A certain moment in Asterix the Gladiator always struck me as odd, even poignant. Asterix and Obelix are recruited as gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome, and meet a group of burly, courageous, childlike warrior-slaves who await their gruesome fate in the arena. Asterix, subversive as always, teaches the gladiators children’s games (duck, duck, goose; “I bet I can make you say X”; riddles) that they (naturally) enjoy more than their regular occupation. They sit in a circle in the center of the coliseum and begin to play, to the outrage of the audience and Caesar, who if I remember correctly sends in the lions, who are in turn put off their appetites by the Gaulish secret weapon, Cacofonix (I should really reread those comics…)
Grown men, capable and powerful, sit in a circle and play at children’s games. It’s an image that has fascinated me for some time. I constantly see it playing out in real life. I think it’s inescapable. I think it’s the trial of our generation. To understand why, we have to know that there are three recurring states in Jewish history, three missions, three challenges. The first originates from the Hebrews in their desert wanderings, and the second two are in the story of Purim. Every time, a leader sent by G-d helps the Jews triumph.
Imagine our ancestors and their lot in life for those forty years in Sinai. They ate the skyfood and drank the rockwater and wore clothes that grew with their bodies and spent all day learning G-dly wisdom directly from Moses, generally recognized as a good Jew and universally recognized as a great leader. The story of their lives must be peaceful, happy, and short. What could possibly have gone wrong? Well, there were the complaints, first about the water, then about the food. There was the golden calf. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, perishing in the temple. Korach’s rebellion. The debacle with the spies. The hitting of the rock. Man, we wonder, reading all this every year for the rest of eternity, what was wrong with them?
Their problem was faith. Faith is a terrible thing, fickle and useless. Faith is the story in the Talmud of the robber in his underground tunnel, ready to steal and kill, asking G-d for success in the night’s mission. He believes that G-d runs the world; he even believes G-d can make him successful. But between his faith and his actions there is a sharp disconnect. And who doesn’t know a friendly atheist who can remind you of the religious atrocity of the day? Clearly, faith in G-d doesn’t make people better people.
No, for that, you have to see G-d. That was Moses’ job, and it took forty years to drum it into the Hebrews. G-d is not a concept. G-d is real, like tables and chairs are real. The soul sees Him; the challenge lies in the fleshly eyes that do not. Moshe Rabeinu is the tent-stake G-d drives into reality to make a fair game between the material and the spiritual. Almost everything we ever deal with is made of gross physical matter, while the belief in a higher existence is up in the air, ephemeral and difficult. Until people meet Moses, that is; somehow, he changes their minds (this phenomenon is so dangerous to the strict materialist that he invented the modern concept of charisma to explain it away).
The parallel of the desert is the shtetl, the secluded Jewish village of Europe, a world left in ashes by the Nazis and the Soviets. In the shtetl, Jews lived an impoverished, precarious physical life with a bounty of spiritual riches. Judaism was the soil, the air, the food of the shtetl; all of life was Torah and the ever-challenging yet ubiquitous Aibishter (Almighty). In spite of Pogroms and compulsion from modernized Jews to integrate into the more accepting Western European non-Jewish society, life in the shtetl was a life of peace, where all the rules were certain and G-d’s dominion was supreme. The challenge was to take the faith that was as natural to those Jews as mud in the street and effect deep internal change. For this, they went to a Rebbe, a personal Moses.
What is a Rebbe?
There once was a family of peasants who fell far behind on their debts to the nobleman of their estate. The nobleman threw them into the festering dungeon beneath his castle. The dungeon was underground, dead silent and dark. The only contact with the outside world came every day at noon, when the trapdoor in the dungeon’s ceiling would open and a servant would throw food into the pit.
Time passed. Months dragged into years. The family, refusing to die, inbred, and produced children, who with the passage of the years themselves married each other. The nobleman passed away, then his son, then his grandson. Those hoary elders who had once lived outside of the pit tried as best they could to pass their memories of the sky and the trees to their descendants. They eventually passed on, and faded into the past. The remaining family members were split into two camps: those who believed in an outside world, mainly on the word of their parents’ parents, and those who held that the outside world was a fairy tale made up to give hope to little children. The arguments between the two groups were long and never reached any conclusion. Those who believed pointed to the daily food that came through the trapdoor as proof; the others would scoff and say it proved nothing. Pits produce food from their ceilings; that’s just the nature of it, no fantasies required.
One day, a man fell into the pit, together with the food.
