Getting Comfortable with Power

Since the attack on the kosher supermarket in France, Jewish schools in Belgium and Holland also had to be temporarily closed. I also learned that Shuli Korash, a hairdresser in France designed a new type of skullcap called the “Majic Kippah”. Made of real or synthetic hair it is designed to fully blend in with one’s own hair type and color so no-one can tell the person is actually wearing a yarmulke. This way, Jewish men who wish to cover their heads will not be subject the anti-Semitism that is rearing its ugly head in France and elsewhere in Europe.
What is our reaction to what is happening in Europe and throughout the world?
Last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Bo records the last of the three plagues that God brings down on Egypt: swarms of locusts, darkness and slaying of the first born. The main point the Jewish Sages classically derive from the Exodus story and specifically from the plagues is the triumph of monotheism over polytheism. The late Professor Casuto of Hebrew University said that each of the plagues was a demonstration of the truthfulness of the God of Israel over the falsity of the various Egyptian deities. Thus the ancient Nile, which was worshipped as a god, was turned into blood. One of the Egyptian goddesses was a figure that was half frog, half woman, hence the plague of frogs. The plague of darkness blocked out the sun, the chief god in the Egyptian pantheon and the slaying of first born took place since in ancient Egypt the firstborn were worshipped as gods, even first born animals.
So the point of the plagues was to expose the sham of Egyptian deities.
But I’d like to suggest another point to the plagues, namely, to teach us that power in of itself is not a bad thing and there exists no Torah value in being weak or defenseless. Ultimately, the plagues made Moshe and the Jewish people look strong: “And God gave the [Jewish] people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and Moses was very great in the land of Egypt and in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people” (Exodus 11:32).  
The plagues caused the Egyptians to admire and look up to Moshe and the Jewish people. The fact that they were able to successfully confront a threat enhanced their position in the world. We say it every-day in one the Song at the Sea prayer: “the inhabitants of Canaan melted”, namely, after the plagues and splitting of the Red Sea recorded in next week’s reading, the Jewish people had a reputation of being powerful. This reputation carried on throughout the Five Books and later in the Prophets where more often than not the Jews were the ones with power. 
The Torah never glorified war or power but it also never put it down if it was necessary for self-defense. When the nation of Midian joined Moab to attack the Jewish people, the Torah says: “fight the Midianim” (Numbers 25:17) and based on this the Sages of the Talmud ruled:Habah lehargecha hashkeim lehargo that one who arises to kill you, you must defend yourself and kill him first. Referring to the case of Habah b’machteres, the thief who sneaks into ones home at night, the Torah rules that it is not considered murder to use lethal force in order to protect oneself. Both of these legal principles have been adopted by almost all Western legal systems.
We do not believe in “turning the other check”. That phrase is taken from the New Testament where Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount says: “Do not resist evil…whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other…Matthew (5:38–5:42). Jesus also said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… ‘Bless them that curse you and pray for those who despitefully use you” (Luke 6:27–31).
These are not Jewish teachings. We are taught to fight evil and there is great honor in self- defense which is just one of the reasons why the modern and secular State of Israel has religious significance: because it defends Jewish lives. 

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek/Behold My Beloved is Knocking” wrote that that one of the Almighty’s “knocks” of religious Zionist opportunity created by the State of Israel is the fact that Jewish blood is no longer “hefker” or ownerless. A government with an army would ensure that there would be repercussions for accosting a Jew.  

Elsewhere Rabbi Soloveitchick said that the blue and white flag of Israel should be afforded great respect since it “has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence defending the country and the population…It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice” (“The Rav Speaks”, page 139) .

There is holiness in self-defense and there’s nothing wrong with being powerful as long as that power is not abused. The problem is usually those in power have abused it and so we and the world are understandably suspicious of those with power and we have also gotten too used to the powerless Jew. 

Political satirist Bill Maher on his talk show once asked Benjamin Netanyahu why Israel has such an image problem and why they never fail to lose the PR war. Netanyahu responded and I will paraphrase: “For 2000 years the Jew was the perfect victim, we had no land, no army, no government and no-way to defend ourselves. And by being a perfect victim we were always perfectly moral because we were always on the receiving end of the persecution and so the world got used to the idea of the Jew as a victim…but now after the Holocaust we refuse to be a victim, we’ve re-established a State with an army and so we’ve deviated from that perfection of powerless into power and there’s therefore a real historical adjustment needs to be made. We refuse to be victims. We will defend ourselves like any other normal country because we’re not going back to the gas chambers”.
And so the world will have to get used us the powerful Jew. But it has to start with us. Wemust remember we weren’t always victims and we must become less apologetic and more proud of Jewish defense. Thus our first reaction to attacks in France or in Israel is to fight back to make sure we defend ourselves properly. For us in America that means using whatever clout we have to make sure Israel has the arms it needs to defend itself and that it remain powerful! Attend the upcoming AIPAC conference! Get more involved with supporting Israel.

