A biblical cry from 1949

November 24, 2016 23:06

This week’s sidrah of Vayera is one of the most memorable in the Torah, containing among other things the seminal episode of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s bold challenge to God to spare the doomed cities, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”

There is in this action-packed portion a remarkable verse which I confess to having overlooked before. When God ponders the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, He resolves to “go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it” – the cries of their victims suggest a level of wickedness so great that God takes the extraordinary step of descending from heaven to see if it is true.

The image is significant, too, because it is alluded to it in the closing sentence of an early classic of Israeli literature, Khirbet Khizeh, the 1949 novella by S.Yizhar (the pen-name of Yizhar Smilansky, who died in 2006). Set in Israel’s War of Independence, it is the story of a group of Israeli soldiers ordered to expel the inhabitants of an Arab village.

When the mission is over and the Arabs have been put on trucks that will carry them into exile, the troubled narrator records that calm returns to the valley. But the tranquillity is an illusion. “When silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness…” he ends, “then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.” The biblical echo suggests a fateful tear in the moral fabric with enormous repercussions.

I had been unaware of the book until a Limmud conference some years ago, when an extract was presented by a United Synagogue rabbi. But I did not read it until after the first English translation appeared in 2011. For those of us weaned on the idea of the War of Independence as a heroic endeavour, Khirbet Khizeh is a disturbing counterpoint. Even just wars can have their dark side.

The question is, how does one respond? Firstly, to acknowledge the truth of what lay behind Yizhar’s experience. The Palestinian exodus during the War of Independence was due to a number of causes, as historians such as Benny Morris have shown. But some Palestinians were driven out at gunpoint. It is perhaps too easy to shelter behind the argument that if the Arabs had accepted the United Partition plan of 1947, the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, would never have happened. Yizhar would have been all too aware of the reality of Israel’s life and death struggle, yet he could not suppress his cry of conscience.

Secondly, to try to engage in some act of tikkun, repair. And one way to do that is to support the efforts of those Israelis and Palestinians who, against the odds and despite the burden of history, are striving for mutual understanding and reconciliation.

November 24, 2016 23:06

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