Be-Midbar – Hosea 2, 15 May 2021 – Marc Saperstein

On Thursday evening, our Torah Study group met as we have done every Thursday evening for the past two or three years. Each week between 10 and 15 members of our congregation focus on the Torah reading designated by British Reform Judaism, and spend between and hour and an hour and a half discussing and analysing the texts, one verse at a time, in Hebrew and English, rotating from one leader to the next, always with very interesting comments by Orna and others.  I imagine that having listened to the Torah reading, most of you will agree that this is not one of the most inspiring passages in the Torah, and I have decided therefore to base my sermon not on the Torah reading but on the Haftarah.

This exposure to the Prophet Hosea presents some rather startling messages from God. After a rather discouraging set of instructions in the brief first paragraph – in which God instructs Hosea to “get ourself a wife of whoredom” and three children of whoredom (eshet zenunim)–  the passage we read in the second paragraph begins with three positive verses about the future of the people of Israel. This is followed by 12 verses of devastating punishment by God, including in verse 13, “I will end all her rejoicing, her festivals, new-moons, and sabbaths—, I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees …I  will turn them into brushwood, and beasts of the field shall devour them.” Not the most inspiring public report by a new Prophet, of a message received from the Almighty. But then, in another dramatic reversal, 7 verses of the divine message to the prophet promise a beautiful relationship with God. Hosea informs his listeners, or his readers, that there is indeed significant, disastrous trouble ahead, yet there is also genuine hope for the future.

Biblical commentators explain these powerful passages as expressions of Hosea’s own life, although this is based on rabbinic interpretations, not on the biblical text itself. To his dismay, he discovered that his wife was a profligate woman, who left the prophet’s home and ended up as a concubine-slave. But Hosea’s love for her remained despite the humiliation of his wife, he ransomed her from the slave owner, and brought her back to his home, to test whether she had genuinely changed. This was understood to be a message in which the wife represents the children of Israel, and the husband represents God, who continued to love the Jewish people despite their turning to idolatrous worship, and who was now, through their suffering, testing whether the pains of a distraught reality would indeed lead Israel to appreciate their divine lover, the Holy One, blessed be He. The test set by Hosea was how the people of Israel would respond to the disasters of their current life.

I would not be surprised if many of you the congregation, and many Jews throughout the world, felt some kind of analogy between the Haftarah describing the prophet’s terrible experience, and the events pertaining to Jews and Arabs in Israel and Gaza. As with the very optimistic promise at the beginning of our Haftarah, I start with an Israeli newspaper account of very good news from Israel not so long ago. I reed from the Jerusalem Post, an article written by Rossella Tercatin:

Sunday, April 4, 2021 Jerusalem Post, “”Health and Science”’ the headline: Israel registers fewest new coronavirus cases in a year
On Saturday, April 3, some 124 cases were identified, and a month before that there were 1,878 [each day]. At the peak of the pandemic in January and February, even on Saturdays, the number of daily cases exceeded 2,500. Only 0.1% of the tests performed on Saturday returned a positive result, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to the minimal number of new cases, all other indicators were encouraging. There are currently fewer than 1,500 active COVID-19 cases, compared with tens of thousands in January. As of Sunday morning, 102 patients were in serious condition, less than a tenth of the number at the peak of the pandemic, the Health Ministry reported. Many newspapers outside of Israel picked up and published these figures. We recall that Israel was one of the very few countries that UK travellers were permitted to visit. Our feelings about Israel had not been so positive for some time.

I shift now to a little more than a month later, when the reality was so totally different. Here is an article written by Rogel Alpher, published in HaAretz on Sunday, May 9,

“Jerusalem Day: A National Day of Mourning, [much more liberal than the Jerusalem Post Israeli Newspaper] –
“Jerusalem Day” is the day when Israeli society marks the conquest of East Jerusalem. Not its liberation. Not its unification with the western part of the city. Not its freedom…/. A day of celebration? What exactly is there to celebrate here? Jewish fascists from so-called “religious Zionists” – an extremist ultranationalist movement that is racist and anti-democratic – are continuing these days to settle in Eastern Jerusalem neighbourhoods, while ousting the original Palestinian inhabitants. That’s called “Judaization.” Judaization is ethnic cleansing by means of real estate. … On Jerusalem Day we will mourn for secular, rational and liberal Israel.

