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.

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