They convened a council. Even the most scabrous of the prisoners put aside their lice scratchers and gathered around the newcomer, who seemed rather upset for some reason. The less intellectual ones offered him a brand new scratcher as a comfort, but this made him cry more for some reason. Someone couldn’t stand it anymore and asked him, “Well, is it true? Is there an outside world?”
The man looked at them as if they were mad, and spoke, for as long as he lived, of the sky and the trees and everything else from the surface. Even those who always believed had trouble relating to him; he was so different, so emphatic and certain. But no one could deny his claims, not because of his charisma, but because it was true; he was from there. Where else could he possibly be from?
That’s a Rebbe, and that’s the difference between seeing and believing.
We can learn how to see, if we choose.
Inevitably, the Jews cannot live peacefully forever. The clouds of glory will recede; the shtetl will burn. They must learn to live under Haman.
What are Jews to do when the most powerful of all government officials declares death to all who practice Judaism? Their knowledge of morality, of living a G-dly life, will not suffice. The question is: Your Judaism or your life? One may see the truth, but is it one’s entire reality? A pit-Jew may know with complete certainty that there is a Truth, but will they die for it? In other words, is it possible to make distinctions between life and Judaism? When life is Judaism in the most real way, such that death is the easy decision, it’s called Mesiras Nefesh, and it reflects the deepest part of us where we don’t just do Jewish, we are Jewish, before we are male/female, human, religious, or even logical. In the times of Purim, the Jews finished what they started at Mount Sinai; they realized that they could not and would not be separated from G-d. If our souls only saw G-d, there could be an obstruction or a blindness that severed our connection. But our souls are one with G-d, and it only takes a genocidal maniac to bring it out of us. That’s why G-d sends the genocidal maniacs. Mesiras Nefesh, as a relationship with G-d, isn’t for the fainthearted.
In the dark days under Stalin, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayatz, stood against the darkness with utter impunity. He ran an underground network of ritual pools and slaughterers and, most importantly, chadorim, Jewish children’s schools, to keep Judaism alive. He gave no quarter or any easy answers, and Jews flocked to him by the thousands. He sent his Yeshiva students, often children of fourteen or fifteen, beloved as his own daughters, on deadly missions throughout Russia. The KGB would take them out in the dark of night and shoot them. The Rebbe would send replacements.
This is Mesiras Nefesh: He once said in a talk that if they come to you and tell you that either you put your child in a government school or they will burn you alive, you should jump in the fire. This was illogical; you would die and they would get your kids anyway. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.
A Chassid wrote to him once, explaining how the authorities warned him that they knew of the recent birth of his son, and that if he had the boy circumcised they would send him to Siberia. The Rebbe wrote back a two-word answer: “Fohr Gezunterheit!” Go in good health! How the Chassidim loved him, and he them.
Mesiras Nefesh, in its most pristine, nonsensical, G-dly form, is perhaps found in a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus. He once became aware through spiritual means that he would share his portion in the world to come with another Jew. Curious, he sought the Jew out, and the trail led him to a shack in the middle of the woods. The owner greeted him at the door, and what an owner! Large as a house. Grotesquely fat. The Holy Besh”t asked if he might stay the night, and the Jew acquiesced. The Baal Shem Tov watched his host for a day, and could not figure out what great merit he possessed to partake in a rich afterlife. The Jew’s service of G-d was subpar at best: questionable Tefilin, hasty prayers without a Minyan, a day spent hunting without Torah learning. The only unusual thing about the man was his size, and the eating that caused it, enough for a battalion at every meal. The Baal Shem Tov asked the man why he ate so much, if he’d pardon the question.
He said, “When I was young, my father was killed in a pogrom. They dragged him into the middle of the town square and decided to burn him. Now, my father was a small man, very skinny, and when they threw him into the fire he went up like kindling, returning his soul to his maker in moments. I decided then and there that when they come for me, and throw me in the fire, I’m going to burn and burn and burn and burn…”
Does it make sense to you? No? Good.
As inevitable as the genocidal maniac is, the eventual Jewish victory is even more inevitable. Ask Haman, or Stalin. But the new world order comes with its own set of problems. External enemies evoke Judaism like nothing else; in their absence, it’s easier to forget our souls. Many Jews who lived on the brink of execution day and night in the Soviet Union moved to the United States and, to put it kindly, became just like the rest of us. Cars, TVs, pools, vacations. Stuff. What happened to life is G-d and G-d is life and shoot me if it makes you feel better about it?
