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Rabbi's Weekly Message

Cost of Victory - December 1

Dear Chaverim,

The Milton Bradley board game Operation requires one to use metal forceps to remove various ailments from narrow electrified openings in a mock patient. I always had shaky enough hands to set off the buzzer after plucking one or two bones. The game was fun, but it probably shocked a couple of generations of kids into giving up hope of going to medical school.

Wars of yesteryear were not concerned much with avoiding civilian deaths. 'Total war', involving all the resources and people of the countries involved goes back to ancient times. However, the industrialization of warfare with weapons of mass destruction and culminating with the use of atomic bombs on civilians changed the nature of total war in our generation. Today most advanced countries aim to make their military operations a lot like the game Operation: take out the enemy combatants, and preserve the civilians. Thus was born the use of so-called precision weaponry, and "surgical" airstrikes.

There is no question that this was the aim of the United States and coalition military in their campaign to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State. According to the New York Times, a military spokesman reports that "U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes ...[and] are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history." The U.S. military even uploaded videos of airstrikes on YouTube. While the precision of the air strikes may have been surgical, it is possible that the information used to determine the targets was not. Civilians were killed.

The New York Times tried to confirm the U.S. Department Defense's statistical assessment of the accuracy of the air campaign that resulted in the retaking of Mosul. They toured local target sites, reviewed military reports, and interviewed survivors, intelligence officials, family members, and local officials. They concluded that one civilian was killed per five airstrikes -which was 30 times larger than the civilian death rate claimed in the official military reports.  

The Torah teaches us to have concern for innocents caught in battle. According to the Midrash, Avraham is worried about the civilians that might have been casualties in his rescue of Lot. Yaakov at the beginning of this week's Parsha is concerned that his manoeuvres of self-defence will cause casualties among people not hostile to him. In particular, he is afraid because those coerced into Esav's army are not hostile to him, and a misplaced arrow might thus take out an innocent person.

Considering that 300 were killed in and around a mosque in Egypt last week alone, and considering the level of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Mosul, it is a wonder that Israel should be so bitterly condemned by the UN for its operations in Gaza in 2014. In Mosul, coalition forces were uprooting a threat much more remote to themselves than the threats Israel responds to from Gaza. Terrorism kills fewer Americans per year than botulism does.

By comparison, Israel responds to missiles fired at its sovereign territory from its nearest neighbours on a regular basis. It is often criticized by its own citizens for failure to respond to missile attacks launched from Gaza. Ma'an News Agency is a non-government Palestinian media organization criticized by mainstream Israeli media sources for being biased against Israel. I think it is fair to say that they provide a worst-case estimate of Israel's record on civilian casualties in its response to attacks by Palestinians. Ma'an reports that out of 236 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in 2015/2016, 226 were involved in military or terrorist acts, five were killed by IDF airstrikes, and five were bystanders to other violence. By comparison, they report 34 Israelis killed by Palestinians. They make no distinction between Israeli civilians and military. My point is that, even using Palestinian statistics, Israel's record of minimal civilian casualties is impressively low compared to the rest of the world.

I have recently taken to reading the Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod. He wrote the following in1961 .

I view the establishment of the State of Israel with the greatest trepidation. The Divine Word is unmistakably clear concerning the Land of Israel. It is the soil which above all demands faithfulness of the people of Israel to its election. Whenever the people of Israel have attempted to constitute a national life on this soil in disregard of its election, the soil has rejected them under the most catastrophic circumstances... I shudder when I think of the responsibility devolving upon the shoulders of the leaders of this state.

Wyschogrod was not an anti-Zionist. Rather, he was a most outspoken advocate that the special Jewish relationship with Gd demands that we live up to the Torah's principles and mitzvot. Abraham is obsessive in his quest to do what is right. He argues for the welfare of Sdom. He rescues his ungrateful nephew Lot and worries that he might have killed some innocents in self-defence in the process. Abraham's grandson is similarly careful about acting ethically in the act of self-defence. Wyschogrod does not deny our right to self-defence. Rather, he worries that as we create a modern state we will have to live up to the nearly unattainable standards set by Abraham: justice, kindness, and walking in the ways of Gd.

