Why It’s Time for a Ceasefire
Sermon by Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
Friday, March 15, 2024

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the last Torah portion in the book of Exodus.

After two weeks of Torah portions containing exhaustive and exhausting instructions for building the Mishkan, the sacred tent where our Israelite ancestors would meet the Holy One of Blessing, followed by three weeks of detailed descriptions of the actual construction of the Mishkan, we come to Parashat Pekudei.

The portion begins as follows:

אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת
This is the accounting of the Mishkan– the Mishkan of witnessing.

And what follows is a highly detailed accounting of all the materials that were used in the building of the Mishkan.

There were 29 ingots of gold, a hundred ingots of silver; 603,500 half- shekels of silver collected– one for each man of fighting age in the community; 70 ingots of bronze; and blue, violet, and purple, and scarlet yarns; and onyx stones, and carnelians, and topaz, and emeralds, and rubys and sapphires and jacinth and agate and amethyst and beryl and jasper; and ram skins and leather and oil and incense; and why in the world does the Torah insist on listing each of these items, when we’ve heard this all before in nearly every Torah portion for more than a month now? Why list all of the materials all over again?

The Mishkan is finally set up in this Torah portion, and the priests are anointed. Wouldn’t that have been enough to say?

Why, ask the rabbis, do we have such a repetitive list of building materials, especially when compared to how few words the Torah gives us about other things you’d think the Torah would want us to prioritize, like, say, how to observe Shabbat, about which the Torah says almost nothing by comparison?

And, as is the rabbis’ way, they answer their own question.

They say that Moses and Aaron wanted to be held accountable for their actions, and that they wanted to do that voluntarily, so that no one would be able to say, “Hey, we gave all of that material to you freely – all that gold, all those stones, all those animal skins; we were moved to give it from our own hearts. What have you done with it all?”

Tonight, I also feel moved to do some accounting.

It’s been 161 days since Hamas brutally attacked Israel and murdered more than 1,200 people, kidnapped more than 240, and raped and sexually assaulted untold numbers of human beings.

That’s 161 days, or 5 months and 9 days. That’s 23 weeks, which is 3,840 hours, which is 230,400 minutes, which is 13,824,000 seconds.

There are 136 families who have been waiting 161 days for the homecoming of their loved ones who were kidnapped by Hamas.

There have been 590 IDF soldiers and 60 Israeli police officers killed since October 7, and many hundreds wounded.

Israel will never be the same, and how could it be?

And I can’t believe I’m admitting that to myself, as much as to you.

There have been some 4,000 documented antisemitic attacks in the United States since October 7, 2023. There have been hundreds of bomb threats involving Jewish institutions, including synagogues and community centers, and over 1000 documented antisemitic incidents on college campuses.

Life in the diaspora may never be the same, and really, how could it be?

According to Palestinian authorities, there have been 30,000 Palestinians killed since October 7. According to Israeli authorities, the IDF has killed 13,000 Hamas terrorists in that time.

Life in Gaza for innocent civilians will never be the same.

“Why list all of these numbers?” you might ask. It’s so overwhelming, so soul-sucking. Isn’t it enough to say, “there is a war that Israel is waging in Gaza to destroy Hamas and bring home the hostages,” and just stop there?

I say, no, for me, that one-sentence summary is not sufficient.

Because there has to be an accounting– daily-hourly-minute by minute, so that we don’t forget what Hamas did on October 7 and what it continues to do; so that we don’t lose track of the cost of this war; so that we keep track of what the goals of the war were, and how the war is or is not achieving those goals.

Tonight, I speak to you with anguish, with a heart that feels like it’s been torn to shreds after more than five months of war– a war that has brought unfathomable suffering to Israelis and to Palestinians.

And I’m so inspired, and even feel my heart strengthened for the weeks and months ahead, and I hope yours is too, because of the ways in which we have wept together, and held one another as a congregation through the trauma of October 7 and through these many months.

We have hosted vigils and gatherings, and had multiple speakers to help us each process our grief and anger, our despair and concern; we have travelled to Washington for the rally in October, and we have joined multiple rallies at the United Nations to insist on Israel’s right to defend itself.

We travelled to Israel as a congregation to bring hugs to our Israeli family and friends that we couldn’t deliver over Zoom.

We have been alarmed by increased antisemitism even in this great city, including violence and violent threats against Jews and Jewish institutions.

At the same time, I have watched with fear as so many of us have, as Prime Minister Netanyahu and his far-right government have taken Israel further and further down the path of religious extremism and never-ending war.

I have been admonishing myself, and you, for months now, to remember that our human hearts are big– that we can hold joy for more than one thing at a time, and that we can hold pain for more than one thing, for more than one people, at the same time, too.

As I continue to wear this bracelet and this dogtag to support the hostages and their families that I have not taken off since I purchased them in Tel Aviv in November, and, as I hold the pain of my Israeli family and friends, my heart also grieves for the deaths of thousand of innocent Palestinians in Gaza — the majority of whom are women and children who bear no responsibility for Hamas’ crimes.

The IDF’s extensive bombing campaign has destroyed over 60% of Gaza’s buildings. Hundreds of thousands of residents of Gaza are at risk of starvation, and disease runs rampant.

Without an immediate influx of massive quantities of food, water, medicine, and fuel, and the restored operation of hospital and sanitation facilities, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will only worsen.

Now stay with me, my friends.

There is no question that Hamas has repeatedly and deliberately endangered the lives of their own people— including through using civilian structures to house weapons and fighters.

But this fact does not permit Israel, legally or morally, to lay the full responsibility for the unimaginable suffering of a massive population of trapped civilians at the feet of Hamas.

And while the world has been watching Gaza, Jewish settlers in the West Bank — enabled by Israel’s far-right government — have ramped up attacks on Palestinians, killing dozens of innocent people since October 7 and driving Palestinian residents out of more than a dozen villages in the West Bank.

