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Friday, 6 November 2015

Sitting on the fence hurts

Daf Yomi Sotah 11


Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of tragic stabbing attacks in Israel.   Israelis are living in fear; it is unclear when and where the next terrorist will strike.  Unfortunately, the response from world leaders has been disappointing, with many calling for calm on both sides of the conflict. 

What does that even mean?  How are we meant to remain calm in the face of violence?  Should we just stand there and do nothing when they pull their knives out?  Should we resist the urge to fight back?  Sadly, such statements stem from ridiculous moral equivalencies, the likes of which suggest that there’s no right and wrong in the picture.  Tragically, that approach was adopted by Chamberlain before WWII and Switzerland has still never learned their lesson.

Indeed, for many years, the Canadian government would not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They preferred a ‘neutral,’ ‘even-handed,’ ‘balanced’ approach, noting that each side had its narrative.  Thank G-d, over the last number of years, our country has not been afraid to take a strong position.  We have led the world in proclaiming that there is a clear right and wrong here.  That it’s not okay to blow up buses or randomly stab civilians.  May we continue to lead for years to come!

Rabbi Chiya bar Aba quoted Rabbi Simai:  Pharaoh consulted with his three advisors concerning his decree to enslave the Children of Israel and drown their baby boys: Bilam, Iyov, and Yisro.   Bilam, who was in favour of the decree, was eventually killed.  Iyov, who was silent, was eventually stricken with afflictions.  Yisro, who was opposed to the decree and forced to flee for his life, merited to have grandchildren sit as members of the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Holy Temple.

You can imagine how the conversation went in Pharaoh’s Situation Room. 
Pharaoh: What are we going to do about the Jewish problem?
Yisro: With all due respect, Your Majesty, you’re being cruel to them.  You can’t treat people like chattel.
Bilam:  What are you suggesting, Yisro?  Free the slaves?  They’re the foundation of our economic prosperity!  To free them would be financial suicide!  What’s more, let me tell you about another major issue I see brewing that will be our death down the line if we don’t deal with it now – the number of Jews in this country.  If they keep multiplying at their current rates, one day when we’re at war, they’ll rise up as a fifth column and join our enemies.  I say we drown their babies while we still can.
Yisro: Are you nuts?  Have you no sense of morality?
Pharaoh: Quiet!  Bilam speaks the truth.  Be gone, Yisro!
Iyov is listening to all the back and forth and he doesn’t know what to say.  On the one hand, he knows Yisro is right – what kind of evil regime would drown babies?  On the other hand, what use is there in saying anything?  It clearly won’t change the situation.

As a result of Yisro’s stance, he is blessed with righteous descendants, leaders of the Jewish people.  Bilam is killed for his wickedness.  But poor Iyov ends up losing his family, his business, his health; in short, his life is ruined because he couldn’t bring himself to speak up.  He is neither here nor there in his actions and so the consequence is neither here nor there.  He is not killed; he is not blessed with a good life; instead, he is half-dead, living a life of pain and suffering.

The message is clear.  Speak up!  Take a stand!  Don’t waffle.  Don’t sit on the fence.  When it comes to most issues in life, there is a right position and a wrong position.  Israel wants peace, Hamas won’t even recognize Israel’s existence!  Israel does its very best to protect innocent civilians; Hamas sends missiles indiscriminately and uses bystanders as human shields.

Admittedly, some issues are not as clear-cut.  That doesn’t mean you should avoid them.  Educate yourself and do your best to figure out what is the correct approach.  But don’t sit on the fence.  Iyov sat on the fence.  He equivocated.  He said that there are two sides to the story and he couldn’t make a decision.  And look how his life turned out.   Chamberlain sat on the fence and look what happened.


There are two sides to every story.  But most of the time, one side is in the right, while the other is not.  May you never shy away from standing up for what is right!