Thursday, August 20, 2015

Billy Jack & the Mullahs - Reflections on Parashat Shoftim 5775

(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

Those of you of my vintage may remember a cult film In the early '70's called Billy Jack starring Tom Laughlin in the title role. Billy Jack was the ultimate outsider: part Native American, a Green Beret Vietnam war veteran and martial arts master. In the context of the time: he was bi-racial, rejected by both whites and Indians; he was a Vietnam war veteran at a time when Vietnam vets were being publicly humiliated; and a martial arts master long before anyone in the US had ever heard of Kung Fu or Bruce Lee. He was an odd duck, pretty much ostracized by everybody. 

Except for the people he defends. In the film, Billy Jack takes on predatory biker gangs and corrupt politicians who prey on the weak and the vulnerable of their society. For those whom the law had abandoned, he uses his own unique brand of street justice and martial arts to extract justice and becomes a cult hero in the process.

The one thing that stands out in my mind about Billy Jack (and I must confess I haven't seen the movie since I was 10 years old) is how he prepared for the big showdown with the baddies. In a strange melding of Native American spirituality and reminiscences of his Hapkido Master, he goes out into the desert for self-reflection, enduring a rigorous regimen of spiritual preparation, self-awareness and physical discipline. 

It was only by turning inward that he could prepare for the battle to come, because in the battle between good and evil, spiritual, not physical, preparation is demanded. 

This week's parashah is all about War and Peace. Moses describes how to establish an orderly, peaceful civil society based upon the rule of law. 

He also discusses the rules of War.

The Jewish Army was an army of citizens: we had no professional soldiery. Deuteronomy Chapter 20 describes the words of encouragement given to the citizen-soldier by the Cohen, the Jewish Priest: 'this is a defensive war, and A-lmighty Gcd will go before you to fight your battles for you and perform miracles for you as He has done since the days of Moses.' 

After this oration, the Priests would then offer army exemptions for newlyweds and the like. And after that, the Torah says:
[After the Priests has spoken] the Shotrim (police/sergeants) added on the following exemption: Let any man who is afraid or is soft-hearted go and return to his home, lest he demoralize the hearts of his brethren like his. (20:8)
The commentators cite a dispute in the Talmud (Sotah 43) on this verse between Rabbi Yossi of the Galilee and Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Akiva understood "soft-hearted" to mean that, despite the priestly promises of success on the battlefield, this man lacked faith in the outcome of battle. In other words, he lacked faith in Gcd.

Rabbi Yossi, however, felt that the soft-hearted soldier believed plenty in Gcd, only he didn't believe in himself: in reflecting upon his own behavior, the soft-hearted man realized that he was not deserving of the Providential intervention promised by the Cohen. He believed that the Jewish Army would prevail, but he feared that he personally might not survive owing to his less than valorous behavior in his private life.

And who is valorous? He who possesses self-control. As the Torah states: he who is slow to anger is greater than a hero, and he who is the master of his emotions is greater than a general who conquers a city. (Avot 4:1)

This week, secret codicils of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement were revealed which allow the Iranians to verify compliance of the agreement with their own nuclear experts. In other words, the wolves are guarding the hen house.

Neither advocates nor opponents of the Agreement seriously believe that the Iranian Nuclear Development Program is intended to develop therapeutic medical radio-isotopes. (Oh, sorry: except the BBC.)

Throughout the negotiations and even as recently as this week, the Iranians have publicly and unabashedly reiterated their stated goal of destroying Israel and her seven million Jews. And if the Twentieth Century has taught us anything, it's that when demagogues threaten genocide it is foolhardy ignore those threats. Iran and her allies will attack Israel with every means at its disposal when it believes it has sufficient advantage to prevail.

At best, the agreement might defer war until the politicians responsible for crafting it are no longer accountable for their actions. That's the general modus operandi of politicians: take the money now, and kick the can down the road for someone else to deal with later. 

But when all the dust settles, tens of billions of dollars in hard currency will have been released to the Iranians in exchange for unverifiable assurances of their goodwill. The goodwill of the same Iranians who are gleefully and very openly preparing for genocide.

The Iranian Nuclear Agreement guarantees war. 

But take heart: the Torah likens the Jewish People to the moon: no matter how bright it may appear in the night sky, the moon has no internal light of its own, its brightness reflects a mere fraction of the light of the sun. So too the Jewish People: the light that others see in us is actually the Gcdly Light as reflected through the Covenant of Sinai. 

In other words, those who fight Israel have no quarrel with us; they fight against Gcd Himself, and can never prevail. As the Torah says, Gcd will go before the Jewish People to fight our battles for us and save us. 

Just ask the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Nazis. They may get in their licks, but we always wind up on the winning side of history, surviving and enduring.

The question is Rabbi Yossi's: are we worthy of that Divine Intervention? Are we worthy of the Miracle?

Again: who is a Gibor (valorous)? He who possesses self-control. As the Torah states: he who is slow to anger is greater than a hero, and he who is the master of his emotions is greater than a general who conquers a city. (Avot 4:1)

How well served are we by a Jewish Leadership that is dragged through the mud almost weekly by revelations of sexual or financial impropriety? By the leadership of gutless technocrats who weigh every decision not on the basis of right or wrong, but on the basis of mitigating liability, and who tilt justice towards the haves at the expense of the have-nots? Who publicly blather pieties while privately chasing power, money and sex?