With continued fighting along the Lebanese border, threats from Iran, settler violence and terror attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank, efforts by extremists in the Israeli government to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, home demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the onset of Ramadan, I fear a wider war that could destabilize the entire region.

If the goals of this war, as laid out by Prime Minister Netanyahu, were to bring home the hostages and ensure longstanding peace and security for Israel, neither seems forthcoming with a military solution.

Having spent time with a dozen or so Israeli Reform rabbis at our annual rabbinic conference this week, we heard them express their deep pain in this moment. And we heard them express no confidence in a military solution. And we heard them say that they do not want to send their children to a war the stated goals of which seem unachievable.

With all of this in mind, and with hearts that have been and continue to hold more than one thing at the same time, Cantor Kipnis, Rabbi Rubin, Rabbi Ross, and I each signed on to a letter this week along with 450 other rabbis and cantors from across the United States.

That letter says in part, we believe that “A ceasefire is the only reliable, proven means for securing the release of the remaining hostages and ensuring the provision of desperately needed humanitarian relief to Gaza. Lives hang in the balance.”

Now for some of you, these words may be hard for you to hear us say. You may disagree; you may feel the need to argue with us. And we welcome respectful disagreement.

And, I am sure, there are those of you who are glad to hear me finally say these words.

I admit that I, myself, have wrestled with my own feelings, my own pain, my own desire for revenge after October 7, my own hopelessness over these past months.

But today, I feel no ambivalence about these words.

It’s time for a bi-lateral ceasefire.

Whether you are upset or relieved to hear this sermon, after 161 days, we as a clergy team unequivocally and unapologetically join with clergy colleagues all over the United States in calling for an end to this chapter in a terrible conflict that Israel neither started nor desired, but the continuation of which will neither bring home the hostages nor make for a safer future for Israel or for the Jews of the diaspora.

But an end to the fighting — though urgently needed — is also not enough on its own to ensure the safety of Israelis and Palestinians for the long term.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s purported plan for what the so-called “day after this war” might look like would leave Gaza in suspended animation.

After months of consistently voicing his opposition to various things — no to a revitalized Palestinian Authority, no to UNRWA, no to a porous border with Egypt, no to a timetable for the return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza, the Prime Minister has finally laid out an affirmative vision – a vision for an indefinite Israeli occupation of Gaza that leaves Israel with the entire cost and responsibility of governing 2.3 million Palestinians.

That is why I and the rest of the clergy also support the establishment, as each of us has for years, of a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel.

As this horrifying war continues, it is clearer than ever that the safety of the Jewish people and of the Palestinian people are bound up in each other.

We long to see a truly democratic Jewish state, one that protects the human rights of every citizen, alongside an independent Palestine.

As Michael Kopolow of the Israel Policy Forum wrote this week, “Israel does not have to agree with the United States or Arab states, let alone with the Palestinians, on what should happen in Gaza once the war has concluded…“ Like all messy situations, the solution to cleaning it up will be messy too.

“But,” as Kopolow writes, “the ostensible plan that Netanyahu has laid out is one that takes what he is pushing against and creates the mirror-image version that is supposed to work on Israel’s behalf.

“As Netanyahu would write the script, Israel will determine what happens in Gaza without any outside input or Israeli concessions, and then everyone else will rush in to comply with Israeli dictates.

“It is difficult,” Kopolow concludes, “to imagine that anyone believes it will actually work this way other than Netanyahu, but he has laid down a public gauntlet that will be hard to walk back. If [the Prime Minister] was trying to create facts on the ground for the day after [the war], instead he made it more likely that the day after never comes.”

My friends, the specifics of what the day after looks like are not at all clear, in part because the war has been waged with no vision of that in mind.

But what is also clear is that it is time for a bi-lateral ceasefire that will bring home the hostages, allow aid to flow to millions of Gazans, ease the international pressure on Israel and on the Jewish people here and everywhere, and make space for Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community to begin to figure out what a viable day after might look like.

My friends, the day the Mishkan was finally built in the wilderness, the priests were anointed, and the sacred work of bringing wholeness and holiness to our people could begin in earnest. It had been a long road to get there, and we still had years in the wilderness to wander before we got to the promised land.

But we as a people could finally find our center– a center that rooted us in our core of Jewish values.

There will be a day after this war.

We pray for, and we will work for that time to include the 136 hostages to be returned to their families, and for the counting of days they’ve been held captive to cease.

We pray for, and we will work for that time to come sooner than later so that Israeli families will no longer need to bury their children, their spouses, their parents, their siblings, their friends in yet newer sections of Israeli military cemeteries, and so that Palestinians will no longer need to bury their dead, victims of an endless war.

There is still time for a vision of a day after that the international community will support, not only in words, but in deeds, not only with UN Resolutions, but with commitments to helping in the enormous task of securing a peace for Israel and the Palestinians, and in the rebuilding of Gaza.

אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת
This is the accounting of the Mishkan– the Mishkan of witnessing.

This, right here, is our Mishkan, and, like it or not, we are all witnesses. We are witnesses to a complex and confounding set of facts that I wish were not all true at the same time. But they are.

We are witnesses to the pain of Israelis, traumatized by the horrors of October 7 and its aftermath. And, we are witnesses to the pain of innocent Palestinians, victims of Hamas and victims of a war that, even with Israel’s best efforts, claims too many innocent victims.

Today, this Shabbat, as hard as it will be to bring to fruition, as unimaginable as it might feel right now, we join the call to be more than witnesses. We join the call to be a part of building a new Mishkan for the Jewish people in our land and for all the peoples of the region in theirs.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon, v’ratzoneinu.
May this be God’s will, and ours as well.