Power To Make Good Choices

I am sure that many of us have been watching the Olympics. This year’s Olympics has had a historic first: a team of 10 athletes who are displaced persons from South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria and are now together as members of the Refugee Olympic Team.

As a team, the 10 represent no nation, but at the opening ceremony, they walked in under the Olympic flag, while the Olympic anthem was played. The team was created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to raise awareness of the world refugee crisis.

IOC president Thomas Bach said in a statement, “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that, despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Initially, 43 potential candidates were identified by the various National Olympic Committees for inclusion in the team. The final selection process considered sporting ability, personal circumstances and United Nations-verified refugee status. To pay for athlete training, the IOC established a fund of $2 million.

The 10 refugee athletes include:

James Nyang Chiengjiek, who fled South Sudan to avoid being captured by rebels intent on recruiting child soldiers. A runner, he is competing in track-and-road, 400m.
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who fled South Sudan at age 10, competing in track-and-road, 800m.
Paulo Lokoro, another refugee from South Sudan, competing in track-and-road, 1500m.
Anjelina Lohalith has not seen her parents since she was 6 and her village in South Sudan was destroyed. Competing in track-and-road, 1500m.
Yiech Biel lived for 10 years in a refugee camp after fleeing South Sudan. Competing in track-and-road, 800m.
Yonas Kinde fled Ethiopia. Competes in track-and-road, marathon.
Popole Misenga fled Democratic Republic of Congo at age 6 after his mother was murdered. Competing in judo, 90kg.
Yolande Mabika, a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, competing in judo, 70kg.
Rami Anis fled Syria. Competing in swimming 100m butterfly.
Yusra Mardini fled Syria. When the crowded small boat she was on started to capsize, Mardini and her sister swam for more than three hours in the sea, pushing the boat and helping more than a dozen non-swimmers on the boat survive the journey. Competing in swimming, 100m freestyle.

This is not a fairy tale story, and none of the refugee team competitors is likely to medal, but for many, the symbolism of their participation is powerful. They are 10 people, representing 60 million refugees.

There are critics who view the refugee team as an exploitation of the athletes for political gain, but whatever the case, these 10 people have expressed their sense of thrill to be competing at an international level. Several of the refugee team members say they hope their participation in the Olympics will bring hope and inspiration to other refugees.

While many of us may feel bad for these refugees, and the countless wayfarers they represent, it has been a long time since the Jewish people were associated with refugee status.
We would have to go back to pre-State of Israel times, such as during the Holocaust.

Tomorrow night, however, Jews throughout the world will observe the Ninth of AV, a time in which we remember the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and the creation of millions of refugees. This is not including the northern tribes, who were exiled earlier by the Assyrians, or of course the victims of countless expulsions throughout the medieval ages.

On the one hand, it makes sense to commemorate the tragedies. On the other hand, the creation of a Diaspora – a spreading out of the Jewish People – has had many wonderful results that we should not ignore. This is one reason why Reform Jews are pretty ambivalent when it comes to the Ninth of AV.

The early American Reformer Rabbi David Einhorn put it this way:

The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to Thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe…The true and real sanctuary, They imperishable testimony, remained ours, untouched and undimmed… In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting hath, according to the word of Thy prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Thy law and our high messianic mission which had its beginning with the historic events which we recall today” (Olat Tamid, Rabbi David Einhorn, trans. Emil Hirsch, S. Ettlinger: 1896, Chicago, pp. 144-145).

This week, speaking of Einhorn’s vision, Rabbi David Segal of Aspen wrote,

This transformation of a day of ancient mourning into a modern universalistic festival spoke to the classical Reform principle of being a light to the nations by spreading ethical monotheism to the world. The Diaspora, made possible by the Temple’s destruction, enabled our noble mission.

Notably, Einhorn’s liturgical innovation predated both the modern state of Israel and the Reform Movement’s support of Zionism. Einhorn’s solution to the Tisha B’Av question does not work for us today because it lacks balance and because the Jewish world has changed dramatically.

