A Shocker of a Portion

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 August 2018

Over the past year Rabbi Josh, Russel Baum, Noeleen Cohen and I have taken fifty-seven groups of Alyth members on a tour of the Alyth Building Project.  We will be doing this many, many more times so that as many members of the Synagogue as possible get the chance to experience for themselves how the project will make this building so effective for our next generation.  

Our favourite part of the tour is when we boldly go where no man or woman had ever been before – out onto the roof of the building.   There you see the vast unused space on our site and the potential for meeting spaces, roof gardens and even something as mundane as a corridor to link the front to the back of the building without walking through activities in progress. 

Something almost always happens when we are out there on the roof.    It’s good because the idea of the building walk arounds is for members of the synagogue to have the opportunity to make suggestions and critique the project as well as to be asked to consider supporting it.

Someone on pretty much every tour will see the vast expanse of flat roof on our building while they are up there and, especially if the sun is shining at the time, ask “can we put solar panels there and reduce the Synagogue heating bills to zero?”  

It’s a great question – and to hear what our architects and engineers have said in answer you need to come on one of our building walk arounds, or if you already have and have forgotten the answer then I’ll happily remind you!   But what is so positive about this question, and the questions about double glazing, insulation, recycling facilities, reducing the use of disposables in Alyth and encouraging shared travel is that all of them are a response to a clear Jewish value that comes out of today’s Torah portion Shoftim.

In between all of the war making, besieging and dead bodies lying in fields of today’s shocker of a Torah portion was the instruction not to cut down fruit trees, lo taschit (Deuteronomy 20:19).  You are not to cut down fruit trees in a time of war, even if you think you need their wood to make battering rams and catapults.  

From these words the Rabbis developed the doctrine of bal taschit, the Jewish duty not to destroy the world and thus the duty to preserve the natural environment.  So powerful is this doctrine in our days that it is one of those wonderful issues that unites Jews of all denominations.  We are all living in the same world so we all need to preserve it together.  The Eco Synagogue movement in the UK of which Alyth is one of the founding Synagogues includes Liberal, Reform, Masorti and Orthodox Synagogues all working together for the good of our environment.  One of our first public achievements will be our joint green Kiddush in October.   It works because we are really concerned for the future of the Earth – so people ask as they should – can’t Alyth be heated by solar power?   Surely that is one of the ways we can build our home for the future generations.

I said that this is a shocker of a portion.   For all the loveliness of the doctrine of Bal Taschit and the Jewish imperative to preserve the environment the rest of it was all about besieging, killing, destroying.   

Our Rabbis essentially got rid of it.  They said the wars that are being referred to here against the Hittites and Perizites et al are a thing of the past – Milhemet Mitzvah – (eg Talmud Sotah 44b).   That is an odd term which suggests that these brutal campaigns were both required by God, a mitzvah, in order for the original tribes to establish themselves in the Promised Land and sweep the idolatry out, and thus most definitely, when we do not live in Canaanite times, no longer required nor in any way authorized by God.    So, goes the Rabbinic reasoning, you should no longer see armies of Israelite warriors killing every man of every town that does not offer to make peace with them and become subservient to them, or killing absolutely everyone in a idolatrous town of certain named peoples.    Thank God, or should we say thank the Rabbis of the times of the Mishnah.

You could say that the Jewish move on from these texts, acknowledging them as part of our history by reading them every year as we read this portion Shofetim, but being clear that what they ask us to do absolutely does not apply any more, shows how far Judaism has progressed.   

We aim for peace.  We idealise the minimization of damage to civilians at a time of war.  But these texts serve as a reminder of how brutal any group can be.    When earlier this summer I was in Srebrenica, the site in Bosnia of a genocidal massacre of 8000 Muslims, I stood in prayer with Rabbis and Imams in the cemetery close to the site of the 1995 massacre.   What happened there was pretty much exactly what is in the text we read today. 

The Serbian army just 23 years ago, besieged the town, in a valley, for two years.    They overran it despite the protection that was meant to be given by the local United Nations Protection Force Battalion of Dutch soldiers.    They rounded up the Muslim population – sent the women and children away by bus – and set to work killing every man and boy down to age 13.  They pretty much achieved it – just like it says in Deuteronomy Chapter 20.  

The cemetery in Srebrenica is full of nearly 8000 matzevot, headstones in the Muslim style, nearly 8000 because not all of the remains have even now been found.  The date on every one of these matzevot is a day in the second week of July 1995.

That is the kind of brutal massacre that our Torah portion is recording.

Who knows what is happening today in Yemen, is it the same?  Or in the Congo?  Or in Northern Nigeria?  Or to Rohingyas in Myanmar?   We read this gruesome passage every year to remind ourselves that whilst we may think that we have come a long way from the Milhemet Mitzvah, the commanded wars of the Torah, humanity seen as a whole has hardly even taken the first step on the journey.

When we ask can there be solar panels on the roof of Alyth Synagogue we do so because we are connected with the whole world.   It’s so clear that we must be – little point in an environmentalist initiative just for one part of Judaism, or for Jews without other religions, or for religious people without the secular world, for London without the UK or the UK without Europe or Europe without the planet.  Of course, we are all linked by the mitzvah of bal taschit – do not destroy God’s world.

But also we are all linked by the mitzvah to make and find peace.  We are linked by the mitzvah to remember the victims of war.  We are linked by the requirement to be aware of the violence that rages on our planet and to protest against it, support those who are fleeing from it and encourage our government to be among those that bring peace. 

And each year we must remind ourselves by reading these tough portions of Torah that the true battle, the battle against divisive tribalism, the battle against greed and hatred, the battle against cruelty is nowhere near won.   May we be partners to lift up God’s head towards us so that we may live in peace.