July 3rd, 2014

This week we saw something extraordinary. We saw the coming together of Jews of every persuasion, united in grief at the senseless murder of three innocent teenagers.

Even today, we as Jews remain vulnerable to the world’s most enduring hatred – anti-Semitism. Amazingly, our collective reaction to anti-Semitism is always dignified.

This time it was stunning. Tens of thousands of people suspended their lives for a day and travelled to Modi’im in Israel to participate in the funeral. They trudged through the blazing heat, in quiet groups, people who until just 3 weeks ago had never heard the names Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach. Around the world, hundreds of synagogues and community centers hastily arranged memorial events.

What is perhaps more extraordinary is that while we all seem to feel to our core the profound pain of the parents and family of these three teenagers, that pain does not translate itself into a mass call for revenge, or knee-jerk violence against the Arab inhabitants of Israel. Somehow, as a group, we collectively understand that revenge killing is simply wrong.

Compare this attitude to that of the countless Muslims currently traveling to Syria and Iraq, all of them scrambling to participate in the apocalyptic Muslim showdown beginning to take shape there. Without hesitation, ‘westernized’ Jihadists are jumping over themselves to join gangs of murderers on both sides of this death-fest.

As if to prove how different we are from this mindset, when news emerged on Wednesday that an Arab teenager had been murdered in Jerusalem in a possible revenge killing, within hours every Israeli cabinet minister and leading politician had issued a condemnation and offered condolences to the family of the murdered boy.

So foreign is the idea of ‘honor killing’ to Jews, that the thought that this death might have been carried out to avenge the death of the Israeli boys was simply too abhorrent to countenance, both for them, and for all of us. Even the family of Naftali Frenkel, in the midst of their own grief, issued a statement condemning the killing.

It has become almost impossible to speak or write the truth these days. But the facts speak for themselves. I have absolutely no idea if the majority of Muslims are peace lovers and reject violence. Perhaps they are. But it is painfully evident that scores of ideological and political crimes of violence perpetrated in the world are committed by Muslims in the name of their religion.

As former British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote this week: “Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believe in death.”

Jews, on the other hand, believe in life. We cherish life. We relish life. We celebrate life. We cling onto life. And, of course, we deplore death. The core value of the significance of life is intrinsic to every Jew, and even the phenomenal emotional upheaval generated by the latest outrage cannot shake us from who and what we are.

This is no accident. Even though many Jews could not, if asked, explain why they do not respond to violence perpetrated against them in the same way as do the Muslims, it is no accident that we behave as we do. This behavior has been hardwired into our DNA for thousands of years.

When Balaam – the wicked gentile prophet who agreed to curse the Jews for Balak, king of Moab – gazed down at the Jewish encampment in the Sinai Desert, the sight mesmerized him completely, and he found himself praising the Jews instead of cursing them. The words poured out of his mouth (Num. 24:5):

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel!”

The commentators suggest an interesting explanation as to why he burst forth with such effusive praise. Apparently, the tents in which the Jews lived were arranged in such a way that each family could maintain its own privacy.

The exceptional consideration that Jews had for each other, putting themselves through extra hardship in an already difficult situation, was something that shocked Balaam. His culture, and that of his royal boss, was the exact opposite – inconsiderate and selfish.

Such was its selfishness that the only reason Balaam could come up with when he initially refused to curse the Jews was that God wouldn’t let it happen. There was no moral underpinning to his reluctance, only a practical challenge. Given the opportunity, it is clear he would gladly have carried out a holocaust against the Jews, right then, at the very dawn of our history.

Nothing has changed in thirty-three centuries. We remain considerate and empathetic, protecting and saving the lives of humans everywhere, and condemning senseless violence without equivocation. And our enemies remain implacably evil, ready to kill us individually or collectively, given even the smallest chance.

Let us celebrate our humanity, while at the same time let us beware of the dangers we face from the death-loving mobs who hate us.

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