by Rabbi Avi Matmon
The cruelty of war brings out the ugliness in man. After World War I ended, Soviet Russia, hoping to advance through the Baltic States in order to bring about a Socialist revolution in Germany, attacked in November 1918 and conquered three-quarters of Estonia's territory. They imprisoned many of the top-ranking officers to the lowly soldiers of the army, sending them to a favorite Soviet Hell spot, Siberia. Many of the top-ranking officers would be forced and subjected to clean toilets and perform demeaning janitorial jobs in these work camps. It was a military tactic, and quite effective at that, of the Russians to demoralizes them.
It was there that a Jew, an inmate in this horrific camp who survived the hell, who was able to tell over an incident that occurred in the prison barracks a story which is equal parts peculiar and extraordinary. The Jew, a light sleeper, would notice one of the Latvian prisoners get up in the middle of the night and reach out to a duffle bag under his bed. He then would put on his old general's uniform that was folded neatly in the bag. It was a sight to see and, frankly, comically weird, as this prisoner of war walked to the mirror, decked out in full uniform, and saluting. He would mumble as if he is giving orders to his subordinates. This would occur nightly. The Jew once had an opportunity to ask this particular prisoner about his midnight antics. The ex-general replied firmly. "Here I'm in prison but this is not the reality. The reality is I am a general; this is who I am. I am not a janitor." The prisoner, the ex-general, cannot accept his new status. It was obviously a tremendous down grade of the respect honor and importance of what he was.
In this week's parsha, the Israelites are slaves to the Egyptians. The Israelites were persecuted and were over worked to say the least. They were forced to work even on Shabbat until Moshe intervened and persuaded Pharaoh for a day of rest "to rejuvenate" during the week. As we begin the book of Shemot and find our ancestors in an unfortunate predicament, we disclose something very unusual and against, for the most part, human nature. G-d proclaims that the redeemer is finally here and it's Moshe. He will pilot the Hebrews out of Egypt into the promise land. There is only one problem. The leader of the Jewish people is none other than his older brother Aharon. Well, guess who has to step down.
Interestingly, what we see from the pasuk is quite extraordinary on Aharon's part. Not only does he step down and gives over the mantle to Moshe, he is SAMEACH BEHLIBO -he is happy in his heart. The narrative probes Aharon's heart and we discover not only he's okay with it but he is ecstatic. However, it seems Aharon is clearly downsizing his ability. To give up power for the sake of the greater cause is extraordinary.
My articles are generally "feel good" material about our heritage; I hope I infuse an entertaining educational publication. Besides that, it's also about self-improvement and how to better ourselves as individuals as well as how can we improve ourselves on a national level. The goal is to accelerate in one direction and that is up. To downgrade our abilities is not an option. We are born with a sea of opportunities and that has to be maximized. We shall not allow anything to hamper our potential!
However, we learn a powerful lesson about life from Aharon. For it is quite common that one has to downgrade his status in this world. Although, it is bold and politically incorrect, a writer's death seal - chas vesholom - is to write about reversal of fortune. We tend to gravitate toward the rock 'em sock 'em go get 'em positive outlook that one wants and is exited to read. However, I felt compelled to write on this important topic because this is reality! It's important to know. There are times where we have to paddle back with the hope to eventually move forward. Or maybe, there is no more moving forward and the test is to deal with the predicament. Perhaps facing setbacks is growth.
It pained me to see many of my Jewelry comrades after enjoying a great run of success, especially during the Obama Presidency, having a reversal of fortunes. They would give me a tour, with pride, of their big luxurious offices, with many employees, only after a span of 5 to 10 years, to let go of the majority of them and move to smaller confines. Unfortunately, this is quite common!
Rabbi Ginsberg spoke at the funeral of Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt'l and he said something quite astonishing which I will never forget. He said that, towards the end of his time in this world, Rav Henoch confided in him and told him the most difficult decision in his life was to step down as head of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. Although he was not well and it was evident that he was no longer able to go through the daily rigorous work load of a Rosh Yeshiva - Head Task Master, and even though he handpicked his successors himself, he found it agonizing to step down. Yes, it's true that he nurtured and built the Yeshiva every step of the way and made it into formidable Torah institution. Nevertheless, he had a hard time pulling the trigger. Here is a giant in Torah who instilled in his students, it was the motto of the Yeshiva, to refine their character, yet he had difficulty giving up the power. It should be noted that many Torah leaders were not able to pull the trigger and pick a successor in their lifetime and their followers suffered the consequences. We learn how downright challenging it is to give up power. It is absolutely tough to say, "I'm not the go to guy anymore!" Is the reason a case of maintaining honor?
It would be unprecedented and illogical to say that the reason why many of our leaders and great Torah G-d fearing people are reluctant to give up power for honor sake. There is a mindboggling Midrash that will have one raise his eye brow on the transition of power between Moshe and his successor Yehoshua.
The Midrash states: "Moshe said to God: Master of the World, let Yehoshua take my crown and I shall live. God said to him: Act with him as he has acted with you. Moshe immediately went to the house of Yehoshua... They went out, and Moshe walked on the left of Yehoshua... At that time, Moshe cried and said: Better a thousand deaths than one jealousy." (Devarim Rabbah 9:19).
In other words, Moshe asked Yehoshua what G-d told you in the prophecy. Yehoshua replied I cannot disclose that information. Moshe cried out that a thousand deaths would be better than to live longer and not be the leader. There are those who say that Moshe was not condemned to die in the desert - rather that he could not be the leader of the people in the Land. He had the opportunity to enter the Land as a "citizen", but preferred death to the jealousy of living under Yehoshua's rule. Moshe was considered Mr. Humble par excellence. How can he not see his loyal student take over? Why was it so difficult? Could it be that Moshe was seeking honor? Was holding on to power so difficult to let go? Was he that power hungry?
