Lessons from Eilat, Egypt and Exodus

Screen capture: torahmusings.com

By Michael Lawrence

The Times of Israel led with a headline this week about the ongoing investigation into the Eilat rape case. “Police say they have cracked Eilat gang rape case, found 17 suspects.”

Wherever we live in the world, we often find ourselves deeply comforted and proud of our police force when an horrific case is “cracked” and solved (though I don’t think “solved” yet best describes where we are in this case).

We take a deep breath and we are calmed when “perpetrators” (a cruel euphemism of course) are confronted, arrested and then brought to justice.

Friends, we should not be comforted. That calm should be just the calm before our collective storm. Our collective positive action.

How do we ensure that this “story,” this horrible nightmare, does not slip out and away from the headlines? Let’s not kid – in Israel, new and significant headlines are made every moment of every day. Across the dozen years I lectured on Middle East Diplomacy and The Israel-Arab Conflict, I used to quip that in Israel it was not worth buying the morning newspaper. We would already be waking up to a different country and different region than publishers found themselves witnessing at print time the night before.

It is still true today and we follow every breaking news online.

Peace with the United Arab Emirates. Corona. Economy. Unemployment. Public protests. Netanyahu’s legal issues. US Elections 2020. Israeli parliamentary instability. Gaza terror rockets and balloons.

And then the brutal murder of loving husband and father of four Rabbi Shay Ohayon in Petach Tikva on Wednesday this week. That photo of his devastated wife lying broken and weeping on his fresh grave.

So how, surrounded by a myriad of other important events and headlines, (certainly the terrorist murder another cruel reminder of the heartless terror we still face), do we take these headlines from Eilat but mold them into permanent lessons so that we can help ourselves work toward a safer, better society – in Israel and globally?

Comes this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a short piece he recorded almost a decade ago, to give us perhaps some of our marching orders in the face of unfathomable suffering and inexplicable evil.

In the very last sentences of the Parasha, the people of Israel are given instructions as to how to deal with the nation of Amalek, that nation that attacked Israel as it left Israel during the legendary exodus. The descendants of Amalek, it is argued, continued to strike the Jewish people throughout history. Most notably, we read this exact same passage (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) again on the Shabbat morning before Purim each year, to remind us of the evil Haman who tried to wipe out the Jews in then Shushan and beyond, as described in the Megillah of Esther.

Rabbi Sacks asks a quite fascinating question. As regards this nation of Amalek, we are to “Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt… You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget.”

These are positive commandments of the Torah. Maimonides (Rambam) emphasizes that Amalek’s treachery must be remembered orally, that it is forbidden to forget their hatred and enmity.

Asks the Chief Rabbi, what of the Egyptians then? In this very same Torah portion this Shabbat, the Egyptians who enslaved us, threw first-borns into the river and so on, appear to get a reprieve. “You shall not reject an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8)

Why are we commanded to blot out one nation that attacked us just once in those times, while Pharaoh (the King of Egypt) and the Egyptians in essence were party to attempted genocide?

Quoting from Ethics of the Fathers, he expounds that when love is unconditional and irrational it never ceases. When it relies on certain conditions and is a rational love, it dissipates when those conditions no longer exist.

So it is with hate explains Rabbi Sacks.

When hate is rational, it is based on fear or some disapproval, justified or not, when it has a logic to it, it can be reasoned with, and perhaps brought to an end.

But irrational hate can not be reasoned with nor are we able to bring it to an end. It keeps persisting.

Highlights Rabbi Sacks, the Egyptian hate for the Children of Israel was based on some logic perhaps – the Torah says fear for the Israelite population growth, that they might join Egypt’s enemies and fight us and expel us from their land. Egypt had had in fact at least one similar, earlier experience.

Egypt’s treatment of the Israelites was not justified nor right in any way, but perhaps logical in their minds and grounded in negative past experiences.

On the other hand, the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites when they posed no danger. They attacked the stranglers, the weakest, the oldest, the youngest, at the back of the large populace fleeing Egypt. This was irrational hatred, without logic nor foundation.

“Irrational hate is as durable and persistent as irrational love,” highlights Rabbi Sacks and goes on to condemn rational (or rationalized) xenophobia, anti-Semitism and the rejection of those different from us. His review of the history of these scourges on our societies globally are terrifying reminders.

Disappointingly, we still have much work to do in this, the inaugural year of the “enlightened” third decade of the 21st century.

Which brings us back to lessons that come screaming at us from that hotel in Eilat where we understand men and boys lined up to attack, rape and abuse an intoxicated teenage girl. This kind of behavior, these kinds of merciless, hard-hearted actions can have no rationale applied to them. This crime had no conditions attached, no exit clause and no boundaries. Nothing at all, no one at all to protect this young woman, her body and soul.

In the same way that the Torah and Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks have tackled the unforgivable, brutal, irrational attacks of Amalek on our people, then and throughout the ages, thus we should assess those who, like in Eilat, like those others around the world, have taken advantage of the weakest, the most vulnerable of our people, or any people. There must be no attempt to rationalize or create any logic nor justification.

As per Rabbi Sacks, “irrational hate does not die, Amalek does not die, we must remember, not forget, confront it, defend ourselves against it.”

As we do when confronting hate every single day, we must confront this stain on our societies.

The rape in Eilat has shocked us. It should have shocked us. It has given us moments to contemplate, moments to consider how our societies have failed our children and the weakest among us. It is telling that too many of us and our leaders needed reminding.

We must not give space to those who would ambush our youngest, the weakest, the most innocent when they are most vulnerable. It is our obligation as a people and as humanity to bring all those to justice through proper legal channels and ensure better education within our families and neighborhoods. We should push relentlessly for greater legislative and legal measures to protect and to punish and in parallel promote greater support for organizations that raise awareness and seek to protect and promote the rights of those who are most at risk in our communities.

Like we remind ourselves often of the ruthless nature of Amalek in our history, let us ensure we not rely on fading headlines but remain steadfast in our determination to confront these ever-present dangers.

Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.

He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.