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. That’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.