I had the opportunity this morning to participate at the Jewish Federation building in a live video-conference with Israel and listen to the perspective of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He is the founder and Chief Rabbi of Efrat, a community of about 10,000 Jews located some 6 miles south of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Riskin is an articulate, dynamic, brilliant teacher and community organizer who was best known in America as the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, which before he made aliyah to Israel was the hot, happening Orthodox shul in Manhattan. Over the past twenty years he has built Efrat to be another dynamic center of Jewish life. According to Rabbi Riskin he make sure that not one inch of the land upon which Efrat is built was ever claimed or owned by any Palestinian so as not to usurp anyone’s property.
He told us of the good relationships that Efrat has had with the several Palestinian villages in their area, and how the 80 doctors in Efrat regularly take care of the medical needs of the Palestinians since there is no medical insurance for Palestinians under the Palestinian Authority. They cooperate with early childhood training between Efrat and the local villages, have had soccer games on a weekly basis in the past and have regular and very positive on-going contact between Rabbi Riskin and the leadership of Efrat and the leadership of the Palestinian villages. Both the rabbi and mukhtar of the village quoted each other’s religious traditions to each other as teaching that “Better a good neighbor than a distant relative,” and so they have worked at nurturing a positive relationship between them.
Sadly, much of this cooperation has ended as a result of the intifada. He was told by his Palestinian friends that there has been great pressure from the PLO on the villagers to stop any “good neighbor” policy, and it has had a toll on everyone. Seven citizens of Efrat have been murdered on their roads near their homes by Palestinian snipers, and they now wear bulletproof vests and jackets when they can get them, and have been under fire often in the past few months.
Even so, he is still in contact with his Palestinian neighbors, and said wistfully, “Even if under Oslo peace was an illusion, it was a sacred illusion.”
And how appropriate to turn to this week’s Torah portion – a portion filled with discussions about murder, killing, retribution, and death. The Torah calls for the Israelite people to hand over to the “blood-avenger” anyone who has committed murder by intentionally killing another, so that the murderer shall be put to death. We all know too well the concept of “an eye for an eye,” and the Biblical command that one who murders should be killed in return.
And yet, it is in the midst of this very portion that we discover a giant leap of ethics that all but eliminates the possibility of imposing a death sentence on anyone. First our portion establishes the remarkable institution of “cities of refuge.” These are safe places to which anyone who unintentionally kills another can flee and be protected from family or tribal vengeance. These cities (six in total) are for Israelites and resident aliens alike.
Then the Torah tells us, “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may be executed only on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.” In Jewish law, two eyewitnesses to murder are necessary before anyone can be condemned to death. The presumption of the community is not murder, but rather that the person did not intend for the victim to die.
In fact, the idea of exacting revenge by killing another is so disturbing and problematic in its implications to the biblical writer, that the Torah goes so far as to say, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land…”
All of us are pained each day as we watch the unraveling of trust, hope, relationships, cooperation, and peace between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately our prayer is that both sides will remember the words of this week’s Torah portion when it reminds us, “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide…” Perhaps what it will take for the world to be a different place, is for each of us to live as if God not only lives with us in our home and on our street, but in our neighbor’s house, loving our neighbor’s children as well.
There are six cities of refuge in the Torah, corresponding to the six words of the Shema. Judaism teaches us that our ultimate refuge lies not in treaties and promises of flesh and blood, but in the faith that what really matters most in life can be found only in matters of the spirit. God is that power we feel inside, when we long for reconciliation, when we long for connection to others, when we long for love, and when we long for peace.