It is a scary but powerful lesson to be called to a higher standard in a world armed with improvised explosive devices and nuclear missiles. I think we are in a teachable moment - a mission-galvanizing moment - in which we can remind ourselves and our children that the State of Israel and the people of Israel should hold themselves to the highest possible standard.

Good Shabbos,


Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt


Stranger Danger

Dear Chaverim,

Technology has made some strange bedfellows. There is a ridesharing platform in France called BlaBlaCar in which strangers offer and accept rides between cities. The most determinative criterion is willingness to talk to others in the car. The person's criminal background seems less of an issue. BlaBlaCar transports more people than Eurostar trains and JetBlue Airways. This is a far cry from merely calling a cab. It is more like Uber meets Facebook meets Priceline.

Who would have thought that people would welcome a total stranger into their home, as in Airbnb? I just did a quick search and I saw that I could live in the common room of an apartment in Paris, sleeping on a sofa bed for $58 per month. I find it surprising that people will pay to stay on a stranger's couch while that stranger is still at home. This is to say nothing of the many so-called dating sites with more intimate, and less honourable intentions.

I seem to recall somewhere in the (unwritten) Code of Western Parenting that hitchhiking is dangerous, even though ridesharing is considered environmentally friendly. I recall educational television advising us in the announcement slots between episodes of Sesame Street to not talk to strangers. Why has so much changed?

Last month, business writer Rachel Botsman published Who Can You Trust: How Technology Brought us Together and Why it Might Drive Us Apart. It examines the social and psychological forces that have brought us to trust strangers with information about everything from our sleeping habits to our credit card numbers. She traces the evolution of trust in three stages. The first was local trust, where everyone in the town or village knew each other. Break trust with the baker and the whole village would know. One might then find it difficult to get credit at the local hardware store. With the rise of cities and the industrial revolution came institutional trust. The government, media, and non-profit institutions provided institutional trust. Think about how the government, a network news anchor, or Consumer Reports were once greatly trusted sources of information. However, trust in government, in the news media, and in institutions of all sorts is now at an all time low.

If I understand her correctly, Botsman argues that the erosion of institutional trust has given rise to what she calls distributed trust - in which we trust people based on their user ratings on websites like Uber and Ebay. There is even utilitarian honour distributed among thieves. My favourite example comes from a report that I heard on a podcast. On the darknet platform Silk Road a heroin seller claimed his product was organic to boost his online seller rating. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan put it, "to live outside the law you must be honest."

This framework of trust is a perfect lens through which to look at Jacob's journey into the unknown world of his future father-in-law, Lavan. The Midrash Rabba tells a fascinating backstory about the switching of Jacob's intended bride Rachel with Leah. The Midrash assumes that it would be impossible for Lavan to pull this ruse off with so many potential spoilers in the wedding hall. One would have to assume that at least one witless guest would shout out, "hey that's not Rachel, that's Leah!" Or, to put it more bluntly, three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. In this case the entire town needed to keep the secret. Lavan managed to get leverage on each of the town's members and held that leverage against the big secret.

The Midrash describes how at the wedding ceremony the secret almost came out. Lavan was forced to extinguish all the candles to conceal Leah's identity. On the wedding night, upon discovering that his bride had been switched, Jacob objects to Leah, "how could you trick me so?" Leah responds, "there is no barber (ספר) without a student." This saying means literally that even the most expert stylist needs someone else to cut their hair. However, it is a play on words, in which ספר is a homograph [one spelling, but two different meanings] that means both barber and story. Essentially, she reminds Jacob that he had taken advantage of the trust of his father to obtain his inheritance and is now suffering the same kind of manipulation of trust by Lavan. Lavan may even have learned this ruse from Jacob himself.

The Midrash teaches a simple and powerful lesson. We all need trust to survive. There are moments when we can take advantage others through the manipulation of trust. We can profit from the valuable information that others share with us to secure and maintain trust. However, betraying trust forces us to operate without the glue that enables the cooperation of society, which in turn protects what we have and who we are. In the words of the Haggadah's reference to Lavan, taking advantage of trust threatens to uproot the entire enterprise. We know that Jacob suffered from manipulations of trust in his family. We also know that ultimately the descendants of his family have prospered and built a nation based on trusting relationships that answer to Gd.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

Tue, 12 December 2017 24 Kislev 5778