(In memory of my dear father Yakob de Naftali Lopes Cardozo z.l.
whose Yom haZikaron falls on this coming Shabbath)
“And Moshe’s hands became heavy, so (Aaron and Chur) took a stone and placed it under him and he sat on it.
And (Moshe held) his hands in steady prayer until the setting of the sun.”
Shemoth 17: 12
When Amalek, Israel’s biblical arch-enemy, attacked the Jewish people in the desert, Moshe was no longer physically able to fight together with his beloved people. Therefore he decided to climb the hill in order to be able to oversee the war and give his people religious and psychological support:
“And it was, whenever Moshe raised his hand then Israel would prevail, but whenever he put his hand down Amalek would prevail.” (ibid, 17:11)
The Talmud’s (Ta’anith 11b), concern for Moshe’s well-being asks the question: why Moshe’s right hand men, Aaron and Chur did not give Moshe a cushion to sit on. Although both men helped him to keep his hands up so that he was able to pray with great fervor, it must still have been a difficult task for Moshe to sit on a hard stone. So why not make his situation a little easier by providing him with a cushion?
The Talmud responds with great sensitivity: “This is then what Moshe meant to convey: As Israel is in distress, I will be in distress.”
As it says in an earlier statement: “Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and a Jew separates himself, two ministering angles, who accompany every human, being place their hands on his head and say: ‘So and so who separates himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community.'” Another Braita (2) taught: “When the community is in trouble let a man not say: ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.’ But rather a man should share in the distress of the community…”
It is for this reason that Rabbi Yoseph Karo, in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch, sets down the law that, in time of severe drought, one should fast and, after some time, even lessen one’s business dealings, building for pleasure and sexual intercourse (unless one has not yet fulfilled the obligation of procreation.) (Ohr Ha-Chayim 575:7)
It is clear from the Talmudic text that Moshe’s refusal to sit on a cushion, or the suggestion that the people withdraw from all sorts of pleasure at a time of drought, is not part of an attempt, like in the case of prayer, to ask God for mercy. While no doubt such behavior will be pleasing in the eyes of the Lord of the Universe, the main purpose is altogether different: the prevention of human indifference.
The worst sin towards our fellowmen is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them. It is for this reason that the Talmud makes it clear that Moshe refused to sit comfortably on a cushion while his people were fighting for their lives. No man, he argued, should ever say: “I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me”, while others suffer. “To try may be to die but not to care is never to be born.” William Redfield once said.
However, we human beings are often not aware of our own insensitivity; in fact conscious insensitivity is a contradiction in itself. While many of us, including myself, are most sensitive to matters of small concern close to home, sensitivity to much more serious situations, far removed from our bed, often escapes us.
Yet, this is exactly what the Talmud is concerned about. Only acts which invoke compassion, such as the refusal “to sit on a cushion,” help us to fight indifference. Often we are not able to do much more since we are either physically too far removed from where the actual fight takes place, or because our hands are tied. It is exactly at such moments that we must take action so as not to fall victim to indifference. Merciful thoughts have little effect in times of distress. One must act the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one acts.
The Israeli town of Sderot which, for years has been plagued by missiles fired on its population has lately been bombarded by no less than 50 deadly Kassam rockets a day. This means that its citizens are living under severe war conditions in which there is no day without ongoing attacks. Every few minutes they are forced to run from their homes and classrooms to (often non-existent) places of proper shelter. Its thousands of children live under constant fear, with severe traumatic consequences and some younger ones have not experienced a normal day since the moment they were born. The tragic failure of Israel’s political leadership to properly deal with this, whether by not harshly tackling Hamas or by not providing the Sderot population with sufficient and effective shelters, only increases the overall anxiety of this city’s heroic population.
(The government of Israel’s complete, and by now systematic and nearly pathological, failure to initiate proper hasbara (PR) to explain Israel’s position to well-meaning gentiles is one the greatest absurdities in modern history. Allowing Hamas to dictate the rules of the PR war, permitting them to tell repetitive lies, turning every argument around so as to accuse Israel of “hedonist crimes” against the Palestinians and causing a “humanitarian crisis,” is one of the greatest puzzles of Israeli History: Israel is the only country in the world that supplies electricity to terrorist organizations for humanitarian reasons. In return it is fired on by rockets and deadly missiles!)
In other words: A substantial proportion of our people live under severe war conditions. (There is little doubt that more and more Israeli cities, like Ashkelon, will, in the not too distant future, undergo the same experience, God forbid!)
How is it then that we can sit at home on our comfortable cushions, drink our coffees and go on with our lives?
The danger of indifference lures at every corner and consequently we may be losing our humanity. How can we protect ourselves from such a moral breakdown?
Let us at least be aware of the fact that the situation in Sderot should cause us sleepless nights. But, if we are not able to achieve that exalted goal, we should sit on the “hard stone” which Moshe preferred above a soft cushion and take some initiative, each one of us in his/her own way, to remind us of the tragedy of Sderot. And, in case we are not even capable of achieving that goal, let us pray for the wellbeing of the citizens of Sderot, even those of us who consider ourselves atheists. As such we would be able to keep our human feelings alive and not fall victim to our self imposed apathy. May God heed us from this terrible human condition.
(1) See also Thoughts to Ponder 171.
(2) Braita: Ancient rabbinical source not mentioned in the Mishna.