Friday, January 16, 2015

Flight for one

Flying, especially long-hauls, where you are sardined in between two oversize or over-talkative passengers, can be tedious. 

I spent a good few hours in the air last year, and each time started my journey with the modern traveler's prayer: "Dear G-d, please let the seat next to me remain empty". 

I struck it lucky on a few of the flights, even catching a full row on two international trips, but managed nothing like this guy.

Earlier this week, Chris O' Leary almost flew solo to New York, after his flight was seriously delayed. Somehow, all the passengers were re-booked onto other flights, except him. When the plane was eventually prepared to depart, O' Leary tweeted that he had the whole plane to himself, but, just then, a second passenger dashed on-board. 

You have to wonder why Delta would fly a whole 76-seater plane from Cleveland to New York with only two commuters aboard. It turns out, they needed the plane back in New York, passengers or no passengers. 

Which reminded me of we Jews, living "away from home".  One day, we're told, G-d will gather the Jewish people back to Israel and herald in the time of Moshiach. Some of the flights we will take to get there may actually carry only a single passenger. The prophet Isaiah promises, G-d will gather us one by one to take us back home. 

Only, then it won't be because He needs to get a $100 million plane back to base, but because He truly cares about getting each person where they belong. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Don't pussyfoot around evil

I felt absolutely sick on Friday. 

I had just returned from pre-Shabbos grocery shopping at our local kosher supermarket, when I heard about fellow Jews taken hostage while doing just that in Paris.

I didn't only feel sick. I was livid. 

I wasn't only angry at the attackers, but at a world that has allowed extremism to go unchecked. How could terrorists feel so emboldened as to shoot up grocery shoppers in the "City of Love", attack coffee-drinkers in Sydney or butcher worshipers at Shul in Jerusalem?

Ok, we know that a good portion of the world chooses to remain blissfully blind to the tsunami on our doorstep. More concerning is the way world leaders have adopted a non-committal approach to a serious and rapidly-growing threat, for fear of offending people or, worse yet, being perceived as heavy-handed. 

It's a tough one. Non-violence and democracy are where the world wants to go, so how to handle those who exploit our idealism to further the cause of violence and autocratic control? 

Yesterday, Jewish communities read in the Torah about Moses and how he had grown up in Pharaoh's home, sheltered from the suffering of his compatriots. Wanting to witness life under slavery firsthand, Moses steps out of the royal palace and straight into the traumatic scene of an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating an Israelite slave. 

Moses darts a look "this way and that", to "see that there was no man", swiftly kills the bully and buries him in the sand. 

It's the "perfect crime"- no witnesses, no body. 

Or, so it would appear.

On the following day, Moses heads out again. This time he encounters two bickering Israelites. Moses walks in on them, just as the one raises his hand, ready to strike his adversary. 

Moses loudly rebukes him, "Wicked one, why do you strike your friend?". Hand still raised, the perpetrator turns to Moses and says, "So, do you now plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?"


Moses apparently hadn't pulled off the perfect crime after all.

So, here's the problem: Moses had killed a man just one day earlier. Surely he is a hypocrite for calling this guy- who hand't yet landed a blow-  "wicked".

But Moses didn't become G-d's chosen leader and custodian of the Torah because he was an ordinary fellow. And the Torah doesn't just tell us stories for dramatic effect. Moses was a deeply spiritual and insightful man, and the stories about him are meant to teach us lessons for life.

When Moses looks "this way and that and sees there is no man", he isn't looking to ensure that nobody is watching what he. At that moment, he looks deep into the Egyptian to see if "in the man" there might remain something of value, a spark of potential goodness that might warrant sparing his life. 

Moses finds none. This man is pure evil, a rare specimen with no chance of redemption. Such a person will only harm society, so such a person needs to be removed from society.

Moses reminds us that evil cannot be tolerated, or analyzed, or understood, or contextualized. It needs to be eradicated.

Against evil you act decisively and efficiently. You don't worry who may be watching or what they may say about you, because eliminating evil is noble and moral and something others should emulate.

The tough question is how to identify evil. 

Nobody wants to lash out indiscriminately nor sink to the depravity of our enemies. To remove evil, you need to remain objective and clinical. 

Moses teaches us that lesson in his second Egypt encounter. 

It sounds like Moses was hotheaded to accuse a man of "wickedness" before he had so much as hit his opponent. It's dangerous to judge people based on our perception of their intentions, without facts to support them. 

On the other hand, waiting for the criminal to commit a crime before confronting him is more dangerous.

Moses reminds us that we live for a purpose. Our purpose is to serve G-d by making the world a better, kinder, more generous and more holy place. 

Everything that G-d gives us- our health, talents, finances and so on- is to be used to achieve higher purpose for ourselves and our world. 

G-d gives you a hand so that you can help an old lady across the road, share a coin with a beggar or wave at someone to make them feel worthwhile. 

Should you imagine that your hand is meant to be a tool for violence, you've missed the point. Imagining that you live to harm others is rebellion against G-d. 

No matter the rationalization, an ideology that encourages violence is evil. Standing up firmly and unapologetically against such evil is noble. 

Those who dedicate their lives to destruction should be destroyed. 

Those who dedicate their lives to fighting evil should never hesitate to act.

Perhaps world leaders and law-enforcement officials would do well to study yesterday's Torah portion.