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In this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community…  This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5)

In last week’s we read: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1)

In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad.  This week they gathered to build the tabernacle, in last week’s the golden calf.  The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive can sometimes be to the negative.

I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  It was an extraordinary experience to sit with 12,000 people who share my passion and commitment for the modern State of Israel.  I am proud that seven from our congregation joined me at this convention.  Two thirds of United States senators and representatives attended as well.  There were many interesting speakers including Vice President Joe Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Senator John McCain.  All shared their unequivocal support for Israel.  All spoke of the looming threat from a nuclear Iran and the dangers of Syrian arms falling into the hands of Hezbollah.

One afternoon I took a break from the intensity of the sessions and walked around Washington’s beautiful National Mall.  The Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Reflecting Pool and Tidal Basin, the US Capital and White House are breathtaking.  I made my way to the new World War II memorial.  Its Freedom Wall is decorated with 4,048 stars, each representing the 100 US service personnel killed or missing in the war, amounting to 405,089 dead.  At the Vietnam War memorial the loss is more personal.  Each of the 58,272 names is etched on its black granite wall.

Such losses are staggering.  Even when war is justified and necessary it is never without loss.  War brings with it destruction.  War sacrifices a nation’s youth.  In an age of drone wars, we too often forget that it also devastates those who call its battlegrounds home.

During the convention I lost count how many times we applauded speakers for their strong statements about Iran.  I certainly agree that Iran represents a threat to Israel and the United States, as well as the Middle East and the Western World.  Nonetheless the applause and standing ovations for calls to attack Iran gave me pause.  I wonder if we are guilty of worshipping our military prestige. I worry about an over confidence that military means can solve our problems and overcome hatreds.  War can perhaps offer temporary defenses but rarely long term solutions.  Our defense forces should most certainly protect us.  To live in safety and security is our right.  Too often in the modern age it must be vigorously defended.   

When antisemites stand up, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done, to say that they want to annihilate the Jewish people and destroy the Jewish state, we should believe them.   I have often said, and continue to believe, that history has taught us that we should take antisemites at their word.  The import of Jewish history is that we no longer have the luxury to dismiss such claims.  The meaning of the Jewish state is that we now have the power to defend ourselves, to protect our Jewish home.

That is the difference in Israel’s war memorials. They are interspersed within neighborhoods.  One walks along the streets of Jerusalem and happens upon a memorial to ten who fell in the 1967 war near, or even at, the very spot one stands.  One of the ferocious battle sites of that war, Ammunition Hill, sits near Jerusalem’s trendy neighborhood of French Hill.  There it is clear, and then it was apparent, that war was about defending one’s home.   

Sitting with like minded delegates it is more difficult to discern.  The applause gathers to a chorus. 

One lecturer suggested that the United States and Israel come to the threat of Iran with different traumas.  Israel is traumatized by the Holocaust and the resolve that it must never happen again.  The United States is traumatized by the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the innumerable sacrifices we have made over there for the sake of freedom here.  Sometimes thousands of miles of ocean make it more difficult to give meaning to these distant sacrifices.  Nonetheless, we dismiss both traumas to our peril.  I wonder, perhaps only a leader traumatized by war should make the decision to go to war.

I am left uneasy applauding war’s use.  I am left reeling.  What is the meaning of my cheers? 

Last week we read: “When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses, ‘There is a cry of war in the camp.’”  (Exodus 32:17)

And this week, “So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence.  And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting…” (Exodus 35:20)