Look to the Torah to guide us out of the wilderness

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We end the Book of Vayikra with a double reading that is made up of the last three chapters of the Third Book of Torah. What is interesting is how relevant it is today.

In a few weeks, we will commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Six-Day War, which ended with a cease-fire signed on June 11, 1967. That victory was nothing short of miraculous as not only did Israel win decisively, but it reunited Jerusalem and reclaimed additional historic territory.

Since that time, Israel has given back much of what it won, with questionable benefit.

Remarkably, our Torah reading lays out our modern history in a most amazing way.

The first of these readings is called “Behar – On the Mountain.” This is about events at Mount Sinai, where our ancestors accepted God’s gift of Torah.

In 1967, the Sinai Peninsula, the place that our Torah reading describes, was captured by Israel. In 1979, the Sinai was given back to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. Any time a lasting peace can be achieved, it is hard to argue that this was anything but a good deal for all parties.

While Israel gave up land, the Torah and mitzvot still belong to us. That said, the mitzvot we have in our Torah include those that tell us how to take care of Eretz Yisra’el.

This week’s Torah reading lists detailed mitzvot that describe how we are to treat each other and the earth. There is the Mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year – the year when slaves should be freed and farms should be left unplowed to give the earth a chance to replenish itself. We also read about our personal responsibility to help the poor. If we lend a person money, we must not charge any interest. We must help all people live with dignity.

Whether born Jewish, a convert, or even a resident alien, Jews are not permitted to let anyone starve. Please take note that the Torah is talking to us as individuals, not the government. It is not talking about a government “rescue package,” it is talking to each person. It is our individual responsibility to save a neighbor.

The second reading, “Bechukotai – In My Statutes,” lists the mitzvot that detail expectations from us and what happens to us if we do not fulfill the mitzvot. We read about further victories, and if we must go to war, “… five of you will chase a hundred enemies, and a hundred of you will chase a thousand. Your enemies will fall before you.” God then says: “I will walk among you, and you will be my people.”

What happens if we do not follow the mitzvot? The response is quite stark. God says: “I will let your cities be ruined, and your holy places destroyed ....” There is a full list of curses, called the Tochacha, that seems to go on and on – these are a preview of what comes later in Devarim. In any case, looking back, it is uncanny how many of these curses have come true in one way or another.

The miraculous end of the Six-Day War was amazing for Israel and world Jewry. While the miracle appeared to be based on Israel’s overwhelming military might, was it really? Israel did not have nearly enough trained soldiers, let alone the right kind of equipment, to have achieved the kind of victory it did. Most people think the victory was due to the spirit created by the Jewish people’s national unity and their drive to survive in their historical homeland.

Secular kibbutzniks and ultra-religious Yeshivah students joined forces to defeat their smug enemies. They fought side by side. They were led by leaders who were untrained in military tactics and strategies. It did not matter. They fought with all they had, unwilling to retreat, unwilling to give an inch.

During the battle for Jerusalem, Gen. Motta Gur radioed headquarters with a historic three-word message: “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu – The Temple Mount is in our hands!”

It was then that a single soldier climbed to the top of the Dome of the Rock and planted an Israeli flag there to let the world know that the holy mountain had been returned to the Jewish people for the first time in 19 centuries. But, out of respect for his Muslim brethren, Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan ordered the flag removed. This action weakened the national unity and spirit that had won the war.

Ever since that time, appeasement groups in Israel, around the world, and even in the United States, have risen to dominance. While supporting Israel was once the norm among world Jewry, it is now the exception. National unity and Torah principles are no longer the foundation of our discussions about Israel. Additionally, the Middle East, as well as every United Nations’ committee, works hard to threaten not just Israel, but the future of Judaism itself.

Next, we begin the book of “Bamidbar – In the Wilderness.” In many ways, that is where we, the Jewish people, find ourselves today.

Is there any way out of this religious and historic wilderness where we allow ourselves to wander?

This week’s Torah reading gives us a clear escape path. The Torah says that it is up to each of us to work together, to stop fighting with each other and to work to become a unified people – or, as the curses say, we will cease to exist as a people.

Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel live!

RICHARD E. PERLMAN is the senior rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid, in Peabody, Massachusetts, a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, and president of the North Shore Rabbis and Cantors Association.