In the Sinai Desert, the issue was a Judaism that wasn’t true enough. In the time of Haman’s decree, the issue was a Judaism that was true to the point of martyrdom, but that truth was dependent on an outside cause. A disciple of Moshe might not have to die for his Judaism, might only be able to sacrifice his animals in the temple, or his money to charity, but what he does, he owns. His merit cannot be taken away from him. The follower of Mordechai in Haman’s times, the time of the decree, operates at a level that is much more serious; he is willing to sacrifice his life to put his right shoe on before his left as Jewish law dictates, but that decision does not come from him; it is forced upon him. Remove the outside force, and he reverts to whoever he was before, spiritually penniless.
It is only after Haman’s decree, when Esther is the queen and Mordechai is second to the King and the Jews live in wealth and security that they G-d expects them to combine the two approaches. Everything they do, they will own, because there is no outside spiritual impetus, no great enemy to drive them toward G-d. There’s only wealth, fortune, and power. But they no longer live in the shtetl, and the old method of a surrounding culture that will buoy their spirits and isolate them from depravity is no longer an option. They are of the world now; they have left the desert. Their inspiration has to come from within. Mordechai can instruct them, but he can no longer carry them. They themselves must arrive at the decision that all they want, with the same depths of self-sacrifice as their fathers who weathered fire and water, is G-dliness. And then G-d will grant their wish.
This is what it means to live in 2014. There are very few Jews today who could honestly claim to exist in a cultural bubble actually helps their service of G-d. There are very few Jewish leaders who can confer upon us their experiences from beyond the pit. On the other hand, there is also no immediate danger to the Jewish people, few dictators that have the power to threaten the lives of millions of Jews, who force us to choose between our lives and our Judaism. For this, we can all thank G-d.
That same Lubavitcher Rebbe who stood up against Stalin arrived in the New York harbor at an old age, in a wheelchair, determined to start again, as he did when he left the shtetl for a life of roaming exile in Eastern Europe. His American followers greeted him, and he did not like what they had to say. They told him, in effect, that America was different. The old Jewish way was the European way, and would never work on those golden shores.
His immediate response was to make a historic speech, and declare that “America iz nisht anderesh,” America is not different. It can work here, too.
We stand at a point of history unlike any other. It has never been so trivial to be Jewish, so easy to forget. It is so simple to be an American first, an Israeli first, a humanist first, an environmentalist first, a citizen of the world first, a democrat first, a republican, a social media cultist, an animal rights activist, an anti-bullying protester, a vegetarian, a vegan, a gun nut, a lifehacking gizmodo cellphoneista, a businessperson, a family man, an interior decorator, a charedi, a secularist, a kitten picture captionist, a yiddishist, a jerk, a pop culture flunky, a music nerd, a Talmudist. We are distracted. It is not a religious issue; it’s the logical issue of wasted potential. Just as it is a terrible waste for grown men to play children’s games, so, too, it is terrible for us, the first generation of all time who have to opportunity to be Jewish on our own, from within, to decide we prefer shiny objects and the fad or anti-fad of the day.
Someone once wrote to the Rebbe about the inherent limitations of being an observant Jew. Isn’t it a form of slavery? they wondered. Hundreds of rules, hundreds of restrictions. You can’t even put on your pants the way you want to.
The Rebbe’s response, to paraphrase:
Freedom is relative. Take a plant, for example. The highest form of expression for a plant, what separates it from mere inanimate objects, is its ability to grow. Therefore, to stunt its growth is to limit its freedom. But to root the plant in one spot and to disallow it free motion is not an imposition; on the contrary, plants don’t move. An animal, who can also move, is considered abused if it is kept caged and never allowed free range of motion. Freedom for the animal is different than that of the plant. So too, when we make the step to human beings. A person can think abstract thought, while an animal cannot. To deny a person an education, the ability to think, to express his or her innate intelligence, is oppression, but an uneducated animal has lost nothing at all. Within humanity there is a subset called the Jew, with a unique mission from G-d that comes with its own needs. The Jewish soul is not free unless it is connecting to G-d through Torah and Mitzvos, just as a person is not free without intelligence and an animal is not free in a cage. And that is why Judaism is freedom.
We have to break free from the distractions, and realize just how much potential we have. G-d believes in us, as do all the Rebbes, from Moshe to Mordechai to our own time. Grown men must put away their toys and their riddles, and become who they were born to be.
Image courtesy of Flickr.