Sermon: Shabbat Shoftim (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

During the period between Tish’a b’Av and Rosh ha-Shanah, we read a series of haftarot from the Book of Isaiah, generally labelled as the haftarot of consolation.  While traditionally regarded as the work of a single prophet, the contents and the writing style have led biblical scholars to believe that there was a second author of the book and indeed, possibly a third.  The main reason for this theory is that the Book can be divided into a pre-exilic period, during the exile, and after the return from Babylon.  Thus Isaiah was probably responsible for the first thirty-nine chapters of the Book bearing his name, while chapters forty to fifty-five were written by an unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile given the name Deutero-Isaiah, and the final eleven chapters are attributed to another unknown prophet writing after the exile and called by the scholars Trito-Isaiah, although it is, of course, possible that the second Isaiah returned with the exiles and then continued his teachings.  I’ve never been able to decide whether the original Isaiah would have been pleased or not by the additions made to his Book, certainly the writing styles, although different, are equally evocative and graphic, having a rhythmic flow and a powerful metaphorical imagery.  You can only guess at how his spoken word – because that is what they originally were – gripped the imagination of his listeners and held them spell-bound, attentive to his every utterance.


As you would expect, because the theme of the set of haftarot during this period of the year is consolation, all of them come from the latter half of the Book, this week’s reading from chapters 51 and 52 being no exception.  It is clearly a prophecy of restoration, a return to the Land; but linked to the special relationship of the people to God.  Just as the Torah talks in our sidrah, Shoftim, of the laws by which the ancient Israelites demonstrate their attachment to God and so justify their inheritance of the Land promised to Abraham, so the return from Babylon is dependent on a return to God and Torah.


History, of course, tells us that the people were indeed enabled to return, although whether as a result of Isaiah’s teachings or Cyrus’ political agenda is not clear.  But it only lasted some six hundred years before the people were once again dispersed, this time by Rome.  And nearly another nineteen hundred years had to elapse before Israel reverted to being a homeland for the Jewish people in reality as well as in hopes, songs and dreams.  However, the trials and tribulations facing the modern State of Israel have been no less than those of its predecessors.  Fighting war after war to ensure its very survival; having to defend itself against a built-in majority at the the United Nations, where more resolutions have been passed against the tiny State than all others put together; being classified as a pariah among the nations of the world, in direct contrast to its establishment; almost always on the wrong end of international media reporting.


At this time, as we consider the past few weeks of fighting on Israel’s border with Gaza, my question is not that which many commentators are asking, ‘Was Israel victorious?’  Quite honestly that’s irrelevant.   Looking backwards at whether the political and/or the military leaders had the right strategies and used the right tactics; if the intelligence services should have provided better information on Hamas’ military capability; how the international media battle could have been improved;  whether Israel’s reputation for trying to keep enemy civilian losses to a minimum has been tarnished or enhanced; if the iron dome technology has done its job; whether maintaining ceasefires for a little longer might have strategically beneficial; all that is absolutely necessary – but for the future.  For now, my question is ‘How does Israel make the current situation work?’  So let’s have a look at the current situation.


An open-ended ceasefire exists between the IDF, which is still on the borders of Gaza, and Hamas, which has not been disarmed – and that was initially a requirement of both Israel and Egypt.  For the most part, the Palestinian people, despite all evidence to the contrary, still blame Israel for starting the war that has had such disastrous consequences for them and the region. The opening of the Rafah crossing is to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority, even though in previous contacts between Hamas and the PA, mainly members of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah group, the latter have been unable to deal effectively with the former, but, supervision will be maintained for the items passing through the crossing point with Israel.  The perception of Israel’s much vaunted military superiority in the region has inevitably been damaged by the non-obliteration of Hamas forces.  Although the international community recognised that Israel was provoked by Hamas rockets fired continually and indiscriminately into its territory, there is a general view of a disproportionate response, even among members of Governments that have been wholly supportive, and especially by the media.  And most of the major disputed items, such as demilitarisation, a seaport and airport for the Gaza strip, complete freedom of movement of people and goods, has been put off for a month.  In addition, there is a total division within Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet over his decision to accept the terms, with some Ministers wanting the IDF to return to Gaza and – as they put it – finish the job.


As I’ve said before, I’m not a military strategist nor a political advisor, but I really cannot see what either Hamas or Israel has gained by a 50 day conflict that has claimed more than 2000 lives and untold misery and upset to all the inhabitants of the region and has not changed anything on the ground.  This deal seems very little different to that agreed just under two years ago.  Nevertheless, I  believe that Israel – and particularly the Prime Minister – has to keep its nerve.  Despite increasing opposition to his policies, Mr Netanyahu has to ensure that the next stage of the agreement does not create an impossible situation.  Israel must retain its right to respond militarily to further Hamas – or Islamic Jihad – attacks, even if that puts at risk the whole ceasefire agreement.  Israel must insist on a plan and timetable for disarming Hamas and similar groups and to be part of the monitoring procedure that is put in place.  However, in parallel with this, Israel must institute talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority and the only viable Palestinian partner, to bring the Israel/Palestine two State solution to fruition.  Israel must address its domestic political agenda in terms of ensuring justice and equality for Israeli Arabs and other minorities.  Israel must demonstrate a willingness to listen to and act upon the concerns of its own citizens, friendly countries and the Jewish diaspora, which felt the brunt of the anti-Israel backlash.  Only then can Israel really be regarded as a people worthy to be returned from exile; to be the people with the special relationship with God; to know the consolation promised by Isaiah.  May that come speedily in our time. Amen.