So what might be the modern message of Tisha B’av? Or why do I take this holy day seriously if not traditionally? Personally, I try to find relevant lessons from the tragedy and the commemorations.

I find especially important a classic reason given by the ancient rabbis for the second expulsion from Jerusalem.
The Talmud (BT Gittin 55b-56a) records a fascinating but very relevant debate between the Rabbinic leaders and Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. It occurred in 66 BCE when Judea was under Roman control. Bar Kamza, a Jew, felt slighted by Judea’s Rabbinic and political leadership and was determined to avenge this insult. He thus informed Emperor Nero that the Jews were not loyal subjects and as proof he proposed that Nero send a calf to be sacrificed as a gift offering in the Temple. Bar Kamza delivered the calf but not before he had made a slight cut on its lip that the Jews regarded as a blemish but not the Romans.

The Rabbis immediately understood what had transpired and were faced with a dilemma: whether to refuse the animal thereby spurning the royal gift or to sacrifice it in violation of Jewish practice. They were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government, but Rabbi Zechariah contended that people will now believe that blemished animals can be bought as an offering in the Temple. The Rabbis then considered killing Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Zechariah protested, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”

The Rabbis, immobilized by “Zechariah’s dilemma,” neither sacrificed the calf nor executed Bar Kamza, who then reported the Rabbis’ rejection of the royal gift.

The Emperor’s ire at the perceived slap in the face set into motion a series of events leading to the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple and countless Jewish casualties. The Talmud’s footnote to this story is the lament, “through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Was Rabbi Zechariah correct? Did the Rabbis exhibit a failure of nerve in not following the path of least existence? Was it wise to insist upon upholding the highest moral and ritual standards regardless of the cost?

And what do we learn from this for the dilemmas we face today? Think of Isis, or Hamas.
Do we engage the enemy with force necessary to succeed and to survive? Or should our first concern be avoiding any possibility of collateral damage? Does Isis’ immoral actions give us the freedom to pursue the war in a manner that compromises our own moral standards?

The Talmud bemoans that two millennia ago the Rabbis and the leadership of Judea paid a dear price by allowing themselves to be swayed by Zechariah’s insistence that our moral and ritual principles must be upheld regardless of the consequences.. The Tradition ultimately rejected Zechariah’s argument. The Rabbis certainly believed that life was sacred and that bloodshed violated God’s will – but there are exceptions.

If a rodef (a pursuer) threatens your life, you must do what is necessary to save yourself. Self-defense is not merely a valid response – it is a required moral response.

Similarly a nation threatened by a neighboring rodef has a moral right to take needed action to defend its people. Thus in 1967 when Israel was threatened by the alliance of Egypt and Syria, it took pre-emptive action – that assured the successful culmination of the Six Day War

In contrast in 1973 when there were again clear signs that Egypt and Syria were preparing to attack Israel, the government heeded the warnings from Washington to hold fire until attacked. The failure to preempt hostilities led to great losses in the early days of the Yom Kippur War. There was actually a period when it seemed that Israel would be defeated with all the horrible consequences that would have inevitably followed.
When Jews gather tomorrow evening to observe the Fast we will lament not only past tragedies in our history but also the ongoing tragedy of Israeli deaths in this ongoing war with Terror. While we rightfully believe that given the conditions in which the war must be waged, collateral damage is inevitable, we nonetheless pause to shed tears over the innocent lives that have been lost and the great upheaval that has disrupted the lives of so many. Make no mistake: it is a great luxury to no longer fear being refugees, but such a luxury comes at a price. It costs many lives and it changes your national character.
That’s the price of wanting to be alive. And secure.

As we remember the tragedies of the past and confront the sad realities of the present, may we never lose sight of Isaiah’s great hope that the day will come when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and none shall wage war any more. It’s an age old dream, but woe unto us if we lose faith in human efforts to help make that dream come true.

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