At Hormah

Haim Watzman
Thoughts on Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, in memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us two years ago on 2 Av. This is an English version of the original Hebrew essay, published in Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The original Hebrew version can be read here .


Hama'apilThere once was a city, somewhere in the Negev, whose name went down in biblical history as the site of a painful defeat for the children of Israel. The rout at Hormah took place in a war against the Canaanite nations, which followed the sin of the spies. For that sin, the Children of Israel were punished—their entry into the Promised Land was delayed by a generation. Their crime was the lack of faith displayed by the generation that left Egypt, their reluctance to fight the war that awaited them when they crossed from the wilderness into Canaan. The failure of conviction began at the leadership level, among ten of the twelve spies sent to scout the land, and quickly spread to the entire nation.

But the war fought at Hormah did not come in retribution for the sin of the spies. It was imposed subsequent to that sin and its punishment. After comprehending how grave and error they had made, a vanguard of the people to take the initiative to correct it. The Ma’apilim, meaning “the scalers [of the heights],” now understood that it was God’s will that the Israelites fight bravely against the Canaanite nations. They organized to take determined action, as Moses relates in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:41): “We stand guilty before the LORD. We will go up now and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” The call to arms grew out of profound remorse for the sin and a real desire to atone for it. But instead of accepting the heroism and good intentions of the Ma’apilim, God condemned them and meted out another heavy punishment, in addition to that of the sin of the spies: “Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like so many bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir.” It is easy to imagine the shattered and bloodied survivors asking themselves: “What does God want with us? When we said we were scared of conquering the land, we were sentenced to die in the desert, and when we fervently set out to conquer the land, we died at Hormah.”

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The Outpost on Oliphant Street — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
The outpost on Oliphant Street? I remember everything. Yes, I do, don’t give me that look. I’m not senile yet. I may be far gone but I have not yet left this world. That was 1948. I was eighteen. The outpost on Oliphant Street. It was with Udi. We were under fire. He was my lover. In Jerusalem. What? Yes, before Saba. Several before. Your grandfather came by after I’d had my adventures and was ready to settle down. It was cold, it was February, you know, it was very cold. I think it was raining, maybe just very cloudy, and all I had was a sweater. I was stationed in Rehavia, we had a communications post there and I did shifts by the radio. Udi was almost as tall as you, but slender and flexible, like a gymnast. He could jump over the table we spread the maps on, like a cat on a spring. This is the story of how I lost him. And about the outpost on Oliphant Street.

Udi took a squad into Talbiyeh. A lot of the rich Arabs who lived there had already packed up and gone. The National Guard, what did they call it, no, it’ll come to me, the Hars Watani that the mufti sent into action, had moved into the neighborhood. The British, who had security zones on either side, let them in. It was going to turn into a staging ground for an invasion of Rehavia, so we had to act.

The squad went in to show the flag, establish a presence. The thinking was that the Arab guards would get scared and turn tail the minute they saw we were coming in. There were two Arabs, little more than kids, who looked suspicious, that’s what Udi told me afterward. Udi called them over, demanded that they identify themselves. Instead they pulled out pistols and began shooting. Two of Udi’s men were wounded and he beat a retreat.

Of course, we weren’t going to take that lying down.

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Yes, Sometimes It Is Anti-Semitism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Ken Livingstone, formerly mayor of London, presently a member in very bad standing of the British Labour Party, can be thanked for this much: He has provided a painful moment of clarity in the debate over whether anti-Zionism is, at least sometimes, anti-Semitism.

The answer is yes. For instance, when one says that when Hitler came to power “in 1932 [sic], he was supporting Zionism,” as Livingston recently did, or when one says that not hating all Jews, just Jews in Israel, is not an anti-Semite, as he subsequently did.

This bears explanation. But first comes some context, and dispensing with certain reflexive objections. So let’s start here: Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suspended MP Naz Shah, a rising political star, from the party under heavy pressure from party colleagues after a series of her Facebook posts reached the public eye. In one, Shah suggested transferring Israel—by which she presumably meant the Jewish majority, not the Arab minority—to the United States. In another, she implied similarity between Israel and Nazi Germany. The list quickly grew.

