By Rabbi Josh Weinberg Friday June 18, 2021 – ח’ בתמוז תשפ”א
וַיָּ֨רֶם מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם
“And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.”
In one of the more dramatic weeks in Israeli politics, a new government was voted on and sworn in, and the new ministers assumed their appointments and began work in their offices. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett faced one of his first tests with the ‘Flag March’ in Jerusalem.
While the route of the march usually passes through the Damascus Gate, police ordered that it be changed so that marchers entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate instead, passing and pausing outside of the Damascus Gate on their way there.
“I am under the impression that the police are well prepared and that a great effort has been made to maintain the delicate fabric of life, and public safety,” New Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said on Monday.
The Flag March has become an annual parade where mostly right-wing Jewish groups walk through the Old City of Jerusalem carrying Israeli flags and dancing in celebration of Israel gaining control of the Western Wall during the 1967 Six-Day War.
MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party and a member of the new coalition, called the march a “reckless provocation” and accused the march of being about hate speech and the shouting of provocative slogans.
It is a display of ultra-Nationalism and a show of force that is designed to celebrate the unification of Jerusalem and display power and strength. Why do certain Jewish groups feel the need aggressively to exert power? Israel is already the sovereign in Jerusalem and we have power, so why do some of us need provocatively to lord our power over others?
It is, in fact, the weaker person and group that succumb to dazzling displays of power. Like Moses hitting the rock, one’s show of strength and might are so often a cover for insecurity and self-doubt. Moses felt that he needed to be heroic. He needed the people to think that he, their leader, could provide for them, and that they could trust him. God instructing Moses with a speech impediment to speak exacerbated his shortcomings. He let his need to appear authoritative get the best of him. Thirty-nine years earlier, God instructed Moses to strike the rock, but now God told him not to. What was different this time?
The two commands two retrieve water from a rock, reflect the period before and after receiving Torah at Sinai. After Sinai, Moses and the people were bound by a covenant in which words replaced violent actions and that reverting to violence represented a violation of the covenant and a dismissal of the significance of the giving of Torah.
Here we witness a process towards greater maturity. How many times have we as parents told our children to “use your words” instead of acting out or resorting to hitting? Maybe God’s instruction was a way to model impulse control and to gain composure. A way to avoid aggression or resort to violence.
In Avot (4:1) we learn:
“Who is mighty? One who conquers their impulse to evil, as it is written, “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over their spirit than one who conquers a city” (Proverbs 16:32)
We learn that might, strength, and power come not from brawn and excessive displays of force, but from one’s ability to conquer their [evil] inclinations.
Would Moses or Itamar Ben Gvir pass the test of Pirkei Avot?
I’m not sure. Certainly not Moses, and Ben Gvir, well, he seems threatened all the time as his violent and rash nature suggests. It appears that a constant state of provocation somehow elevates his status as superior over other people.
Just as Moses was punished for striking the rock, others in our tradition have been rebuked for their violence as well. Take King David as an example. Only later in our evolutionary tradition did the rabbis laud him as the great Psalmist and lyricist, but his biography depicts him as a warrior and mercenary.
Tradition attributes God’s decision not to grant David the privilege of building the Temple in Jerusalem because: “You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You shall not build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.” (Chronicles I 22:8)
David’s background as a shedder of blood in times of war was God’s reason for choosing David’s son instead (see also I Chronicles 28:3). God wanted a man of peace to construct the Temple, not a man of war. God’s house was to be “a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)
L’havdil, it was the same message that Oskar Schindler tried to impart to Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. “Power is when we have every justification to kill… and we don’t.”
Israeli extremist Knesset Member Itamar Ben Gvir insists on displaying Jewish Power (also the name of his political party).
“The Flag March will take place in spite of Hamas and Islamic Jihad opposition. I will participate in the Flag March and will fly the Israeli flag with pride. We don’t need permission from Hamas, Islamic Jihad … to march in Israel’s capital.”
For those who question our sovereignty, we have the luxury of simply ignoring them. This march was simply a display of fear and over-reaction to a perceived threat. If we are afraid that the world is somehow questioning our sovereignty over Jerusalem, here’s the thing – they’re not.
They’re just questioning our behavior.
As the prophet Zecharia (4:6) said:
לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.”
Perhaps when the new government is more firmly in place, it will find the strength to restrain Ben Gvir and his lot and will cancel such marches of ultra-nationalist provocation under the guise of patriotism. Perhaps the new government will model the lessons taught in Pirke Avot. That would, indeed, serve to maintain the delicate fabric of life in the city of Jerusalem, and public safety as well.