Just know the only Peace treaties Israel ever signed with Arab nations (Egypt and Jordan) came only after Israel defeated them in two wars (67 and 73) and through a more of hard line Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.  For there to be peace Israel’s enemies need to know she is too powerful to be defeated. Th
at’s ultimately what brought Egypt and Jordan to the negotiating table and please God the others one day as well.
Another reaction to the events in Europe is Aliyah or considering a move to Israel. Bret Stephans, who considers himself a proud Jew, this past week in the Wall Street Journal wrote to his brethren in France: “Settle your affairs, pack your things, leave home, go home.”
One last reaction for us Jews of America: up your religious observance. If we want to truly strengthen the community and bring power to our people than it’s got to be more than just supporting AIPAC and the like, we’ve got to get more Jewish. To become more committed to the ideals, values and practices of Judaism. For if we don’t uphold who we are, if we don’t live a life of Torah and mitzvot then ultimately what are we fighting to protect? Than were just surviving for the sake of survival.
We were given a Torah to live so we could illuminate the world with God’s wisdom and holiness and so although I usually stress observing mitzvot because of the meaning and spirituality it can give us personally. Now in the wake of these attacks I’m suggesting we take our Judaism more seriously to strengthen our identity. Upping in some way our observance of Shabbat, Kashrut, the way we speak about other people, maybe reciting blessings before we eat, because all the values and traditions we hold dear will ultimately strengthen our people and remind us what we’re fighting  to defend in the first place. In the merit of our Torah and miztvot, may God protect the honor and dignity of Jews from Tel Aviv to Paris and may we see the realization of our daily prayer: “Hashem oz leamu yiten” May God gives strength to this people and through that “oz”, through that strength, “Hashem Yevarech et amo b’shalom”, may God bless us all with peace.

The Lure of Buddhism

Last week film star Cameron Diaz married Benji Madden, a guitarist for the punk rock band, Good Charlotte. Although neither the bride or groom are actually Jewish they got married under a Chupah, recited the Sheva Brachot ( 7 traditional blessings), broke a glass at the end of the ceremony and spent the first minutes of their marriage secluded in a private room, mimicking the Yichud requirement performed at all traditional Jewish weddings. Some Fundamentalist Christians are also incorporating Jewish traditions into their wedding ceremonies as well.
I find this all so fascinating because of how difficult of a time I often have convincing Jews to follow their own traditions and embrace the mitzvot. But I think our reticence to accept mitzvot has to do with a misunderstanding and perhaps a failure on our part as leaders to properly explain what mitzvot are really intended to accomplish.
What is the purpose of a mitzvah and of all our Jewish traditions and rituals?  
In last week Torah reading Moses is forced to flee his native Egypt after killing an Egyptian officer who was mercilessly beating a fellow Jew. He settles in Midian, gets married, starts a family and serves as a shepherd for his father in laws, Jethro’s flock. Then in one of the most important scenes in the Torah, God appears to Moses from a flame burning in the midst of a bush.
Moses notices how the bush is burning but is somehow not consumed by the fire and the Torah tells us how he’s drawn to this sight: And Moses said: let me turn so I can see this great sight, why is the bush not burning? And God saw that Moses turned to see and He said: ‘Moshe Moshe’ and he answered: ‘here I am’. And God said: ‘Do not come any closer remove your shoes from your feet because the place upon which you stand is holy ground’.”(Exodus 3:3,4)
Why does God tell Moses not to come any closer? And why does he also command Moses to take off his shoes? What is the significance of that?
Nachmanides, the great medieval sage explains that God was telling Moses not to advance closer because he had not yet attained the spiritual level of prophesy to stand so close to presence of the Almighty. It would take time, and ultimately Moses did develop this as we see later at Mt. Sinai, God later tells Moses to come closer, to approach the thick darkness where God’s presence resided. But at this point Moses wasn’t there yet and since the entire mountain was sanctified by God’s presence and shoes cannot be worn on hallowed ground, God told Moses to take off his shoes.
Another great rabbinic commentator, Rabeinu Bechaya says the removal of shoes represents Moses’ obligation to remove the physical aspects of his existence which serve as an impediment to prophesy. Leave the physical in order to enter the spiritual realm.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (German Jewish philosopher of the 19thcentury) puts God’s warning to Moses not to approach the burning bush together with His command to remove his shoes: The burning bush represents something incomprehensible and esoteric. A bush which is burning but which never gets consumed makes no sense.  It defies the laws of nature. God was telling Moses, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, not to become too attracted or obsessed with what doesn’t make sense, with the esoteric. Focus instead on what you canunderstand, namely, that which is right beneath your feet.
In the words of Rabbi Hirsch: Instead of attempting to understand a phenomenon that is beyond your ken, contemplate the lofty destiny of the ground on which you already standing and devote yourself to it with all your heart.
The bush was like something from outer-space. It defied the laws of nature and I believe we’re drawn to those kinds of things. They intrigue us and we want to go there because we think that’s where we can find spirituality. That’s where we’ll find God. We think this world is too pedestrian, too mundane and filled with too filth and imperfection to be a spiritual place.
 