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On Lupine Hill — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Pepe Fainberg
illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Was it the sound of sage leaves parting that first alerted Hanoch? Or a disturbance in the penumbra reflected off a daisy? Whatever it was, his reaction was automatic, a swift movement followed only half a second later by a slower thought and Sitvanit’s scream. He drew his pistol and fired a single shot in the direction of the glint of scales. The snake, now visible, contorted and rolled and stained the ground red. Astounded that he had actually hit the animal and reading its dappled brown markings, he shoved Sitvanit away with his arm, took careful aim at the head, and fired another shot. The now headless snake shivered and writhed and fell still.

He took a step toward the dead animal, taking care not to step on the deep purple lupines that blossomed thickly by the path. Sitvanit stood frozen a few paces behind.

“Viper,” he announced. He looked around. The only others on the hill at this sunset hour were on the next peak over, across the shallow saddle from where he and Sitvanit stood, two pre-teen girls in long skirts and sleeves, accompanied by a mother and grandmother with white scarves over their heads. They were staring and he heard a faint murmur of voices, but a minute later they began descending the path down to the parking area, no doubt in a hurry to get out before dark.

He ran his left hand over the barrel of his pistol and found pleasure in its warmth.

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Terrorists Want You to Be Very Afraid. So Don’t Be.

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect

The original meaning of words is washed away by overuse. So a reminder: Terrorism is intended to make you feel terror, to make fear flood your mind and keep you from thinking straight. That’s true whether it takes place in Paris, San Bernardino, or Jerusalem.

The first step in defeating terrorism, therefore, is to chill out.

Take a long slow breath. Then we can talk calmly about things to do next.Keep Calm and Carry On

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If Your Senator Is Considering Voting No on the Iran Deal, Ask Her to Read This

Gershom Gorenberg

And this, too, at The American Prospect:

In the least plausible alternative version of my life, I would have stayed in the San Fernando Valley rather than leaving Los Angeles over 40 years ago and moving not long afterward to Jerusalem. In that scenario, I’d be represented in Congress by Democrat Brad Sherman—and I might be less infuriated by his recent announcement that he’ll vote against the Iran deal, because if I were an Angeleno rather than an Israeli, his decision wouldn’t pose a threat to me, my neighbors and my country.

At this distance of years and miles, I don’t normally pay much attention to an L.A. congressman, but a random tweet alerted me to Sherman’s statement. New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s declaration that he’ll vote against the accord made more headlines, and is even more upsetting, given the relatively greater weight of each vote in the Senate. In both cases, their statements barely mention Israel, but their explanations track Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points for foiling the deal in Congress. You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect that Schumer and Sherman have devoted much of their study of the issue to their constituents and have concluded that voters who support the Vienna accord are a captive audience for a Democratic incumbent, while passionate opponents are swing voters and perhaps swing donors.

I imagine that Sherman, Schumer, and other Democrats who intend to vote against the agreement might respond that Netanyahu is, after all, Israel’s elected leader and therefore the accredited spokesman for its security concerns. But there would be a logical absurdity in that argument.

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Israel as a Republican State of Mind

Gershom Gorenberg

And this is now up at The American Prospect:

Mike Huckabee met reporters Wednesday at the Waldorf-Astoria on a campaign stop. This particular Waldorf-Astoria was in downtown West Jerusalem. Huckabee wanted to talk about Iran. The folks with microphones and cameras mostly wanted him to talk about his previous campaign event. That was a fundraiser at the Israeli settlement of Shilo in the West Bank—or as Huckabee insistently called the area, “Judea and Samaria,” which he said was part of Israel.

The journalists’ interrogation grew fiercer, and the ex-governor of Arkansas said time was up. As he made his escape, a foreign correspondent sitting strategically near the door asked: “Do you also think Gaza is part of Israel?” and another said, “Would you be the first president to abandon the two-state solution?”

“I’m not sure,” Huckabee replied to one question or the other. It was the most reality-linked response of a hallucinatory session. He was, in fact, clueless.

