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Parashat Behar 5776, Lag Baomer and the dangers of extremism

This week we celebrated Lag Baomer, in our Shul with with a wonderful community BBQ. The thing is we don’t really know about the origins of this holiday, but we do know that by the time of the Talmud it became related with Rabbi Akivah and his support of Bar Kochva’s rebellion against Rome in 165 CE, rebellion with terrible consequences that we feel until this day. This week we also saw in Israel the official expansion of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition to include the right wing party Israel Beytenu and the appointment of its leader Avigdor Liberman as Minister of Defence. Israel’s government today is the most right wing government ever in history and there are worries in many sectors that this might harm Israel’s democracy, security, values and its relationship with the international communities. In our Parashah there is a lot about the Land of Israel and the commandments related to it. It is a reminder of the loving relationship between the People of Israel and its ancestral land. Four times the People of Israel lost this Land, and almost in every case it was a handful of fanatics that lit the flames intentionally and purposely. Sometimes, this handful of extremists succeeded in inciting the Royal House, always against the counsel of the Prophets. Sometimes this handful simply kidnapped the public opinion from the majority and lit fires that finished in terrible and cruel destruction. The first time was when the King of Judah and his fanatic counsel ignored the warnings of the Prophet Jeremiah and opened war against Babylon at the beginning of the sixth century BCE. The king and his ministers didn’t want to hear the words of warning, so they send Jeremiah the Prophet to jail and they tortured him. They didn’t only silence him, but the voice of reason he wanted to bring. And the story finished with the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the royal family and their counselors to Babylon. About this we still mourn today, both on the Fast of Tevet and Tisha B’Av, every year. The Babylonians created a Jewish Autonomy in Judah and appointed Gedaliah Ben Ahikam, a Jew, as the governor. But this was not acceptable for the small group of extremists that remained in Jerusalem and wanted everything. On the 3rd of Tishrei agents of this group murdered the Jewish governor and destroyed the Jewish Autonomy, causing all remaining Jews to go to exile as well. Because of this we mourn every year on the 3rd of Tishrei, the Fast of Gedaliah. It happened a third time when the group of the Sicarii, known in Jewish sources as the “bullies”, took control of the Jewish leadership during the Great rebellion against Rome in 67 CE and they used terror and fear against the moderate majority of the Jews. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, the leader of the moderates, understood that this madness would destroy Jerusalem. He wanted to leave the dying city and start the Jewish life almost from the beginning. The only way to escape the bullies was to fake his own death and stage a funeral, being taken out of the city in a coffin. When he faced the Roman commander didn’t ask for mercy for Jerusalem as he knew it was lost. He was right. Extremism and Jewish terror caused at the end the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. On their way from the ruins of Jerusalem to Massada, their last stand, the Sicarii murdered everyone that didn’t join their purpose. At the end they would murder their own women and children. Because of this tragedy we mourn on the Fast of Tammuz and Tishah Beav. On the fourth time, it was the rabbis that lost the direction. Sixty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish life in Israel was renewed. Even under the rule of Rome, a new Jewish culture appeared and Houses of Study were everywhere, it was a golden age. But as usual, there were some that wanted everything! Rabbi Akivah and his group were convinced by false promises of redemption from the extremist groups that again lit the spirits in the land, and they trusted the war leader Bar Kochvah to bring redemption. This would end with the Bar Kochvah rebellion and three years later with the biggest, most terrible destruction that Israel knew until then. Most Jews went into exile, Judah was turned into Palestine, Jerusalem destroyed to the ground. Also because of this tragedy we mourn in Tishah Beav. The exception to all these stories was the rebellion of the Maccabees in 167 BCE. But it doesn’t make an exception only because that rebellion was successful, but also because that they fought against the religious oppression of the Greek. It was not motivated by nationalistic aspirations, but of a desire for religious freedom. History tells us in no ambiguous way that every time that in the Land of Israel moderation, religious pluralism and respect for the stranger were reigning values, it was a time of renewal and prosperity. Without an exception! Every time that an extremist handful ruled over public opinion, either by politics or terror and violence, the story ended in destruction. Without an exception! Today we sometimes stand in front of acts of evil in Israel perpetrated by Jews and we click our tongues and say dismissively: Nu, really. It is just a small handful of extremists, it doesn’t reflect the majority… A few weeks ago we celebrated 68 years of Israel’s independence. Our enemies won’t manage to destroy us! The fanaticism, violence and hate of the other have a much better chance of doing so. It is only needed one extremist that does right and he might burn everything we have built. When we return the Torah to the ark on Shabbat we say: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. Turn us back, Oh Lord, to You, and we will return. Renew our days as of old”. This blessing invites us to return to ourselves. To return to ourselves it looks is to return to moderation, to the middle road, to the ways of pleasantness, to the ways of peace. May we find our way.

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