SOME TIME AGO during the first Persian Gulf War, a major American magazine interviewed Saddam Hussein. Curious, I read the article and was surprised to read a few things. First, I was really surprised to read that Hussein believed he was the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. I mean, where did he get that idea from? Second, I was amazed that the Iraqis observe Asarah b’Teves as well. The “only” difference is that while we’re fasting and saying Selichos, they are celebrating what we are mourning.
I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. I just sort of thought that everyone has since done teshuvah, and that Nebuchadnezzar’s war against the Jews is today considered a blemish on Babylonian history by modern day Iraqis. Silly, isn’t it, especially since Hussein dreamed of leading the Arab world against Israel today. Clearly nothing has changed over the thousands of years since the original Asarah b’Teves.
Some Israelis recently found this out as well after trying to cover the soccer games in Dubai. They looked at themselves, being completely secular, as reporters from just another country. They expected to be treated as equals, but were not. At least one reporter had to leave early afraid for his life.
True, Dubai is an Arab country. The surprising thing is how many Jews travel there, especially Israelis, because it is a popular destination point for many other people around the world. So why shouldn’t it also be for Jews as well, especially since there is a Chabad House there and you can get good kosher food, albeit for a price?
A friend of mine once traveled to Germany and took a tour of a concentration camp. He wasn’t religious yet, but he felt an obligation to “visit” one and see what it was like. He joined a tour that included some gentiles as well. Later that night after the sobering tour, he and some of the others went to a pub and had a bit too much to drink. People got drunk, and as the Gemora warns, when “wine” goes in, secrets go out.”
To my friend’s shock, one of the young men with whom he was drinking blurted out, “It’s too bad Hitler didn’t finish the job!”
Stunned, he just sat there somewhat inebriated but sober enough to know what he heard. As he contemplated what to do next, the Jewish star he had been wearing inside his shirt popped out in plain view. Talk about Divine Providence! Realizing at that point that no one had realized he was Jewish, but that everyone now knew that he was, he stood up, took his beer stein, and hit the guy across the face with it. A brawl ensued, but he was able to crawl out of the bar without a scratch. He had learned that night that as hard as he had tried to blend in with the gentile world, it was like trying to get oil to combine with water.
That is a lesson of Asarah b’Teves. It doesn’t just commemorate the breach in the walls that led to the destruction of the First Temple. It reminds us that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter how much a Jew may try to prove otherwise.
And many do try and prove otherwise. But though they do a good job of convincing themselves, they never really convince the gentiles. Just because anti-Semitism is an ancient hatred doesn’t mean it isn’t a current problem, and will remain so until God eliminates the yetzer hara once and for all.
WE HAVE FINALLY reached the climax of the Yosef story—again. This is the parsha with the big reveal when Yosef, to stave off a threat of war, took off his “mask” and told his brothers who had really been giving them the runaround.
Can’t you just see it?
Yosef: Guess what guys, it’s me, Yosef, your long-lost brother!
Brothers: (Big collective gasp, followed by along stunned silence.)
Yosef: Hey, it’s okay! Everything is just fine! There’s no evil viceroy. Just me masquerading as one. You can all relax now because it’s really just one big, happy family reunion!
Brothers: (More stunned silence while they process all that just happened, and the 180 degree turn from jitters to joy.)
Yosef, realizing that it is too much for them to take in: So we’re good now, right?
And if you were the one in Yosef’s brothers’ sandals, how would you have reacted? If it was me, probably my relief would have evolved into anger, as I began to consider all that my brother had just put me through to take his revenge. That is probably how it would have looked to me at the time.
Sure, we the readers thousands of years later, can afford to justify Yosef’s actions and smooth over his brothers’ and father’s reaction. We’re taking in the story from thousands of years and miles away, told to us briefly and devoid of much emotion. But had we been there in the heat of the moment, what would we have thought then? How would we have reacted then?
