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Spirited Away

A haftorah of messiahs and mindfulness

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Zechariah, as depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (Missional Volunteer/Flickr)

Unlike some other denominations, we Jews save Satan for special occasions. The hoofed and horned dude appears only when the story calls for a touch of absolute evil, a black slate against which virtue shines all the brighter.

There he is, for example, in this week’s haftorah, casting aspersions on the high priest Joshua, who, we’re told, “was wearing filthy garments.” Whether we’re meant to take Joshua’s misstep literally—the high priest falling behind on his personal hygiene—or metaphorically—filthy garments meaning sins—the text makes it clear that God is not too amused with Satan’s antics.

“The Lord shall rebuke you, O Satan,” God thunders, “Is this one not a brand plucked from fire?” An angel is summoned, the filthy garments removed, Joshua’s iniquities forgotten. But God is still not satisfied. He makes a promise: “Hearken, now, O Joshua the High Priest, you and your companions who sit before you, for they are men worthy of a miracle-for, behold! I bring My servant, the Shoot.”

The Shoot is the Messiah, so called for being a descendant of King David. How do we go about facilitating his rapid arrival? No problem, says the prophet Zechariah, the haftorah’s narrator; it’s as easy as lighting a menorah. In an intricate and poetic vision, he speaks of a golden candelabrum, flanked by olive trees, a symbol of everlasting light. The magical menorah, we’re told, will be set ablaze “ ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

At first read, this is a maddening sentence, deceptively simple to the point of irrelevance. “But by My spirit,” says God, but his spirit, of course, is unknowable. His spirit is that elusive, ephemeral, and awesome stuff we devote our lives to try and ascertain. The paradox is complete: To light the menorah, we need his spirit, but if we knew his spirit, we wouldn’t need the menorah, as redemption would already be ours for eternity.

We are not, however, left altogether in the dark. The sentence has two parts, and the first one could not be clearer: “Not by military force and not by physical strength.”

Just as Woody Allen conjured Marshall McLuhan to settle an argument with a stranger, I often wish I could summon Zechariah. This is how I imagine the exchange: I’ll be at some dinner party when someone will ask me about Israel. I’ll reply as mildly and politely as I can, but it will be too late: Another guest will be paying rapt attention. No sooner will I finish my response then he’ll jump in:

“Why shouldn’t Israel have the right to defend itself?”

“If the Canadians were lobbing rockets on Buffalo, do you think America would be this restrained?”

“And what about the fact that the Palestinians left willingly in ’48, prodded by the rest of the Arab world? And what about the fact that the Arab world has allowed the Palestinian refugees to languish for decades? And why is Israel the only one required to make sacrifices for peace?”

“I’m sick and tired of Jews feeling like they have to justify their right to exist!”

Usually, this is the point at which I take a deep breath and engage. I gently convince the speaker of my Israeli bona fides, refute any historically incorrect or overly simplistic statement, and offer an alternative view as calmly as I can. But if I had Zechariah, none of that would matter. Like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, all I’d have to do is step aside for a second and return with the prophet in tow, then delight as Zechariah repeats his mantra: Not by military force. Not by physical strength.

Boy, if life were only like this. But unlike Allen’s protagonist, who seeks nothing more than validation in a petty argument, bringing up Zechariah has deeper meanings. Increasingly, his is the message we need to hear.

When Israel refuses entry to a host of men—from a renowned academic to a famous clown—who don’t agree with its policies, it’s time to roar once more: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

When it ignores its own Supreme Court and continues to allow settlers to seize private Palestinian lands, let us once again say: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

And when our discussion of Israel and its policies is increasingly vehement, increasingly thoughtless, increasingly angry, we should shout in response only this: Not by military force, not by physical strength.

It may not encompass the totality of God’s spirit, not exactly. But it’s a sound beginning.

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David says:

Always the same tired matra from Leil.

Tobi Garber says:

How have you reached this insane and suicidal conclusion and completely bypassed the reality of the pogroms and the Holocaust itself where the lack of physical strength and military force nearly led to your people’s extermination. You, and the sadly too many others like you, need an intesnive course of study with Ruth Wisse. The sickening stream of anti-Israel self congratulatory and approval-seeking self hating intelligent Jews is going to lead to a catastrophe. You will have brought it on.

Esther Nebenzahl says:

Okay, let’s abide by the Spirit of the Lord which would be the noblest way out. Those on the other side of the fence are also willing to abide by the Spirit of the Lord? The Spirit is there but everyone must be willing to accept it.
Shabat Shalom!

lynn fux says:

If you lived here you would understand as justified as it may be, we can no longer afford to look myopically thru the lens of the Shoah to justify what Israel has become.We must find a new way to navigate thru this miasma,it is leading to our self destruction.We must once again become the “People Of The Book” and use our wisdom to end all the violence,we have already proven our physical strength. Lynn Fux

Liel Leibovitz says:

David, Tobi, Esther and Lynn,

First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to both read my column and for sharing your thoughts. I am, however, a bit baffled by your comments. First of all, the core ideas you seem to object to aren’t mine but Zechariah’s. While the Bible, of course, can be interpreted in many ways, discrediting this message out of hand because of ideological or political beliefs you may hold strikes me as strange; even if we do not adopt the teachings of the prophets, I’d like to think we could do better than dismissing them as “insane and suicidal.”

