Those who have visited kibbutz Beeri report that one can still see children’s shoes that fell off while they fled from their murderers and crushed cars by the side of main roads riddled with bullets. Home after home is burned, destroyed and gutted.
Even a week after the dreadful events of October 7, smoke still smolders from the buildings.
An integral component of Zionism was that Israel would provide security to the Jewish people. The eccentric author Etgar Keret once joked that he received a “classic Zionist education” – by the time he left high-school he knew every place in Europe that a pogrom had taken place in but without learning that Kafka was Jewish!
In other words, for the early Zionists, the diaspora was a place of danger, Israel of safety. It was always more complicated than that overly sharp dichotomy. But the fact the biggest murder of Jews in one day since the Holocaust took place in Israel is simply unfathomable.
We are still trying to come to terms with this tragedy, still struggling to create order out of chaos.
Where was the army? Where was / is the government? Where was God?
In last week’s parsha God speaks to Abraham and tells him to leave his birthplace on the long walk to freedom towards the Land of Israel.
But why Abraham? What was so special about him? Why did he merit to be the father of a nation?
Midrash Rabbah brings an analogy.
“This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a בירה דולקת. 'Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it(מנהיג) ', the man wonders. At that moment the owner (בעל הבירה) looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building’.”
Similarly, the Midrash explains, because Abraham wondered, “Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide? The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him 'I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe' (…) hence it is written: And God said to Abraham: ‘Leave your country, from your birthplace, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you …’.”
Readers may notice that the words בירה and דולקת have not yet been translated.
בירה is thought to be a castle, building or palace. Some see it as a type of tenement housing.
More significant is the word דולקת. The root ד ל ק means to light up. We light the Shabbat candles with the blessing להדליק נר של שבת. Based on this, what Abraham must have seen is a building with its lights on. If a building is lit up, it must have inhabitants. He sees the world and it has order. It is beautiful. Abraham Joshua Heschel imagines Abraham as a type of mystic seeing the whole world full of God’s glory. For Louis Jacobs, Abraham was a philosopher, a rationalist, somebody who has reason to believe. דולקת as light means Abraham sees the world and it makes sense. It is this wonder and belief that facilitates God speaking to him.
Yet there is another way of understanding the root ד ל ק.
In this reading the building is not lit up, but alight. It is in flames.
Someone who sees a building in flames has a very different response.
They may simply conclude there is no one in charge. In this reading, the man’s comments are not a rhetorical question (can it be that there is no owner?) but a righteously-indignant statement (it must be that there is no owner!).
Jonathan Sacks adopts a third path – that the building or palace is in flames and the man is confused. He experiences cognitive dissonance. “Abraham sees a palace – that means he sees the world has order. Therefore it has a creator. But the palace is in flames, which means the world is full of disorder. It is full of evil, violence, injustice. Now nobody builds a building and then goes away and deserts it. Therefore if there is a fire there must be somebody in charge of putting it out. The building must have an owner. Where is he? And that is Abraham’s question – where is God in the world?”
For Sacks, Judaism (and the first divine / human interaction that will begin the path that becomes Judaism) begins in dissonance. “In Judaism, faith does not begin with an answer. It begins with a question” Sacks writes. “It doesn’t begin in harmony. It begins in dissonance.”
The 75 year old history of the State of Israel could arguably be divided in two – before October 7 and after.
It has shattered our understandings of the world, of the promise of Zionism, and of our national security doctrine.
The south is littered with more than one בירה דולקת - smouldering homes, buildings in flames.
Things will never be the same.
And we Israel’s citizens and Jews around the world are riven with cognitive dissonance as to how such a tragedy could have happened. How could our state’s intelligence not have known? Why did it take the army so long to arrive? Why have so few government ministers taken responsibility? And that’s before we get to the theological questions about God. (And here one is reminded of Yitz Greenberg’s chilling statement that “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”)
We thought those days were over. It seems they were not.
Yet even when the man in the Midrash is angry or confused, God answers him. For Sacks this represents “the still, small voice of resilience that somehow provides for courage and hope in the face of tragedy and destruction.” Following God’s communication, Sacks adds “Abraham finds reason to believe in God, the world and himself in spite of the seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
May we too – enveloped as we are in grief and confusion, merit such resilience, courage and hope.
Calev ben Dor, member of the Nathan Cardozo Writers Guild