Shavuot. In addition to its being the Summer Harvest Festival, our tradition has always understood it to be the day upon which Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. As a result, we will read the Ten Commandments on Monday morning.
Those of you know something about the Bible may know that the Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah – first in the Book of Exodus and then a second time in Moshe’s reminiscences in the Book of Deuteronomy. Although the two versions of the Ten Commandments are very close to identical, there’s one significant difference that has caught the attention of more than one reader over the years.
In the 4th Commandment, the Exodus version says, “Zachor” – remember the Shabbat. In the 4th Commandment, the Deuteronomy version says, “Shamor” – guard the Shabbat.
So, which is it?
In an ancient Midrash – a rabbinic legend – that we actually sing on Friday nights – but first appeared in the Talmud nearly 2,000 years ago, the rabbis tell us “Shamor v’Zachor b’dibbur echad – Guard and remember in a single utterance. ”
In the Tractate of Shevu’ot, page 20b we find the full text of this Midrash:
“’Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8),’ and: ‘Guard the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Deuteronomy 5:12),’ were spoken in one utterance, in a manner that the human mouth cannot say and that the human ear cannot hear.”
In other words, God miraculously said both words at the exact same time. Some heard one and others heard the other. It’s like that picture of a dress that went around the internet a few years ago. Some people swore it was white and gold while others were certain it was black and blue. There was no middle ground.
But, back to the Torah, is it possible that we can hear both things at the same time?
Even though the Talmud seems to think that we can’t hear both things at the same time, according to the Midrash, God SAYS both things at the same time. It seems to me that this Midrash is predicated on the idea that God had faith in us that we could, in fact, hear these two things at the same time. And it’s this ability to hear two things at the same, to understand two things at the same time, to believe two separate things at the same that we need at this very moment as we think about the situation in Israel.
When it comes to a challenging situation like the Israeli Palestinian conflict, this ability to consider and hold two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time is called nuance. The Webster dictionary defines nuance as: “sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings… of meaning, feeling, or value.”
So, for example, I can support Israel 1000% in her right to defend the citizens of Israel from rocket fire at the same that I believe that the Palestinians should have a free and economically viable state for themselves.
I can label Hamas as the terrorist organization that it is at the same time that I acknowledge that Israel has made some terrible mistakes over the years in its interactions with the Palestinians.
I can feel pain and sorrow for the Israeli parents huddled in bomb shelters with their children at the same time that I feel pain and sorrow for Palestinian parents trying to protect their children.
I can criticize the lawlessness of Hamas hiding military assets among civilians and firing rockets indiscriminately into Israeli population centers at the same time I criticize the lawless bands of Jewish thugs trying to beat up Israeli Arabs in Lod and Bat Yam and Jerusalem.
I can understand that Israel looks like a big bully compared to the Palestinians of the Gaza strip at the same that I see Hamas as a proxy for Iran and that there are 330 million people in the Islamic countries surrounding Israel with her 6 million Jews.
And I could go on.
There are many people on both sides of this dispute who will try to tell you how everything bad going on between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is the other side’s fault. People who do that are only telling you one version on the assumption that you can only hear and comprehend that one version. But, we human beings are better than that. We can hear and understand both versions at the same time.
As horrible as I think Hamas and Islamic Jihad are, I can’t say it’s all their fault. There are always two versions of the story. Sadly, the version of the story that is being shared and heard more effectively right now is the Palestinian version of events.
For example, in a video that has been viewed millions of times around the world in a matter of a few days, Jews are seen dancing at the Western Wall on Monday. In the background, you can see flames coming from the Dome of the Rock compound. Of course, critics of Israel used this video to prove the callousness of the Jews at the Wall – who were apparently celebrating the Dome of the Rock being on fire. That’s one version – and it’s a completely false narrative.
In truth, those Jews were dancing at the Wall because it was Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – the day upon which the IDF reunified Jerusalem in 1967. From 1948 to 1967, Jews were not permitted to visit the Wall or pray there. Perhaps, you’ve seen the famous photo of three Israeli soldiers gazing at the Wall that day – not sure if they had even liberated the correct wall – since they had never seen it before. Ever since, it has been a joyous celebratory day at the Wall.
Those who were dancing close to the Wall would not have been able to see the flames on the other side of the Wall. And as for those flames – some trees surrounding the Dome of the Rock caught on fire from fireworks set off inside the compound by Arab Muslims ostensibly there to worship. Their intention was to disrupt the Yom Yerushalayim festivities at the Wall. After all, they don’t view the outcome of the 1967 war in quite the same way that Israelis and Jews do.
So, there’s a complicated story in that video. Yes, Yom Yerushalayim is a difficult day for the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Yes, some Israelis have behaved badly on Yom Yerushalayim – trying to rub the noses of their Arab neighbors in that military victory. But the Arabs in the Dome of the Rock compound were trying to disrupt a legitimate celebration at the Wall and when they started a fire on their own turf they tried to blame Israelis for it.
That video did a lot of damage to Israel’s reputation around the world. And it’s up to people like us to call out those false narratives when we hear them and see them. In part because we should call out lies and in part because when Israel feels cornered, her leaders inevitably turn to military solutions which can make the situation even worse.
We can help the world understand who and what Hamas is at the same time that we call on Israel to do better and to be better. To be clear, I don’t think that Israel’s faults rise to the level of Hamas’s egregious crimes. However, in the Jewish tradition, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. The Torah calls upon us to be a “light unto the nations – ohr lagoyim.”
As we read in our Prayer for Israel – on the one hand Israel is a nation like any other. On the other hand, though, Israelis – and Jews of the Diaspora – take great pride in Israel being the “start-up nation”, in Israel finding solutions to the water shortage of the Middle East, in Israel developing a world-class military, in Israel leading the world in COVID vaccination and in Israel being an island of liberal democracy in a sea of oppressive authoritarianism.
With that pride and with those accomplishments comes a responsibility to be better.
I would never want to see Israel stop defending herself and her citizens. But she can defend herself AND be a light unto the nations at the same time – just as our ancestors heard two things at the same time on Mt. Sinai – Shamor v’zachor be’dibbur echad – Guard our people and remember our responsibility, all in a single utterance.
Shabbat Shalom, RAF.