Snakes and Angels: Shavuot Learning on Sderot and Gaza

by Brian on May 24, 2007

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Living Through Terror

It’s traditional to learn Torah on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot which began this past Tuesday night. Nine-year-old Aviv’s class had a pre-Shavuot student-parent study session at school earlier in the week and my wife Jody and I went. But by the time we walked out, I found myself drawing political rather than religious conclusions.

We assembled in the school library to review several texts from the Midrash that concerned the custom of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to tradition, Jews in Biblical times were commanded to ascend to Jerusalem three times a year – for the holidays of Sukkot in the fall, and Pesach and Shavuot in the spring. But wouldn’t all the Jews going on holiday at the same time cause their homes to be left empty and unguarded, open to burglary and pilferage, the ever practical Midrash wondered?

The Midrsah describes several potentially unfortunate cases. In one, the homeowner forgets to lock the door before leaving. In another, nasty non-Jewish neighbors can barely bide the time until the Jewish family’s departure in order to proceed with plans to rob the home.

In both cases, a miracle occurs and the homes are spared. In the first, a snake magically wraps itself around the doorknob preventing entry by those who don’t belong. In the second, God sends angels to Ashkelon who take on the guise of family members to give the home the appearance of being occupied while its owners are actually away.

The stories are simple, charming and on the surface unassuming, seeming to do nothing more than support the Midrash’s main theme: that those who are going out to do a mitzvah cannot be harmed.

Except that they don’t ring entirely true. That is to say if you leave your house unlocked for an extended period, you most likely are going to get robbed. And if you’ve got overtly thieving neighbors, leaving town without any precautions in place and hanging a sign up essentially saying “here are the keys, come on in,” might not be the smartest thing to do. Why is the Midrash, I wondered, teaching what seem to be outright falsehoods?

Don’t be such a grump, you might say. These are kid-friendly stories designed to teach a lesson with a nice pat moral even if the plot isn’t particularly plausible. If so, then why is it that when it comes to contemporary politics, our leaders seem to be struck by the same kind of magical thinking – and this time there are no miracle snakes or angels coming to protect us.

This was the week that rockets returned to Sderot and the western Negev communities that border the Gaza Strip (not far from where we went biking back in February). True, the Kassam attacks have been going on pretty much non-stop since last summer’s escalation which ran in parallel with the Second Lebanon War, but the level of the violence in the past week (140 rockets, one dead, many more injured) was enough to send Israeli troops and tanks back into Gaza in what looks to be a protracted operation.

What struck me as unforgivable, though, was not the inevitable return of the rockets but the utter lack of preparedness that our government showed all along the Gaza border. It’s almost as if the “kids” in our government have been waiting for the kind of magic and miracles the Midrash promised to the Jews making the Shavuot pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than making concrete plans to take matters into our own hands.  

Since the disengagement from Gaza two years ago, we’ve turned a blind eye as terrorists in the Gaza Strip have smuggled in mortars and guns and Kassams and anti-tank weapons. We’ve watched as Hamas has built, armed and trained a not insignificant army of more than 10,000. That army hasn’t yet mobilized (against Israel at least), though the fighting between Hamas and Fatah forces in Gaza shows that it is certainly ready to roll in a Palestinian civil war. Nevertheless, over the past six years (including before the disengagement), the southern area round the Gaza border has absorbed some 4,500 rockets.

The most high profile destination for those rockets has been the beleaguered border town of Sderot which this week was proposed to be granted the emergency status of a “front line” community (which carries with it various tax breaks) for the first time ever. Along with that change came shocking revelations about the city’s readiness for the next major Kassam salvo.

Of the 58 public bomb shelters in Sderot, only 23 are considered actually usable. The rest lack electricity, ventilation, even running water. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews pledged $1.5 million to rehabilitate this poor state of affairs. Then along came Arcadi Gaydamak, the Russian billionaire who is the closest Sderot has seen to a contemporary angel.

Last week, Gaydamak poured millions into busing out traumatized residents to hotel rooms in safer places. He then pledged to refurbish the shelters and build the safe rooms that the government has waffled over for so long – critical because many residents, particularly the elderly, can’t make it to the public shelters in the 20 seconds warning they’re given before a missile lands. Last Friday afternoon, Gaydamak offered to fund the cost to the tune of about $50 million. Gaydamak says that there are some 3,500 apartments that need to be reinforced or need security rooms built in them.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, not wanting to be out trumped by an angel (who just so also happens to be planning a run for mayor of Jerusalem), on Sunday finally committed to building 200 safeguarded rooms a month with construction supposed to begin immediately. Other rules were proposed as well, including cutting the usual red tape involved for individuals wanting to reinforce rooms and approving requests when only 50 percent of the residents in a building agree (today, it’s three-fourths).

But where has the government been for all this time? It’s been a year since a “ceasefire” went into place that stopped the bulk of the bombs from flying over the border. Why has Israel lifted nary a finger to protect the population in Sderot which this week was catapulted back into the front pages?

Perhaps the lesson my nine-year-old son learned this year for Shavuot needs to be recast in a modern context where the “thieving neighbors” were literally given the keys to our old homes (those evacuated during the Gaza disengagement) and, while not robbing us of our possessions per se, have stripped too many Israeli citizens of their freedom to live lives without fear.

Once upon a time maybe God sent snakes and angels. But today, we can’t wait for Russian billionaires with their own political agendas to swoop in and solve our problems. The lesson of modern day Israel is that we are in control of our own destiny despite the sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds and problems. We need to take the basic steps of locking the doors to the homes we have left using modern, practical and thoroughly non-magical means. Only then can we claim to have learned something useful from such a simple, charming and unassuming Midrash.

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