Jerusalem and Shilo, let us note, are certainly not part of the United States. But why should that bother a Republican presidential candidate? The GOP and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have, together, steadily blurred the border between Israel and America as separate polities.

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Six Days Shall You Tap Screens…

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column (with some inspiration from Marx and Levinas) is up at Hadassah Magazine:

I was not just stir-crazy but screen-crazy. I was working on two computer screens—my laptop’s and the big one on my desk—and had my Kindle on my left and a document open on my tablet on my right, which made four screens, except when one of my kids texted me, when the phone made five.

Illustration by Christiane Grauert.

I got on my bike. It was late afternoon, with a light Jerusalem breeze blowing. I rode along the promenade that overlooks the Old City, up to where it narrows into a path between tall evergreens, and found a stone bench where I could see the golden Dome of the Rock between the branches. I often come to the same spot on Shabbat, on walks with my wife.

Relief. I inhaled the scent of the woods and thanked God for green.

Then I pulled my phone off my belt. The motion felt like an involuntary twitch of my hand. Anyone watching might have thought that I was checking a news site, but I knew that the screen came first; the choice of what to tap came after. I realized what I had done, looked at the rectangle of glass and plastic and stuck it back on the belt clip.

I thought, “This does not happen to me when I come here on Shabbat.”

I don’t use screens on Shabbat.

 

It has been such a short time since screens were bulky boxes that we only used at our desks. Then they got smaller and lighter. It is so convenient to be able to take a laptop anywhere—look at me! I can answer my boss while sitting on the porch—especially when the laptop shrank into a tablet and a phone.

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Entering the Land and Going Out into the World

Haim Watzman

008601-000014This dvar Torah is an English version of one that appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here . Its dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us one year ago in the month of Av.

The modern religious public grapples with any number of challenges that our forefathers were spared, and which Jews living in more closed communities seldom encounter. One of the most frequent of these is how to recite Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, when one leaves the religious community and goes out into the world. It can be a problem to find the appropriate moment to say this rather lengthy blessing without raising eyebrows or causing impatience among your companions. It’s a common dilemma when one eats with fellow-Jews who do not observe the mitzvah, and when one eats with people of other religions, such as those whose custom is to thank the Lord prior to the meal but not afterward. It is also a problem when one eats with people who do not believe there is anyone to give thanks to. In such situations, I can only agree with the king of Kuzar who asks his Jewish interlocutor if his faith’s system of blessings is not more trouble than they are worth. Is the mitzvah trying to tell us to simply avoid such multicultural encounters? Is that the best way to observe it?

It is polite to say thank you, but if that is all Birkat HaMazonis about, why does it have to be so long? Why isn’t it enough to express gratitude in one’s heart? Furthermore, set blessings, like set prayers, easily become reflexive rote recitations. On a day-to-day basis, even if one wants to keep it fully, Birkat HaMazonis not an easy task—that is, it is so simple both to say its words and mean what it means. Blessings, like prayers, are meant to be “the Temple service of the heart,” and as such are supposed to demand thought and introspection. But when your head is full of other thoughts it easily becomes mechanical.

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Next Summer’s War — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The Jerusalem winter that kept coming back had finally come to an end, or perhaps it was just taking another break. Whatever the case, the clouds had gone from dark and low to scattered and high, the wind had slowed from gale force to tickle, and the temperature had risen from ski gear to light jacket. It was the first Shabbat in weeks that you could go out without an umbrella. Ori and Dudi had gone to play with friends, so Ronen and Gali grabbed the opportunity.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Let’s go to the Tayelet,” Ronen suggested.

“It’s too cold,” Gali objected. She was half-reclining on their couch, being kicked from inside.

“But it’s warm today!”

“It’s still cold.”

“We haven’t been there for months.”

“No one goes there anymore. It’s like a ghost town. It gives me the creeps.”

“Well, then,” Ronen asked, “where should we go?”

“You know I hate making decisions.” She took Ronen’s extended hand and allowed herself to be pulled up slowly, so that she could keep her balance. “Why can’t you make up your mind?”

Since they had been married for nearly eight years, nothing in the previous exchange really meant anything.

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