THE BLOG
11/28/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Reflections on Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense

It was one of the most painful weeks of my rabbinate -- the week I spent in Netzer Hazani in Gush Katif, in the summer of 2005 as 21 Jewish communities were dismantled. I witnessed the Israeli army removing the Netzer residents out of their homes. I will never forget that day.

I saw Amichai Yifrach, a young man who had been wounded by terrorists in Netzer Hazani, laying on the ground, kicking his feet, pleading to be allowed to remain in his home. I had spent the previous week in Amichai's house, sleeping on the kitchen floor.

Before the residents left their community for good, they walked to the home of Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, father of six children, who had been murdered by terrorists a few years earlier. On the outside wall of his house were the words, kol d'mei Abba tzo'akim eilai min ha'adamah, "the voice of my father's bloods are crying out to me from the ground," a play on God's words to Cain after Abel was slain -- "the voice of your brother's bloods cry out to me from the ground."

And in the last moments, standing near the synagogue, we watched as the Israeli flag was slowly lowered for the last time over Netzer Hazani.

Painful, painful, painful.

And Israel hoped that once it withdrew, that Gaza would become the Singapore of the Middle East. Israel was prepared to do all it could to make that happen. But it wasn't to be. Soon after the withdrawal, Hamas rockets were launched.

In America, when one negotiates, one gives a little, and the other side responds by giving as well. It doesn't work that way in the Middle East. The more Israel gives, the more the other side sees weakness and wants more.

A word of Torah:

Much of Jacob's life was a life of running. After taking the blessings from Esau, Jacob, instead of talking out his differences, runs. When he awakens and finds Leah, a woman he had not intended to marry, Jacob is relatively quiet. He agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. After entering into countless business agreements with his father-in-law, Laban, only to have Laban constantly switch the deal, Jacob acquiesces. Finally, having had enough and deciding to leave, Jacob flees in the dead of night.

This is the story of the Jew who, when confronted, runs. It's the story of 2,000 years of exile, of Jacob -- whose Hebrew name Yaakov comes from the word ekev (heel) -- running, running, running.

Finally, after 22 years of separation from Esau, we learn how Jacob prepares his family, his wives, his children and his grandchildren, to confront Esau. But at the last moment the Torah states, va-yevater Ya'akov levado, "Jacob was alone." How is this possible? After all, Jacob had been with his larger family. Why suddenly was he alone?

Rashbam writes: livroach derech acheret. At the last moment Jacob was looking to escape. So ingrained was the philosophy of running that Jacob, after all these preparations, was unable to stand firm.

Rashbam adds that the incident of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious angel and being injured in the hollow of his thigh was a way to teach Jacob: No more running. In Rashbam's words: shelo yu'chal livroach. Perhaps the mysterious angel was Jacob's inner conscience. He had been wrestling with himself and finally came to the realization that when confronted, and having no way out, one has a responsibility to stand fast and defend oneself.

It is then that Jacob, the runner, is given another name, Yisrael. In the words of the Torah, ki sarita -- "for you've learned how to fight."

The Talmud notes that whereas other name changes eliminated the earlier name -- Abraham was no longer Abram, Sara was no longer Sarai -- Yisrael retains his original name, Jacob. In the words of the Gemara, lo she'ye'aker Jacob mimkomo. This does not mean that the name of Jacob is uprooted, teaching a basic lesson. Even if we are forced to fight, even if we must be Yisrael, it must be with the spirit of Jacob, who is described in the Torah as ish tam yoshev ohalim, the goodly pious man who sits in the tents of Torah and is suffused with the message of mussar and yosher, ethics and uprightness. Here we are taught for all time that when forced to fight it must be with a deep and profound sense of moral sensibility, with what the Israeli army calls Tohar Ha-Neshek, Purity of Arms.

For Israel, this dual message of the right to defend ourselves, with deep and profound ethical sensibilities, is what this past conflict was about.

The most basic responsibility of government is to defend its citizenry. If rockets were launched by Cuba into Southern Florida or by Mexico into Texas, America would know what to do. Israel did the same. Indeed, Israel was highly successful in taking out Hamas launchers, most of their long range rockets and 30 of its top terrorist leaders. Jewish tradition teaches that there is no joy when an enemy falls, but the world is better off without them.

And the Iron Dome, which had an 84 percent success rate, changed the whole theater of the conflict. It sent a profound message to Iran. The Iron Dome was created with Israel's genius but with monetary help from America. For this help, which saved many lives -- whatever side of the aisle one may be on -- our community is deeply grateful.

And Israel defended itself with Tohar Ha-neshek.

Ashrei ha-am she-yesh lo tzavah musari k'tzavah haganah l'yisrael -- "Blessed be the nation which has as its army the moral and strong army of the Israeli Defense Forces."

We mourn the loss of all innocent people, including innocent Palestinians. It must be said, however, that there is no moral equivalency between Hamas and the IDF. There is no moral equivalency between terrorists whose intention is to murder as many innocent civilians as possible, and the IDF, which targets terrorists who cowardly hide amongst civilian populations, in schools, hospitals and mosques. As Gazans murdered in cold blood those who they suspected of collaborating with Israel, the IDF dropped leaflets from the heavens, urging Gaza residents to leave, giving them the actual streets they should take to remain safe.

Things are quiet now. We pray the ceasefire will hold. But make no mistake about it: This is a conflict between two cultures. A Hamas culture of venerating death, and a Jewish culture of venerating life; of terrorists who want to be martyred and Israeli soldiers who are prepared to risk their lives but want to live; of Hamas terrorists who are gleeful to kill, and Israel that lives by Golda Meir's words: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons." Of Hamas -- I saw the signs at rallies this week -- that speaks of Palestine from the River to the Sea, and Israel ready to negotiate a Two-State Peace.

America has been there for Israel this past week. Israel, too, has been there for America. Today, Israel is the front line against the spread of terrorism to the free world and the United States.

And Jews and gentiles all over the world have rallied and told Israelis anachnu itchem, we stand with you. More than 1,000 people recently gathered in front of the Israeli mission in New York. It is important to keep being there for Israel by calling Israel, buying Israeli products, politicking for Israel, visiting Israel. The test of love is being there when things are tough. In that spirit, this is the time to run to Israel, not from Israel.

I spoke to our grandson Gilad before Shabbat. As a member of the IDF, he was stationed on the Gaza border. He couldn't tell me much except that he felt rockets landing near him and saw the Iron Dome at work. He said that he and his unit were ready to go in.

I, for one, am grateful they did not, and pray that it will be unnecessary. I keep thinking of that moment during the 2009 Gaza War when Israel entered Gaza on the ground and soldiers were lost. I was at the funeral of one of them -- Dagan Wartman. I'll never forget when his grandmother fell on his coffin and said, "timsor d'ash ledod Eliyahu shenafal bemilchemet hashichrur -- send regards to Uncle Eliyahu, who fell during the War of Independence."

I offer the prayer that there be no such moments again. That Israel be strong and safe. That we be blessed with the words from God to Jacob, to Yisrael, to all of us, hinei anochi imach -- "behold, I will be with you."

Lu yehi lu yehi -- Let it be, let it be.