Heavy Are The Gates
Bear them together
The quiet of the spring morning dazzled him and he did not see those waiting in ambush for him, at the edge of the furrow. Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate. It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Ro’i's blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation?
Written on October 8th, 2023? Seems like it could’ve been. But actually, it was delivered on April 30th, 1956 in the form of a eulogy for Ro’i Rothberg at Kibbutz Nachal Oz, a Kibbutz now known to many for being one of the sites of the the Black Sabbath terrorist attack on October 7th. The eulogizer was none other than Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s famed yet complex military leaders.
His words are searing. As I heard it shared by journalist Matti Friedman at an event this past Sunday, I was floored by its relevance. The piece is better read in Hebrew where one can hear the literary allusions to the stories of Samson and the Philistines and the Binding of Isaac from Tanakh.
As Friedman finished up, I was struck by the conversations that took place afterward and pieces written online to it. The eulogy has a fantastical mirror-like ability to allow people to see what it was they want to see. The image is clear but the power in the words allows the viewer to take what they want. When you read it in full, you understand why.
There’s enough in there to read that Dayan wanted the Jewish people to take responsibility for their actions that led to this bloodshed. It was never a one-sided equation for him. Also, he understood that to blindly call for peace with an enemy whose dogged pursuit of you will only be satisfied with your death is a fool’s errand:
We mustn’t flinch from the hatred that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who live around us and are waiting for the moment when their hands may claim our blood. We mustn’t avert our eyes, lest our hands be weakened. That is the decree of our generation. That is the choice of our lives — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fists, and our lives severed.
Not only is it good writing but it’s a nuanced worldview that allows us to sit in cognitive dissonance. That’s a feeling I continue to feel daily as I read updates from Israel/Gaza. My emotional responses to the events vacillate wildly. There are days in which I feel zealous about speaking out about Israel’s role was/is in inciting such heinous acts of violence. There are other days in which I feel my very bones pushing me to fight with reckless abandon for Jewish people, Jewish statehood, and Jewish freedom come hell or high water.
It’s all enough to make a person feel like they can’t hold multiple truths, which is, of course, not true. A friend of mine wrote something this week about a problem he saw in the “left” in the discourse on what’s happening in Israel:
Once I affirm a lie or distortion publicly and repeatedly, it is next to impossible to walk it back or admit error
His critique was about the use of the concept of genocide. He was arguing for this as a unique tactic of the left whereas when I read it, I saw it as a unique tactic of extremists of all stripes. It’s not to say it’s not worth calling out, but I do think it’s a oft-used tactic these days, across party lines.
Part of the reason I think it’s become endemic in our political conversations is that we’ve lost the ability, especially in the Jewish world of still seeing our Jewish siblings as part of this wild and messy collective we call b’nei yisrael, the children of Israel. When we other people, we have no need to ever say I am wrong.
That’s not to say there haven’t been incendiary comments made and alliances created that make us all uncomfortable but when the love is gone, things can get ugly quickly. At the end of the portion this week, after the high of the revelation of the Torah, God asks the people to build an altar upon which to show their belief in the One God and offer sacrifices to It:
וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃וְלֹֽא־תַעֲלֶ֥ה בְמַעֲלֹ֖ת עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־תִגָּלֶ֥ה עֶרְוָתְךָ֖ עָלָֽיו׃
And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.
It a set of verses that strikes us as sort of incongruous after the heady moments of revelation. By now you know, when incongruity pops up in a text, the Chasidic masters offer a different path forward. In steps the Mei Hashiloach1:
“You shall not ascend by steps on My altar, in order not to uncover your nakedness on it.” (Shemot, 20:23)
All the hearts of Israel are called “My altar,” and this is “do not ascend,” do not pride yourself above anyone of the people Israel. This is as it says, “in order not to uncover your nakedness,” in order not to lead you to shame, for if you pride yourself over anyone else, in the end you will descend and he will take your place.
Mei HaShiloach, Volume I, Exodus, Yitro 11
We have lost so much over the past few months. In addition to all the lives lost, I think we have lost each other. Some of that may be natural and expected. But there’s a part of me that worries that something is rotting at our core.
The Mei Hashiloach allegorizes this proscription here. The altar becomes a stand in for all of us. Ascending it by steps becomes walking around thinking you’re elevated over anyone else. The nakedness becomes the arrogance of a person who holds themselves over anyone else.
It’s not a coincidence in my mind that this interpretation follows the emotionally draining and heavy moment of revelation. In retrospect we imagine it as one the peak spiritual moments in the Torah. But in the Torah itself, it’s an unnerving event.
The people feel distant from God. They fear for their lives. This couplet is the response to that moment. God tells them, even in your sense of loss, distance, and despair, don’t forget that we’re all in this together.
We’re all still one altar. In 1956 we were. In 2024 we still are. In that eulogy, Dayan described Ro’i being blinded by ברק המאכלת, the flash of the blade. In the Hebrew, that word for blade is not the usual word we’d expect but the very same word that describes the blade Abraham used to almost sacrifice Isaac. The Rabbis often talk about how the residue from that violent moment was embedded in the heart of Isaac for the rest of his life. He survived but never fully. I worry we’re still blinded and may suffer the same fate.
Certainly the enemies desiring our end are very real and very present. And yet, we know there is an internal enemy that lurks. When we look in that mirror we put aside one another and grasp onto that which serves us.
It’s that naked arrogance that tells us that our fellow Jew with whom we are looking is an “other.” In moments like that, as we continue to follow and process through the fallout from October 7th, it’s important to pause and remember Dayan’s words. He does not call for vengeance in his eulogy. He asks us to have clarity of who we are fighting. Implicit within that is an urging to remember who we are with to fight those battles.
The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him”
The gates are still heavy. We need one another to bear their weight.
Reb Mordechai Yosef Leiner