Another bizarre incident where we find holding on to power is King Shaul. A request from King Shaul to the Prophet Shmuel. Shaul had been berated by the Prophet Shmuel for not listening to G-d command. He was then informed that G-d had become disgusted with him and would terminate his reign. Shaul then requested, "Show me honor before the elders of my people and before Israel" (l Shmuel 15:30)
Of what use is this meaningless honor? Had he not been informed that he lost his regal stature? This from Shaul the prime example of humility, of whom Shmuel testified, you are very small in your eyes (l Shmuel 15:17) who hid in the kitchen to avoid being chosen as king! Before he was anointed he refused the position. The answer is that Shaul understood one's urgent need to retain some remnant of his former regality in order to slow his descent. His plea to Shmuel is not to abolish the decree but to slow its effect so that he not becomes easy prey for his evil inclination. He begged Shmuel to cushion his fall so he would not become shattered by the impact of the terrible news. We learn that power has an enticing element. After Shaul retained the Kingdom and all its glory he realized that power is very gratifying. One has to ask gratifying in what sense. One must be forced to say that perhaps the reason wants to retain power stems not from selfish negative intentions.
A number of weeks ago, we read the story of Chanukah and about our heroes, the Maccabees. G-d had mercy on the Jews and our heroes prevailed. We all have that sense of pride of what Mattisyahu and his sons accomplished. It was a magnificent display of courage, belief in G-d and national pride; Kol HaKavod to them. Little is written about the Maccabees. Surprisingly, only one side of a page is written about them in Tractate Shabbat, while a whole tractate and a Megila is dedicated to the holiday of Purim. Why is that so?
In the Torah, nothing is coincidence. There is always a reason why things are the way they are. Chanukah always falls out on the week when we read about the story of Yehuda and how he earned the right to be the leader of the brothers. The bracha of our patriarch Yaacov not only crowns Yehuda as royalty, but his descendants as well. The kingdom is only to come out from Yehuda. Only under the extreme dire situations should Israel alter this tradition.
Unfortunately, such was the case with the Maccabees; there was nobody from the tribe of Yehuda at the time worthy to be King. Therefore, Shimon, one of the remaining sons of Mattisyahu, became King temporarily. However, what started out as a noble gesture, even though the original Maccabees were as sincere as one can get, their descendants were not. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once again, we see that it is very hard to let go of power and kavod, especially when the high position is passed down from generation to generation, and one feels it is mine to inherit.
Our sages informed us that whoever says they are descendants of the Maccabees are terribly mistaken. Because they hung onto the kingdom longer than they were supposed to, all the descendants were wiped out. This was the curse, for they had no business to hang onto the kingdom longer than they did, for the kingdom belongs only to Yehuda. It is evident that they just could not let go of the power. The Maccabees, by hanging on went into a self-destructive mode and are no longer.
Perhaps, one can derive an answer from a fundamental principle that we find in our holy books. The Torah states that humanity was created in the image of G-d - B'Tzelem Elokim. What is it in our nature that is G-d-like? Rashi explains that we are like G-d in that we have the ability to understand and discern. Maimonides points out that the Hebrew words translated as "image" and "likeness" in Bereshit 1:27 do not refer to the physical form of a thing. The word for "image" in Bereshit 1,27 is "Tzelem", which refers to the nature or essence of a thing, as in Psalms 73:20, Maimonides elaborates that by using our intellect, we are able to perceive things without the use of our physical senses, an ability that makes us like G-d, who perceives without having physical senses.
It is our soul that is labeled "Tzelem". For this reason, we are always startled when we find out a person dies, even if the relationship was strictly acquaintance status. Our soul is eternal-Godly and cannot bear to see the body cease to exist.
As we take a step further, there are G-dly traits that we have been incorporated with that we gravitate towards. G-d is MALCHUT-kingship and therefore we're inclined to be attracted to leadership-authoritative roles. We yearn at the possibility of reaching and holding on to that position for when reached, we feel unlimited power, similar to G-d. Humans have a drive to rule; power it is very attractive. How many of us look in the mirror and pretend we are it, the captain of the basketball team, head CEO, Rosh Yeshiva. This is Tzelem Elokim - G-dly trait.
So, it is perfectly normal to have this trait and it is perfectly normal to have that agonizing reaction. Nevertheless, it has to be contained somewhat. We learn from our great Sages "Everything in moderation". "Perhaps", Rabbi Asher Hertzberg suggest, "the remedy to contain the trait of pursuit and hanging on for too long of power, is by having another perspective of Shabbat. The Torah hints by referring to Shabbat as Malchut-kingship. Why is Shabbat called Malchut? G-d said, "do not work on Shabbat". Why don't we work? Because G-d said so. By virtue of Shabbat we are humbled and abandon, for the most part our quest for power. The message of Shabbat is that we relent to one King, one Boss, one Authority and that of course is G-d. We relinquish the controls to the master of the Universe.
In Egypt, we were slaves we were worked to the bones. We cleaned toilets and did all the most humiliating work a slave performs. However, the Israelites kept three things. They kept their Jewish names; they kept their clothes; they kept their language. This was their dignity. Those three things were their uniforms similarly to the Latvia General; just like him, we preserved our reality.
Rabbi Avi Matmon
This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi's Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l, Berrel Wien, Noach Isaac Oelbaum, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Yitzchak Etshalom.