The current conflict with Hamas finds me overwhelmed, bewildered and not sure where to focus.
Some of my peers have called for introspection and repentance, the classic Jewish response to any tragedy. I fully back the stance that had we, the Jewish people, been in a better place spiritually, God would have prevented these things from occurring to us. That said, the intensity of the tragedy makes most of us tone-deaf to such calls. Others suggest that Israel’s major shortcoming was the intense disunity of the past year and that the war automatically cured that. I think there is something to this as well. But here too, I am not sure that we have been cured and that we have the emotional fortitude right now to really set this aright.
So I will attempt something more modest, even if in some ways it is actually bolder: Like many people of faith, I yearn to see God’s presence in the world. And like most religious Jews, I see the return to Jewish statehood as an expression of that presence. It is relatively easy to see God in our nation’s great victories. More difficult is to find Him in the apparent setbacks of the Jewish return to Zion. And yet the Jewish tradition endorses looking for God’s benevolent hand even in such circumstances, and not just as a prod to repent. Indeed, I have often discussed how fundamental this is to Rabbi Akiva’s thinking on how Jews are meant to look at history.
In light of this approach, I want to suggest at least two important and clearly positive effects of this war that – short of open miracles and/or suspending human free will, both of which go against the rules the dominant voice within Jewish tradition understands as central to how God runs the world – were otherwise basically impossible.
Some will disagree with my analysis or underlying political opinions that they may be based upon, and others will disagree with the project altogether. There is little I can do for the latter; but for the former, I would say that this is merely an example of the type of thinking we should put forward to try to understand what God might be doing. So long as we are equipped with humility and can hence readily accept God taking history in a different direction than we anticipated, I know that many find this type of exercise very helpful:
One thing that has become clear from this war is that Hamas must be taken out of the picture. It is not that we did not know before this that they were intent upon the destruction of the Jewish state. Rather, the calculation was whether they could be contained at a lower cost than having to uproot them. A large part of the cost had to do with international tolerance of such an operation. Determined American opposition to such a campaign could well have led to Israel’s ostracization, something that would have debilitating economic repercussions and possibly security ones as well.
The massive and brutal Hamas onslaught of Oct. 7 changed all that. It allowed the rest of the world to fully see who Hamas are and what they want. As a result, following President Biden’s and other Western leaders’ unequivocal call for Hamas’ destruction, Israel has basically been given a free hand to get the job done. This is not to even mention the uptick in the all-important wall-to-wall Israeli resolve to do this, in spite of the sacrifices it will almost certainly require.
The second positive development that could not have happened without a war on this scale is the formation of the current unity government. It is not just that unity is a good thing, which it is. The new government is one that Israel will need to quickly move forward once the war is over. It is a government the composition of which many had seen as logical and productive before the war, yet one that simply could not happen due to the political realities of the day.
Without going into great detail (since this is ultimately just an illustration and the details are not the point here), it is a government well positioned to more forthrightly move the imminent Israeli-Saudi-American entente to full fruition. When this happens – and I am almost certain that it is only a matter of time – it will become the cornerstone of a new Middle East that has slowly been forming over the last few years, a Middle East in which opposition to Israel will be marginalized amidst regional peace and prosperity. (I am not the only one to have suggested that the strongest reason for Hamas to have launched this suicidal operation may well have been because it also saw this as a strong possibility in which it had no future but to eventually disappear.)*
Human beings are generally not in a position to sacrifice lives in the short term in order to save many more lives in the future; that is something that requires a calculation that only God can make. It could be that He has.
The bottom line, however, is that since historical events like this have the potential to challenge our faith, they create a religious imperative to search for God’s loving hand even in the face of tragedy and sorrow. Yet even this is ultimately secondary. Truly fundamental is the knowledge that God’s loving presence is with us, and that it can not be otherwise.
* It is true that the current conflict is likely to slow this process down, such that one might argue that the composition of the current government does not matter, since it will not be the one that will ultimately take up this task. That may or may not be true, as the Biden administration has a very strong interest in moving it forward as quickly as it possibly can and in time for next year’s US elections. But even if it will end up needing to wait a few years, the government Israel has now will impact greatly on the government we will have in three, five and ten years from now.