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Parashat Devarim 5774 — 07/30/2014

Parashat Devarim 5774 — 07/30/2014

You have circled this mountain long enough.  Turn northward… (Devarim 2:3)

Do not start up with them [Edom]. (Devarim 2:5)

[Basing themselves on the common Hebrew root shared by the words north and hide/hidden] the Sages teach in the Midrash (brought in Yalkut Shimoni): “If you see [Eisav] wanting to start up with you, do not stand up against him. Rather, hide yourselves from him! Where should you flee? Flee to the Torah, as Hashem said,’Turn northwards – tzafonah: meaning ‘to Torah’ [We see that tzafonah can mean to Torah] from the verse in Mishlei (2:7), Yitzpon layesharim tushi’ah – ‘He hides away [yitzpon – from the same root as the word north] wise counsel [i.e., Torah] for the upright””

   The Torah teaches us not to stand up to the gentile nations even when they provoke us. Our task is to follow in the footsteps of Yaakov Avinu in his war against his brother Eisav. As the Ramban writes in Parshas Vayishlach, “Here we find a hint for all generations, because everything that happened to Yaakov Avinu in his dealings with his brother Eisav will continually happen to us in our dealings with Eisav’s descendants. We should thus emulate the tzaddik, and prepare ourselves as Yaakov prepared himself. with prayer, gifts, and to be saved through warfare, to flee and be rescued.’  (Chafetz Chaim)

The Torah has said: If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.  (Berachot 58a)

There appear to be two opposite streams in Judaism when it comes to dealing with evil.  One is the “resist not evil” stream, as indicated in the passage from the Chafetz Chaim (the actual phrase is reported to have been said  by Jesus, which means it comes from the Rabbinic tradition of which he was a part).  The other, exemplified in the quote from the Talmud, allows, and even mandates that we resist evil.  Other examples of the latter include the law that a war in defense of the Land of Israel is a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war, in which all are required to participate, even those the Torah exempts from other wars (see Devarim 20:5).  Indeed, in the passage cited by the Chafetz Chaim, the Sages have identified three things that Ya’akov did to prepare for his meeting with Eisav: he prayed to Gd to get him out of the situation safely, he sent a lavish gift to bribe/appease Eisav (resist not), and he prepared for battle (resist).  How can these approaches be reconciled?

The advantages of resisting evil are obvious – if your survival is threatened you have almost no choice, and if your resistance is successful, the evil is no longer a threat.  The history of the modern-day State of Israel is a testament to the necessity of this approach at times.  And in Biblical times the Jewish people warred with the Amalekites (descendants of Eisav) who are considered the archetype of evil.  Saul was instructed by Gd to wipe them out entirely, and lost his kingdom as a result of his not doing so.  However a small and weak people, such as the Jewish people has been throughout most of its history, is often not in a position to resist in this manner when faced with overwhelming force.  The present Israeli government’s reaction to some of the more outrageous demands and behaviors of the present US administration are an example of the limitations of confrontation.

On the other hand, there is a downside to resisting evil.  A wise man once said, Whatever you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.  If we are focused on evil, then that evil can become an obsession with us, consuming us without laying a finger on us.  This is one reason that Torah forbids us from holding a grudge – it keeps us locked up in an unhealthy pattern of thought, long after the grudgee has moved on.  If we don’t resist the evil, we don’t fall into that trap, and certainly if it isn’t directly threatening us, we might be able to get away from it.  Even better, we may be able to find a way to transform the evil into something positive (I came across this 1994 article by a Stanford engineering professor for some interesting thoughts on this issue:  There is a downside to this approach too: evil is inherently destructive, and, left unchecked can quickly destroy what it has taken a long time to create.  Had Hitler been confronted instead of appeased before 1939, how many lives could have been saved!

Now there is a difference between the strategy Ya’akov employed and that recommended by the Chafetz Chaim.  Ya’akov’s “Resist Not” strategy was to placate Eisav with gifts, in the spirit of “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”  Eisav represents the material side of life, the zero-sum game.  Whatever he takes from Ya’akov enriches him and diminishes Ya’akov; therefore by taking Eisav thinks that he is accomplishing his goal of destroying Ya’akov.  Ya’akov, on the other hand, represents the spiritual side of life, the side that is connected to the infinite basis of life.  Ya’akov can give and suffer no loss.  Eisav tells Ya’akov, “I have a lot.”  Ya’akov replies, “I have everything” – giving enriches me, for it “makes room” for the flow of infinity through me.

The Chafetz Chaim (who passed away in 1933) is not dealing with people on the level of Ya’akov Avinu.  His advice is to “flee” from Eisav rather than to confront him in any way.  But this flight is not random – rather, he tells us to flee to Torah.  Torah is the instruction book by which we can achieve the level of transcendance that Ya’akov Avinu possessed, or at least move in that direction.

Perhaps this idea of the Chafetz Chaim’s gives us an insight into how we might reconcile the two strategies when we are faced with the necessity to deal with evil (as we all are in our lives).  Ya’akov Avinu had three strategies for dealing with Eisav.  One was confrontational and the other was yielding.  The third didn’t deal with Eisav directly at all – rather, Ya’akov prayed to Gd for the salvation he required.  That is, Ya’akov anchored himself to the infinite Basis of all existence, the level of life where all differences are reconciled and harmonized.  For on this level of absolute purity and holiness, evil cannot survive; when we operate from this level evil disappears the way darkness disappears when someone turns on the light.  The ultimate resistance to evil is to demonstrate that it actually has no substance at all!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 15: Where Do Torah and Science Clash?  (Torah u-Madda Journal, 1994)

The late Harvard paleontologist and Yankee fan, Stephen J. Gould proposed that the conflict we often find between science and religion could be resolved by noting that the two really attempt to answer a different set of questions.  Science deals with the objective world and asks, basically, “How does this work?”  Religion deals with the transcendent and asks, “What is the meaning of this?”

R. Steinsaltz takes a different perspective.  He points out that much of the “science” that we imbibe is actually popularized science. Even aside from the oversimplifications and distortions that are virtually ubiquitous in popular science, most popular science is actually an attempt on the part of the writer to answer religious questions using the language of science.  Therefore, what is often classified as a clash between Torah and science, is actually a clash between two different religions: Torah Judaism and “science-ism.”  This “science-ism” has more or less replaced Christianity in the Western world, since it has the advantage that science (the real thing) is actually verifiable and has a practical aspect to it that makes our lives easier (and allows me to write to all of you of course!).

Therefore, a Jew who is committed to Torah, but who also has grown up in the West, is actually living in two different worlds simultaneously, with a set of beliefs and assumptions that are, in some cases, contradictory.  An example is in the area of personal autonomy.  It is a matter of faith in the West that each individual is autonomous, and our only responsibility is not to hurt another person.  The Jewish perspective is that each individual is a creation of Gd, and we are bound by that fact to a set of commandments and restrictions on our behavior.  So, for example, a Jew is not at liberty to commit suicide, which is perhaps the ultimate expression of individual autonomy.

What are we to do to maintain our spiritual balance?  In Rabbi Steinsaltz’ words: I do not have to accept all of Western culture with everything in it.  I have a right, indeed an obligation, to look at it and establish my priorities.  What is my basic faith?  What are the things I value the most? Yes, I am living in a different cculture that, in certain ways, is an antagonistic one, but I still have the ability to make choices, to dissect problems, to deal with each of them separately, and to make decisions.  In other words, we need to establish a filter that looks at each influence in the culture that surrounds us, and takes the good and integrates into our framework.  This is an issue that we all must face, lest we live a schizophrenic life.