We need Giborim (the brave, the mighty) as our leaders, not the rachi halev, the soft of heart and mind, like our current crop of complacent, corpulent cowards.

And what of ourselves? All Jews (and everyone who believes in the One True Gcd) must prepare for the coming difficulties by making ourselves worthy of the Miracle that is about to occur: by rectifying our behavior, returning to the basics, and preparing spiritually for the rocky path ahead. 

Difficult times await. Here and now, during the penitential month of Elul, we must each go to the "desert" for self-reflection, spiritual preparation and self-awareness. 

For it is only by turning to Gcd as a united people with one heart that we will make ourselves worthy of the great Redemption which is about to unfold before our very eyes.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Silver Swans and Crusts of Bread - Reflections on Parashat Eikev 5775

(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

The silver swan, who, living, had no note,
When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her head against the reedy shore, 
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
"Farewell, all Joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise."
                                                     - Orlando Gibbons, 1612

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is Moses' swan song, his final testament; his last, desperate attempt to warn the Jewish People of the ethical pitfalls that attend to great prosperity and power, and which could (and did) lead to our undoing.

We are taught that Moses had a debilitating speech impediment. And yet here, at the end of his life, his silent throat is unlocked, eloquently and passionately bidding us not to behave like the boorish, honking goose. 

Parashat Eikev is curious in the following respect: together with Dvarim and Va'etchanan, these first three parshiot, i.e., the first 334 verses of his Grand Oration, contain only a scattering of Mitzvot (commandments). One might have expected Moses The Lawgiver to be cramming his final words with law.

Instead, he speaks of broad themes, and drives them home over and over again:

- Each time I prayed for Gcd to forgive the Israelites, they were forgiven; but when I asked forgiveness for my own (minor) tresspass, I got crickets;
- You get to settle the Land of Israel, while I will be left behind to die in this desert;
- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had their squash together and Gcd loved them for it, but you all, their descendants? You leave an awful lot to be desired;
- So the blessings about to be bestowed upon you are not a consequence of your great righteousness, but rather the fulfillment of the Divine Covenant with the Patriarchs;
                                                AND YET...
- Gcd loves you despite your failings, because He sees the great potential in you;
- Gcd pushes you and tests you and challenges you to help you grow and develop;
- Don't anger Gcd by worshiping false gods (can I say that enough times?);
- Observe, internalize and do the Mitzvot, because they are ultimately for your own good;
- And in light of the (undeserved) blessings that you are about to receive, do not forget to thank Gcd in your prosperity.

Moses is sharing a hugely important secret with us: the secret of Context.

Context is defined as the set of circumstances or facts surrounding a particular event or situation. For our purposes, Context means a Torah-based framework for understanding our relationship to Gcd, as well as for understanding ourselves, our neighbors and the greater world we inhabit.

That's why here, at the very beginning of his speech, Moses isn't giving us any specific mitzvot; they will come later. 

But right up front, he is laying down a historical, social, ethical and political framework to use in understanding the mitzvot he is about to teach; tools that he is also bequeathing to us, here in the 21st Century, to accurately analyze our own lives and our own current events (it's the 58th Century, actually, but hey - who's counting?).

Without context, facts are merely isolated data points. But with context, data becomes information, organized facts become knowledge - and knowledge is the prerequisite to wisdom.

Moses famously says,  "...not by bread alone does Man live, but from everything which flows from Gcd does Man live." (8:3) The entirety of that which flows from Gcd, i.e., understanding the deeper meaning of life; not just our physical existence, but the holistic view of mind, body and spirit - that is Context.

That's also why Moses commands us this week to bless Gcd for our most basic need, that of food: "And when you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Lord your Gcd..." (8:10) For millennia, no matter how poor or how rich, Jews do not let a crust of bread pass their lips without saying thank you to Gcd, because in so doing, we provide context to the act of eating.

And the hundreds of other blessings the Jew recites every day constitute the backdrop, the context, of our spiritual life.

Moses was the greatest prophet that ever lived, and yet even he could not foresee every future problem the Jewish People would encounter on our long and difficult path back home. So he gave us a set of tools, adaptable to every culture and situation; a moral sextant to guide us through the inky night of the diaspora.

As parents, we must absolutely teach our children how to properly perform the Mitzvot. But we must also provide them with Context, a cogent worldview that explains why the Mitzvot matter. When you raise a child in the Context of Torah; that is, when you raise a child who can't wait for Shabbat to arrive; when you raise a child who wants to pray every day; when you raise a child who respects her parents out of love and not out of fear; when you raise a child who willingly separates a portion of her allowance to those less fortunate without being told; when you raise that kind of kid, you don't have to worry about teenage drunkenness, accidental pregnancies, assimilation and intermarriage. 

In the age of the 24/7 cable news cycle, we are deluged by thousands of data points every day. The News outrages, shocks, titillates, entertains - for a moment, anyway, before we are distracted by the next disaster or wardrobe malfunction or Kardashian break up.

In the absence of context, the news itself become little more than a carnival freak show, itself a distraction from the most urgent issues of our time.

But with the Perspective of Torah, wise conclusions can be reached. In fact, with the proper perspective, Torah might even be found in the lyrics to a 400 year old madrigal. (wink)

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: To read an earlier Blog Post on this Parasha click HERE.

PPS: Anyone in the Lehigh Valley is cordially invited to my Tuesday parasha classes. There is of course no charge, and people from many different walks of life participate. Please contact me for times and places.