Second of all, at no point did I say, nor do I believe, in some sort of weak-willed, abstract pacifism. The lifetime NRA membership card in my pocket proves that, I think, as does my service as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. I do, however, believe that power is an awesome thing, and as such should never, ever be violated or abused. Banning the entry of an academic, even one I find as detestable as Noam Chomsky, deporting a clown, defying the supreme court for no other reason than to grab more land—these are abuses of power, and I firmly believe that everyone truly passionate about Israel’s wellbeing must ask him or herself whether such abuses are necessary and what sort of future they might usher in. Besides being a moral question, this is also very much a practical one.

Finally, Esther, the point you raise is a fascinating one. My personal belief is that if we use as much power as we need to defend ourselves, and put the rest towards fostering trust and goodwill, we would not only thrive ourselves but also inspire others, which, as I understand it, had been the mission of the Jews from the moment God declared us His chosen people. Grabbing land and kicking out harmless opponents just because they may hold different opinions is nothing but a deeply regrettable abuse of power with assured disastrous consequences.

We need Liel.

99.99% of American (or any other Diaspora) Jews seem to think the Government of Israel is a monolith who made our life easier. They decide for us. We are divided in two groups:

Group A rubber stamps whatever they do:

Group B criticizes whatever they do.

Both groups A and B talk in slogans (self-hate, Holocaust, Nobel prizes, how clever we are, how charitable we are, etc)

Liel is among the 0.01% of the people who comments intelligently what he sees and hears. This must be an exhausting effort for 99.99% of the majority from the groups A and B. He makes life easier for us. For those who have not seen Annie Hall, Liel give the link to the McLuhan cinema queue episode that is one of the memorable in the history of educated cinema goers.

If you read Haaretz, you found out the brave Israeli immigration agents arrest the unemployed Filipino home care workers. Shas party request the deportation of foreign workers children at the end of the school year and not in the middle.

Liel is visionary quoting a Biblical visionary who sees

… The golden candelabrum, flanked by olive trees, a symbol of everlasting light. The magical menorah, we’re told, will be set ablaze “ ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

If we have that Golden Candelabrum, so what if 50 years from now, some Israelis will look like Filipinos with a yarmulke?

Liel,

While I agree with the main point of your dvar, I have significant reservations applying biblical paradigms to modern circumstances. Remember last year when Manis Friedman explained how we should kill all the enemies that attack us – the women, children and cattle? Reb Friedman was applying biblical logic. “Not by military force and not by physical strength” looks good on paper but when the shit hits the fan we shouldn’t wait around for Big Mo (The Shoot; Moshiach; the Messiah) to come ’round and save our tuches’. It will be up to us to do the do.

harris says:

Perhaps, the prophet speaks of moderation and more than one one solution to a problem. Too often, we seek a solution that gives us momentary satisfaction, followed by regret. Jews should beware of any unilateral responses to situations but should not feel that a physical response is forbidden. Take a moment and choose wisely. Military force and physical strength are not always the answer but sometimes it is the only one that remains.

I found this post somewhat confusing and frankly a bit simplistic – what, precisely, is the point of this piece ? That Israel should find a way to make peace? Ok, if that’s the case then I am in agreement. That war is a terrible thing which no individual or people should have to endure? OK, I can agree with that too. But to suggest that Israel should refrain from defending itself, well, that goes entirely too far in my opinion. Also, to refer to Professor Chomsky as a “renowned academic” may be technically correct, but such a reference lacks any sense of context – Professor Chomsky has previously been the invited guest of a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, which is intent on destroying the State of Israel. Given this, it seems pretty logical that he would be denied entry into Israel. I think that if the underlying sentiment of this piece is that we should strive to somehow overcome worldly challenges through spiritual strength, than that is a nice idea, but in terms of real politic and the continued existence of the Jewish State, things are not quite that simple.

gander says:

I disagree with your interpretation. Zerubbabel is charged with rebuilding the Temple. He cannot do it with might and power, but only with God’s Spirit, and in the service of God’s Spirit. It has nothing to do with lighting the menorah. A truer reading messes up your entire argument. And to blame Israel for having to defend herself makes no sense either, especially coming from someone who served in the IDF and carries an NRA card. Check Shelby Steele’s piece in today’s (6/21) Wall Street Journal.

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Spirited Away

A haftorah of messiahs and mindfulness

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