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Innocent Lives

Will the Judge of all the Earth act unjustly? So Abraham challenges God. God sees the horrific behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah and decides to act. What is it that God has seen? According to the Talmud, God saw a wanton disregard for ethics and human life. The inhabitants of these cities twist and pervert justice so that workers are injured as part of their jobs, visitors are abused and even mutilated. Finally, God hears the call of one woman being mistreated and realizes that such cities can no longer be allowed to exist. The damage is too great and the potential for corruption too vast.

When Abraham hears of the plan to destroy these cities, his immediate reaction is horror. How can God, whom Abraham loves and serves, choose to destroy? Further, Abraham cannot imagine that all the inhabitants of these cities are part of the perversity. Surely there are innocents who must be protected from divine destruction. Even more, surely there must be a righteous community for whose sake the cities themselves must be preserved.

God finally agrees: even ten innocents will keep the cities safe. Ten out of how many? Thousands? In the ancient world cities were much much smaller than today. Yet from all five cities there must have been a few thousand inhabitants whose wickedness must be tolerated for a mere ten innocents. The angels Gabriel and Michael enter the city and realize that there are no innocents, save only Lot and his family. As a result, the angels overturn the cities but do preserve the lives of the innocents. Even when destruction must be unleashed, the innocent are still protected when possible.

Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. The people of Gaza once voted for terrorists and murderers. Granted, those same terrorists and murderers made a lot of promises about economic growth and investing in the people of Gaza that they broke. They never allowed another election, and they aren’t much for opinion polling. So how popular is Hamas? A matter of speculation that reveals more about the biases of the speculator than anything about Gaza.

Further, we know that those who fight for Hamas propagate violence and perversity. They stockpile fuel to launch missiles even as hospitals cannot keep their surgical theaters lit. They keep food and water in tunnels when the people of Gaza starve. I count them among the wicked. We also know that many people without a formal connection to Hamas support and cheer them. Further, there are others who are forced by this murderous regime to support them, to have their weapons in hospitals and residential neighborhoods. We know some people are forced at gunpoint. We know anyone who talks of peace or working with the Israelis gets murdered.

So are there innocents among the wicked? And if so, how many? The IDF struggles to minimize civilian casualties in an environment where civilians and terrorists appear identical. God presumably can tell the difference. We cannot.

In such an environment, what are the rules of war? How do we, as lovers of Israel, preserve the (perhaps naïve) voice of Abraham to protect the innocent even if it means that the wicked will survive? I believe that being Jewish means sometimes standing on unstable ground. We realize the world is filled with irreconcilable ethical conflict. Being Jewish demands that we insist on the destruction of the wicked even as we call for the preservation of the innocent. Being Jewish means we find the empathy to worry about innocents Palestinians even as we call for an IDF ground invasion of Gaza.

In this moment, I stand with Israel and with Abraham.  I want us to do what needs to be done and no more. I want us to keep Israeli children and families safe even as we remind them that we are children of Abraham. We act with restraint. We believe even against the available evidence that there are innocents worthy of protection. We ask the leaders of the Jewish nation to act thoughtfully and with focus. Because that is what it means to be Jewish.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Booth

Sat, December 9 2023 26 Kislev 5784