We are led to believe that Yosef’s brothers just took the whole thing in stride, at least once they recovered from the shock, or perhaps because of the shock. No one seems to have said what we might have expected them to say,
“What? Are you kidding? Are you out of your mind? Do you know what you caused us, and our father, over the last 22 years, and especially the last year with all your shenanigans? Yes, we acted similarly to you, but when did two wrongs make a right? In fact, we came here to right our wrong, only to find out that you were doing the same to us, and in an even scarier manner! What’s the matter with you?! If you had just told us who you were in the beginning, we would have apologized profusely and avoided all the subterfuge and suffering!”
And they would have had a point. So why didn’t they?
MAKING A GOOD impression is usually a good thing if you want to be remembered. The more we are impressed by something, the longer it stays with us, which can be a bad thing if you’d rather forget about it. Last week I heard about something that so disturbed me that it left an impression on me that is preventing me from forgetting about it.
Yosef could have simply made up with his brothers from the start and everything would have been easily fixed…and then forgotten over the generations. But regarding the story we read over the last few parshios, we still take it to heart….
The miraculous military victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks would have saved the day, and then got lost among all the miraculous military victories over history. But oil burning for seven extra days? That leaves a lasting impression throughout the generations that we still feel to this day.
Had it just been between Yosef and his brothers, then they would have had a real complaint against him and reason to resent him. But they came to realize the historical significance of what had happened between them, and understood that Yosef was making sure it left a lasting impression on all of Jewish history. As we say in Hallel, “The stone the builders despised became the cornerstone.” That has been true about many Jewish leaders, and about the Jewish people among the nations of the world.
You can drive down the same street for years and barely ever notice what’s on both sides of it. But get a flat tire and have to change it on that street, and all of a sudden you will notice and remember things from that point onward. Every time you drive by the spot your brain will tell you, “That’s where we had to change the flat…” The more precarious the situation, the greater an impression it will make on you.
When I was teenager, my family drove down from Toronto to Vermont via Montreal. Just outside Montreal, we hit a major snow storm…and got a flat tire. Ever try and change a tire on a busy highway in a blizzard? Even worse, the spare tire was in the back under all the luggage. We had to remove everything in the snow to get to the tire.
Fortunately, we were traveling with friends who helped us and amazingly we got the job done. But what an experience. I can see it clear as day some 50 years later. Clearly it left quite the impression on me. We all have stories like this that make the same point.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 32
THIS IS WHY God told us, “You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; there is none else besides Him (Devarim 4:35). What is the emphasis on being shown, as if it makes a difference what we see or not? If God says believe in Me, you have to believe in Him either way.
It’s the same idea. The Sinai Experience was not just to give us Torah, but to impress us. No one else has claimed to have had a similar national experience because you can’t make up the claim if it can’t be verified, at least to the first couple of generations after it occurred. No one would buy it.
But built into Creation is the idea of a roshem—impression. When things happen, they not only impact history, they imprint it, creating a spiritual pattern that can repeat itself in physical history. The Avos understood this and used it to their spiritual advantage, and God uses it to ours. Ain od Milvado is not just a national concept. It is a national experience imprinted on our hearts.
The Pri Tzaddik says that this is why Moshe Rabbeinu insisted on bringing the tablets down, even though he had planned to break them. He knew that there was a huge difference between being told what they lost than actually seeing what they could have had, and lost. The vision of the tablets left an inedible mark on the “heart” of the nation that keeps us Jewish to this day.
It may sound too mystical for some, but that is why we tend to hook into something we can’t quite explain each time that we light the Menorah. It feels as if we’re plugging into something powerful and transcendent beyond our own personal experiences.
For Saddam Hussein, his dreams of Nebuchadnezzar grandeur were just wishful thinking that did him in in the end. For the Jewish people, Asarah b’Teves is a roshem that becomes activated on the day itself, which is why the Jewish people are still here today. And so is the story of Yosef and his brothers, helping us to better understand what we’ve been trying to rectify to finish off history, and bring redemption.