Arthur Waskow, is a highly respected American rabbi, author and political activist, founder and leader of the “Shalom Center,” and a fine representative of Jewish liberalism.

Tuesday, May 11, “Roots of Turmoil in Jerusalem” “Attacks by Israeli police and mobs on Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa and the Doom of the Rock hurt me. I have been there. I have been moved by the Dome’s sacred aura. I have even been welcomed to descend the spiritual staircase to the great and awesome Rock that stands at its foundation, and surely stood at the inner based of the Holy Temple long ago….

Events of the last few days in Jerusalem are both symbolically and actually threatening to a transformative Judaism as well as to a free and peaceful world. So I do not feel able to be silent….

Israel’s intrusion of half a million Israelis into the West Bank, and a large number in occupied East Jerusalem, plus home demolition or displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, violates international law and deliberately tries to prevent the emergence of a peaceful Palestinian state alongside a peaceful Israel.

This week’s march of flag-waving Israelis into these neighbourhoods is intended to terrorise Palestinians. The Israeli police collude. These illegitimate practices have been going forward, harsher and harsher, for 50 years

Finally, here is Ron Kronish, who was a year behind me at the New York School of HUC-JIR, who – like myself – spent part of our rabbinical training in Jerusalem, and then – like myself – earned a doctorate at Harvard – but who, unlike me, after a few years serving as rabbi in the United States, decided to move with his family to Jerusalem, where he has been living ever since, a well-known author, lecturer and teacher.

Ron Kronish published an article on Monday, May 10, entitled “Anti-Religious and Anti-Zionist Parties in the Guise of ‘Religious Zionism.’” But I would like to conclude instead with a few passages from Kronish’s  “Open Letter for Family and Friends About the Situation in Israel, published in Israel on Thursday, May 13.”

“We are very concerned about the escalation of the war with the Hamas regime in Gaza. It is counterproductive, and will get us nowhere in the end. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations have been very brazen and provocative in launching hundreds of rockets into many places in southern and central Israel.  By inflicting some damage and succeeding in killing 7 Israelis so far, they have managed to provoke a very strong reaction in Israel, which in the end is very harmful to their own people.

In response, the Israel Air Force is conducting hundreds of bombing raids and causing massive damage in Gaza, in an effort to get Hamas to stop firing their rockets into Israel. As usual, it is disproportionate to the damage inflicted in Israel, and will cause more humanitarian problems in Gaza, probably de-stabilizing the situation even more.

It would have been much better if Israel had offered vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic to all the Palestinians in Gaza (and the West Bank) months ago, thus showing some humanitarian concern for the people who live there. It would also have been helpful if the Israeli police had not used so much force against Palestinians in Jerusalem — in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Palestinians are facing evictions from their homes, and on the Temple Mount, Haram El Sharif, during the month of Ramadan. Who could possibly have given the go-ahead to the police to enter the Al Aqsa Mosque? These serious mistakes by the Israeli police, guided by a very right-wing Minister of Internal Security, coached by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has lost his moral and political compass, due to his political and personal problems….

Hopefully, we will get some help from saner people in the international community who see the futility of the current war and will help arrange a cease-fire, the sooner the better. President Biden has sent an envoy to the region to try to help with negotiations towards this goal.   Lots of good people are working on this, but so far both Israeli and Hamas leaders are resistant.  But they can be forced to cooperate, with lots of international pressure. cohorts.  We need a sane, responsible, centrist government as soon as possible, to help restore calm to Israel and the region and to deal with our internal and external crises effectively and reasonably.

In the meantime, as the psalmist wrote: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” – end of Ron Kronish

And so, let us also continue to pray, and to do whatever we can, to help the Holy One in making Israel, and Gaza, and the West Bank, and the entire Middle East, an environment not of hatred and widespread killing, but rather of of flourishing and of peace.