Lag B’Omer, Politics, and International Courts

On Wednesday, I received a horribly anguished call from an acquaintance. She was angry with me, with us, with the Jewish community. She had seen the just-released horrific October 7 footage of several bloodied female soldiers in Nahal Oz in the hands of the monstrous Hamas terrorists. She was clearly broken by it and could not understand why the Jewish world was not doing everything to get them out, why we were not going to Congress with every rabbi, every shul, and every Jew and just saying, “This is crazy! This is inhuman! Get them out of there now!”

She has a point.

We surely have been making efforts. Advocacy for the hostages has been constant since October 7, and that message, those posters, and a plethora of associated symbols have become ubiquitous. Hostage families have come, pleaded, and cried, and films of 10/7 have been shown. But throughout it all a veneer of normalcy prevails. We stick to the protocol, pushing harder on negotiation with the devil. She, however, was off script, correctly calling this out as the insanity it is, wondering what we could possibly be thinking.

She is right.

In politics, people are expected to uphold the veneer of acting as if things are normal even when they really are not. Politicians do not scream at injustice; they pay tribute to it. Politics treats with respect the human rights champions and faith and communal leaders who cannot call out the evil of October 7. Politics pretends that organizations like the UN, ICJ, and ICC deserve respect as forums for fostering peace and justice. Politics pays tribute to well-dressed monsters like President Raisi of Iran, a wicked butcher of humans and the leader of the government conceiving, exporting, and supporting more terror and upheaval than any other. Politicians “do what they have to do” rather than what they need to do, honoring evil instead of condemning it.

Amidst the distortions of this politicized world in which we live, Lag b’Omer brings a welcome perspective. The day celebrates the legacy of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a man who did not care for politics, who called out the evils of the powerful, did only what was right, and never pulled punches for diplomatic purposes.

The Talmud (Shabbos 33b) tells the story of a conversation between three sages. Rav Yehuda praised the actions of the Romans in creating excellent infrastructure to improve quality of life, to which Rav Yossi responded in sullen silence and Rav Shimon bar Yochai objected, noting that the Romans’ intentions were self-serving and immoral. It is noteworthy that the discussion was almost academic. What difference does it make what the Romans’ intentions were and whether they deserved praise or ridicule? Apparently even attitudes matter.

Rav Yehuda maintained the shiny diplomatic veneer with his graciousness to the Romans and was appreciatively recognized by them as the chief spokesman of the Jews. Rav Yossi’s sullen silence made clear that in his view all was not good. He would not just go along with immorality while smiling politely, and so he had to walk away. Rav Shimon went further, tearing off the cover entirely and calling it like it is. His rejection of political correctness resulted in a death sentence and forced him into hiding for years during which he and his son would immerse themselves completely in the study of Torah. It is not coincidental that it was Rav Shimon’s unapologetic rejection of superficial political considerations that led him to access pnimiyus, the Torah’s deepest truths.1

This Lag b’Omer as we celebrate the legacy of Rav Shimon, we should draw strength from his pursuit of truth over empty diplomacy. We who refuse to coat ourselves in the falsehood of diplomatic appeasement need to raise our voices louder. We may find ourselves condemned and may need to run far from the United Nations, perhaps even from DC, but we will take refuge with Rav Shimon in a world where we will be nurtured by the truths that we are willing to stand up for.

1 A note for those interested in going a bit deeper: The differences between these three sages reappear in a Talmudic passage studied in this week’s Daf Yomi (Bava Metzia 83b). The Talmud tells the story of three people of the next generation, Rav Eliezer the son of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, Rav Yishmael the son of Rav Yossi, and another whose name remains unknown. All three were conscripted by the king to identify and punish criminals. The first defended his risky prosecutions as justified by the diplomatic need to follow royal orders, while Rav Shimon’s son insisted that every punishment that he imposed was accurate and deserved. When Rav Yossi’s son was confronted by Eliyahu Hanavi about his handing over G-d’s people to be killed, he too hid behind the need to follow orders. Eliyahu would have none of it, noting that when Rav Yossi had faced just such a challenge, he had chosen to go into exile rather than politically placate the evil king.

Notice the striking parallel to the earlier story, where the same attitudes and political postures adopted in an apparently harmless context reappear in a situation that was anything but benign, the execution of possibly innocent people. One person was so dedicated to maintaining the veneer of diplomacy that he would commit an unjust murder for its sake. The heir to Rav Yossi’s sullen resistance was expected to live up to his father’s example and extricate himself from the situation and refuse to criminally honor falsehood, while the heir to Rav Shimon followed his father’s pursuit of justice without compromise.