Thursday, March 15, 2012

Living Like the Angels

There is an interesting phrase recited every day during Shacharit which describes how the angels conduct their praise of God: "Notenim Reshut Zeh La'Zeh" - they grant permission to one another to serve God in their own unique way. During the angels' heavenly service, there is no room for conflict just because individual angels serve God differently. In fact, in order for the Heavens to function properly, each angel must be themselves. Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu contrasts this kind of behavior with that of human beings. Whereas people strive to outdo each other for selfish reasons, the angels encourage each other to utilize their abilities to serve God. As a result, there is peace and harmony.

Despite the fact that human beings have free will and angels do not, we can still learn a great deal from their behavior. Like the angels, it's important to acknowledge that there is more than one way to serve God. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, teacher or rabbi, businessman or stay-at-home mom, there is a place for all of us among the Jewish people. For example, each one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel carried out different tasks. Some engaged in commerce or working the fields, others in religious study, and yet others in military or temple service - and all were essential to the survival of the nation as a whole. Quite frankly, we're not all supposed to be doing the same kind of work or serving God the exact same way.

The Chofetz Chaim was once approached by a successful businessman who decided to scale down his business so that he could dedicate himself to Torah study. The Chofetz Chaim explained why his decision was wrong by way of a parable. During wartime, if a soldier unilaterally decides to leave his current post to fight in a different capacity, he will be court-martialed. A soldier must obey orders and man the position to which he was assigned. The Chofetz Chaim went on to say that this businessman's responsibility was to support Jewish institutions and the poor. If he decided to go through with ending his business success, he would be jeopardizing the position God gave him within the Jewish community.

We have to give fellow Jews the space to become the individuals God intended them to be. Otherwise, we will be contributing to unnecessary tension and divisiveness. Our mission in life can't be to turn everyone into replicas of ourselves. Trying to influence others through the battlefield of ideas is one thing; forcing others to abide by our personal ways is another. If you want to be something, go for it - just don't force it upon someone else. Remember, those differences ultimately constitute the entirety of our people. Our strength can be found via our uniqueness as individuals.

In the final analysis, interpersonal conduct is a two-way street. We always want others to be understanding of us, but that same courtesy must be granted to others. As long as someone is not objectively evil (i.e. their actions deliberately harm other people), we must do our best to let them be. Obviously, it's difficult to tolerate all the differences that exist between Jews and fulfill the concept of "Notenim Reshut Zeh La'Zeh," but there's a compelling reason to do so. When we act a bit more like the angels, we create a slice of Heaven here on Earth.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Iran vs. Israel (and the World)

Well, we were told this was going to happen. In Rashi's opening comments on the first verse of the Torah, he quotes Rabbi Yitzchak, who asks a simple question: since the Torah is primarily a book of laws for the Jewish people, why does it begin with the creation of the world instead of the first commandment given to the Jews? He answers that the Torah opens with the narrative of creation to establish God as the ultimate authority of the universe. In the future, when the nations of the world accuse Israel of stealing their land from other nations, they can respond that the entire universe belongs to God and He can grant it to whomever He deems fit.

Interestingly, the same Rabbi Yitzchak comments on the year of the Messianic revelation (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah #499). He states that Persia (i.e. present-day Iran) will become the fear of the entire world. There will be provocations and deliberations back and forth between the threatened nations. Then, the King of Persia (i.e. the leader of Iran) will destroy the entire world. (Exactly what this means is not yet known.) Everyone - including Israel - will not know what to do. However, we are told that there is nothing to fear because this will all culminate with the Final Redemption. And this time around, the redemption will be followed by eternal peace.

It appears as though Rabbi Yitzchak's most famous passages were letting us know that there would come a time in which the prevailing themes would be of delegitimizing Israel and a worldwide threat from Iran. Sound familiar? If that's not happening now, it sure seems like it. Given the seriousness of such a prophecy, some Jews might get caught up in the fact that we aren't as righteous as previous generations. How can we possibly overcome our weaknesses and have God save us from these troubling times? There is a powerful scene from Moneyball - a baseball movie based on a true story - which provides an important lesson:

The "secret home run" metaphor is quite compelling. Sometimes people get so caught up in failure that they aren't able to recognize success. In this instance, if we simply show concern for fellow Jews (whether through prayer, moral support, or just overall good behavior), we're going to be fine. Focusing on all the things we lack will thwart our perspective. In other words, we might hit a home run and not even realize it. Still, some people might wonder: is Jewish unity really considered significant on the Heavenly scales?

Our Sages explain a troubling difference between the reigns of King David and King Ahab. While David is generally regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, Ahab is described in very harsh terms because of his rogue monarch. Yet, when these two kings ever went to war, David's army would suffer significant casualties, while Ahab's army was always victorious with very few casualties. What reason could possibly be given for such a distinction? Although Ahab's reign was marred with condemnation, the people were still united and cooperative. And despite the fact that David's reign was largely praiseworthy, the people were nevertheless filled with hatred and division.

The lesson to be drawn from this is obvious. As long as unity and cooperation are the exception rather than the rule, we are vulnerable. But when we are united with fellow Jews, nothing can harm us. Especially in perilous times, never underestimate the power of unity. During each of Israel's wars of survival, individual Jews figured out a way to overcome their differences for the sake of the Jewish people. Whether it was the War of Independence, Six-Day War or Yom Kippur War, we came together purely for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Religious and political differences were irrelevant. Personal gripes and grudges were cast aside. We can do it again.

The details of how Rabbi Yitzchak's predictions will play out are unknown at this time. As with all prophetic passages, we'll only understand what the author meant after the events have occurred. However, we are assured that God does everything for a reason, and that in the end, it will all make sense. Thus, whatever happens - and whenever it happens - it will be good.