Judaism teaches just the opposite: God, we believe is to be found in the here and now and our mission as a chosen nation is not to abandon the physical to attain spiritual heights but to bring God and His spirituality into our lives, here and now, in this world.
God was telling Moses and really, all of us:
“Do not come any closer” –
you don’t need to come closer to the bush, to that which is mysterious and incomprehensible, you don’t need to leave this world.
“Remove your shoes from your feet”- remove that which is separating you from the ground, from the earth, from this world.
“because the place upon which you stand is holy ground”– where you are right now, the moment or situation in which you find yourself in this world, that moment or place has within it the potential for holiness. This world is the opportunity for holiness in your life.
How? Through the mitzvot,  through God’s commandments in the Torah.
By applying the mitzvot to the different parts of our regular and mundane lives we bring God’s holiness and sanctity into the world. 

By following the Torah’s commands on ethics in the workplace, be it by not slandering a co-worker in order to get ahead or by making sure we don’t cheat or steal from another, or making sure to disclose all our earnings when paying taxes, That’s how we bring God and Holiness into the workplace.
By introducing the laws and traditions of the Mikvah and of Taharat Hamishpacha into our marriages, we infuse our most intimate sexual relationships with sanctity.

By checking a hashgacha, a kosher label on a food package to ensure it is kosher or by reciting a blessing before we take a bite, we imbue the otherwise mundane act of eating with spiritual significance.
Dayan Grunfeld, a British rabbinic scholar of the 20thcentury, wrote that three of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo) deal primarily with our physical lives and not with what most associate with religion.
The sections of the Shulchan Aruch include:
1. Choshen Mishpat: laws of property, torts and commercial dealings
2. Yorah Deah: Food, laws of Kashrut
3. Even Ha’ezer: laws of marriage and divorce
These three sections of the halacha (Jewish law) deal with the 3 basic human cravings: power, food and sex.
Only one of the four sections, entitled Ohr Hachyaim deals with ritual law, with what we mostly associate with religion, namely the laws of Prayer, Yom Kippur, Tefilin etc. The rest of the halachic system deals with the physical world as we know it.
I always say, anyone can be spiritual in a shrine, a church or a synagogue. The real question is whether we can be holy out there in the real world. Don’t get me wrong. Meditation and prayer is certainly an important way to achieve spirituality, but the goal of Judaism is not spirituality.
There is actually no such word in the Torah. The goal of Judaism is to be holy and holiness comes from infusing the physical world with meaning and purpose, by elevating the physical life we lead by approaching every facet of our physical existence in a divinely inspired way, which is why mitzvoth play such a central role.
Mitzvot are not just rules or rituals but a Divine means of bringing holiness into the regular and everyday part of our lives in this world.
That’s why there’s so little Biblical and Rabbinic literature on the Afterlife, Resurrection or the Messianic redemption because the focus is on the here and now.
The lure of Buddhism and other Eastern religions is the lure of the burning bush, the other world kind of experience which allow us to escape the realities of this world so we can find God in some other place. We often wish to transcend the finite world so we can find peace and tranquility in another realm.

Judaism certainly shares some important parts of that. We have regular times for prayer and the Kabbalists stress the importance of deep meditation and there are Chasidic masters who go out to be alone to meditate and try to break free of the physical world. We all each start our Silent Devotion/Amidah by taking 3 steps back and then forward to help us leave the physical and enter the spiritual but if that where our spirituality ends then we fail in our most basic mission: to infuse this world with the spirituality it needs and for which it was created to receive.

God may be in another world but He placed us in this one and not to spend our limited time here trying to retreat or escape to another realm. That’s why what we do here matters the most and maybe why we, the Jewish people are so determined, despite all the persecution to which we have been subject, to still try and make this world a better place. May God bless us all with a long life and with the help of mitzvoth may we merit to imbue that life with Holiness.