Commentary: Hope Now, Sing Later
When the Children of Israel had crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians had been drowned in its waters, the angels sought to sing to God. But the Holy One rebuked the angels and asked, “The work of My hands is being drowned in the sea, and you shall chant hymns?” Even when Israel is in danger, God loves our enemies, for they, too, are God’s creations.
But another, less-known version of this midrash tells the story with a different conclusion. Here, God rebukes the angels and says, “My legions are in distress and you would sing to Me?” The “legions,” of course, are Israel. Here, God is distressed not by the drowning of the Egyptians, but by the dangers facing Israel.
What should be our attitude to our enemies? Shall we work and pray for their destruction at all costs, or shall we seek balance, protecting ourselves while recalling that in fighting them we are also fighting human beings? Jewish tradition, it seems, is conflicted. Onemidrash stresses the universality of humankind, while the other focuses on God’s particular love for the Jewish people.
Today, winds of change are blowing and we, like the midrash, are conflicted. Yasser Arafat, the despicable architect of modern terrorism, is dead. Palestinian elections. Syria asking to negotiate. Azzam Azzam freed from Egyptian prison and returned home. All of which has Israeli parents like us asking “Dare we try again? Dare we not?”
Too many of us have seen our children struggle to fall asleep to the sounds of gunfire ricocheting across south Jerusalem in the early days of the intifada to be willing to return to that. We have witnessed the cafés that our children frequented reduced to blood-soaked rubble. And worst, we have watched their belief in a better future crumble under the weight of the collapsed Oslo peace accords, an experiment and an agreement that we now know was a grave mistake.
So we are inclined to be defensive, not to trust. How can we risk again? Abu Mazen (aka Mahmoud Abbas) wrote a doctoral dissertation denying much of the Shoah. Marwan Barghouti, who had threatened to run against him, sits in jail for murdering innocent Israelis. Not an appealing cast of characters with whom to start afresh.
But perhaps the two midrashim are meant to remind us that if we’re not conflicted, genuinely unsure, then we’re not really thinking. That Judaism at its richest requires inner turmoil: What should we do? How open should we be?
For me, the answer lies in the midrashim and in the eyes of my children, who have lived in Jerusalem for six years, four of them in war. In the midrashim that remind me that the moment I’m certain, I’m probably wrong. That there has to be another angle.
And my children’s eyes—filled at different moments with hope, with fear and with innocence—remind me that though I fear our making another mistake, I fear no less making them raise their own children in this horrific cycle of violence.
Slowly, therefore, and hesitantly, eyes wide open and utopian expectations utterly gone, I dare to hope. And even to risk a little bit. In the fervent prayer that someday there will be enough healing in this bloodied and saddened region that God will finally consent to hear our hymns of praise.
Daniel Gordis (www.danielgordis.org) is vice president of the Mandel Foundation-Israel. He is the author of several books, including Home to Stay: One American Family’s Chronicle of Miracles and Struggles in Contemporary Israel (Three Rivers Press). He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.