Joe's Blog


A Midrash* about The Value of Life
          (*homiletical interpretation)

On October 7, 2023, Hamas perpetrated a brutal, horrific massacre of Israel citizens, as well as of soldiers, killing at least 1350 people, and kidnapping at least 120 and smuggling them into Gaza. In addition, for the last 7 days Hamas has been firing rockets incessantly aimed at Israeli cities and communities.

In response Israel has been bombing Hamas targets in Gaza.  Israel has already been criticized for killing or harming innocent Gazans.  The UN, among other bodies, has come out strongly against Israel meting out collective punishment and preventing essential goods and services from entering Gaza. As in the past, they have demanded that, while Israel has the right to retaliate, it must be a “proportional response” (whatever that means).

Are Israel’s actions in this war defensible according to Jewish values and sources? While a thorough study would require a doctoral thesis, allow me to present one source which presents some of the dilemmas that I believe are applicable to the present situation.

War is hell, and the term “moral war” seems to be an oxymoron. But Israel, when forced to fight, strives to do so according to the principle of tohar haneshek -“purity of arms” (another ironic term). Among other aspects of this principle, Israel does whatever possible to avoid harming innocent bystanders. As I write the following appeared in The Times of Israel:  “IDF warns civilians to leave northern Gaza as ground invasion looms.”

In Rabbinic literature we find discussions about whether one should rejoice at the downfall of evil people. On the one hand, it says in Proverbs (11:10):
 ..וּבַאֲבֹד רְשָׁעִים רִנָּה׃ “…When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.” 
On the other hand we learn in the same book: בִּנְפֹל (אויביך) [אוֹיִבְךָ] אַל־תִּשְׂמָח…
“If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice” (Proverbs, 24:17)

So which is it?! Do we cheer and sing victory songs when the wicked are defeated or do we desist from expressing joy?

At the Passover Seder, when we list the Ten Plagues, we spill out a drop of wine for each plague, symbolically lessening our joy out of sympathy for the Egyptian people who suffered and died as a result of the plagues (according to one explanation). But we also sing praises to God for drowning Pharaoh and the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea! This is a concrete example of the dilemma posed by the two verses from Proverbs above.

Following is a text from a late collection of midrashim – homiletical interpretations – known as Midrash Avchir (11th century). It’s a creative expansion of a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 39b, which appears as the last paragraph of this text:

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to drown the Egyptians in the sea, Uzza – the angel of Egypt – rose and prostrated himself before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him: “Master of the Universe! You created the world according to your attribute of mercy (midat haRahamim), why do You want to drown my children?!” The Holy One immediately convened the entire Heavenly Entourage and said to them: “You judge between Myself and Uzza, the angel of Egypt”. The angels of the nations of the world began speaking in Egypt’s defense. When (the angel) Michael saw this, he signaled to (the angel) Gabriel.  The latter flew to Egypt in a single bound and removed one brick with its mortar, and found a baby in it which the Egyptians had imbedded in the building. He returned and stood before the Holy One, Blessed be He, saying, “Master of the Universe, THUS did they enslave Your children.” Immediately God judged Egypt by His attribute of justice (midat haDin) and drowned them in the sea.

At the same time, the ministering angels wished to sing before the Holy One, Blessed be He, but He said: “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you want to sing before me!?”

There are many lessons to be learned from this imaginative story and its application to the current situation. I’ll limit myself to a few points:

a. The Value of Life:  God sees all people as his children; in this case: both Israelites and Egyptians.  Life itself is an ultimate value that transcends national borders and identities. But when it became evident that the ancient Egyptians so disregarded human life that they embedded a baby in the mortar of their building (according to the midrash), God IMMEDIATELY drowned them in the sea.

b. Seeking Advice: We see that the angels challenged God (perhaps an echo of Abraham arguing on behalf of Sodom and Gomorra). Drowning the Egyptians would not be according to the merciful character of God, they argued.  We see that God IMMEDIATELY convened the Heavenly Entourage, perhaps to teach a lesson to human judges and leaders that they should not make decisions autocratically.  

c. A Game-Changer: The midrash implies that even God would not act without clear evidence that the Egyptians were deserving of being drowned. After all, for hundreds of years the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. They suffered terribly without divine intervention. But Gabriel provided evidence that was overwhelmingly horrible: “THUS did they enslave Your children.” The midrash again used the word “IMMEDIATELY” to indicate God’s determination to carry out the intended punishment. The lesson is that there is justice in the universe, and there is a Judge.

d. Restraint: At the end of the midrash God admonishes the angels for wanting to sing praises to Him.  After all, the Egyptians are His creations as well! Apparently since the Israelites were the ones who were saved, only they were entitled to sing praises (see the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15); however, the privilege was not accorded to the angels who were spectators. God was emphasizing that both these and those were His children.

Since 2005 when Israel completely evacuated Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – bent on the destruction of the Jewish State – have frequently bombarded Israel with rockets aimed at civilian populations.  Most of the time individual or small spurts of rockets may have been ignored, or Israel may have made a point by bombing rocket launchers or known outposts of the terrorist organizations.

From time to time there have been battles, or wars (which Israel usually refers to as “Operations”), whereby Israel – provoked by constant rocket and mortar fire – has retaliated with air attacks and even infantry incursions into Gaza. Before bombing buildings or areas of suspected terrorists, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have either dropped leaflets or used random phone calls to tell the civilian population to evacuate the premises.

But on October 7: “THUS” did Hamas and the Islamic Jihad rape, torture, behead and otherwise murder men, women and children, in a most ruthless and barbaric manner.  They also kidnapped dozens of civilians (in addition, perhaps, to soldiers in uniforms) and brought them to Gaza as hostages.  Whole communities along the Gaza border have been burned and destroyed.

Hamas has proven that it has no regard for human life. Not only do they seek the death of Israelis – as well as Jews wherever they are – they have demonstrated that they do not care about the lives of their own citizens! When Israel recently told Gazans in the northern part of the Strip to evacuate and move southward (apparently in anticipation of a major incursion), Hamas responded:  “We again call on [Gazan] citizens not to cooperate with the recorded phone messages that the occupation (i.e., Israel) is sending at random, asking people to leave their homes.” (Palestinian Media Watch, Bulletin, Oct 11, 2023). In the past, even the PA (Palestinian Authority, based on the West Bank) has criticized Hamas for their appalling policy of using innocent people as human shields, and issued this cartoon.  

With all of its justification for wanting to cause the demise of Hamas, once and for all, Israel will still have to take precautions to avoid hurting Gazan citizens. Israel would not, God forbid, deliberately aim at civilian populations. At the same time, with Hamas’s tactics, it would be impossible to avoid some “collateral damage”.

Israelis have to keep their tzelem Elohim – their image of God – and not to gloat or cheer at the death of human beings, no matter how evil they may be (and how much more so over the death of innocent people who were caught in the crossfire).  At the same time we must remain true to our resolve to wipe out the wicked and to protect the lives of Israelis at all costs.

Let us pray that the current war come to an end speedily, with Hamas in ruins and with Gazan citizens being harmed as little as possible.  Let us hope that all of the hostages will be retuned unharmed, and that the surviving Israelis – whose homes are along the Gaza border – will soon be able to return and rebuild their lives, despite their heavy losses.

(The text of the midrash and some of the analyses are based on the publication “The Midrash and the Modern World”; the Melton Centre for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1982)