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By the Rivers of Babylon

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By the Rivers of Babylon

By Simon Jacobson
March 27, 2003

He named it Babel, because this was the place where G-d confused (balal) the world’s language, and it was from there that G-d dispersed [humanity] over all the face of the earth
– Genesis 11:9

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat and wept,
As we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing to us of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song
On alien soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to my palate
If I do not remember you,
If I do not bring to mind Jerusalem
During my greatest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of [the destruction of] Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
In retribution for what you have inflicted on us…
– Psalms 137


Who is this coming from Edom, with sullied garments from Basra? For a day of vengeance is in My heart and the year of my redemption has come – Isaiah 63:1; 4

G-d has a sacrifice in Basra and a great slaughter in the land of Edom – Ibid 34:6

He [G-d] changes the times and the seasons (Daniel 2:21). If you had merited you would have sat in Jerusalem and drank from the waters of the Shiloach [spring], whose waters are clean and sweet; now that you have not merited you were exiled to Babylon and are drinking from the waters of the Euphrates [Peros], whose waters are filthy and smelly – Midrash, Pesichta of Eicha Rabba 19

When they entered the exile in Babylon, they thought that would not survive because G-d had forsaken them… at that moment G-d and His entire entourage joined them in Babylon. Because of the great pain and cries they had at the rivers of Babylon they merited that the Divine Chariot be revealed to Ezekiel the prophet in Babylon. This consoled them and they no longer feared the exile because they knew that G-d did not forsake them – Zohar II 2b. Tzemech Tzedek on Psalm 137

Sandstorms sweep over the Euphrates and paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade drop down into the cold rain and mud in Northern Babylon. As the United States and British Armies (or as they like to call it “the coalition forces”) battle the modern-day Nevuchadnezzar of Iraq, the entire free world is becoming steeped in the mire of the Middle Eastern rivers.

Thinking people are thinking ahead. So what happens after Saddam Hussein is removed from power (hopefully with minimum bloodshed)? Will this victory simply eliminate Arab/Muslin animosity to the United States and the West? Will this end terrorism? And what about Israel – will Iraq’s liberation change the attitude to the Jewish land?

Paul Berman in last week’s cover story of the Sunday NY Times Magazine (“The Philosopher of Islamic Terror”) reminds us that the true war is hardly a military one. Citing one of the philosophical leaders of modern Islamic fundamentalism, Sayyid Qutb, Berman demonstrates that that the battle between the Western world and Islam is primarily an ideological and religious one.

Without tooting the horn of this column, those of you reading this column and the new edition of my book, Toward A Meaningful Life, know that this has been my recurrent theme for the last 18 months: The real war – which is going on now for thousands of years, tracing back to the battles between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – is an ideological one: between matter and spirit, between the Divine and the universe – a war to make our peace with G-d and to discover unity between our natural lives and our Divine mission statement.

I greatly appreciate the e-mails some of you sent me pointing out that Berman’s basic thesis was published in these articles. This is not about taking credit; rather it is about recognizing that the roots of today’s conflicts can only be understood in Biblical context. Frankly, this point has been almost impossible to communicate to most people today. Just witness the hours upon hours of ‘military’ news reports on CNN, MSNBC, FOX and so on. Mention – not even one reference – is made to the true nature of today’s conflicts.

Now is not the time to analyze the reasons for people’s absolute resistance to hearing that the battles today are ideological and religious – about a world-view on life and existence (I will try to elaborate on this in future articles). Suffice it to say that this denial says much about our alienation and disillusionment in religious answers to life’s problems. We have grown accustomed and even spoiled by our prosperity. Resultantly, we have mastered the ‘fast food’ life of the moment, and have lost touch with the eternal. No surprise then that we simply don’t relate to the historical, religious and theological roots of today’s global confrontations.

That’s why it is indeed gratifying to see that mainstream NY Times published Berman’s article, finally giving some credence to seeing the deeper forces at work in the Middle Eastern quagmire. What is equally gratifying is to read the quotes of the Islamic intellectual hero, Sayyid Qutb, and see how some of his ideas, despite some of their fundamental distortions, so closely parallel deeper truths, albeit with false conclusions. Indeed, even his distortions can help illuminate truths that eluded Qutb himself.

As I have written here many times, one of the distinctions of the Messianic age is: clarity (“yisbariru v’yislabnu ha’devorim”). Clarity means recognizing the true nature of things, which includes exposing both what is true and what is false. Lack of clarity is when we can’t see our friends or our enemies. Ideas that snowball good ideas and bad ones just confuse us. Qutb’s writings – both his intelligent thoughts and his blatant distortions and falsehoods – can help us recognize the ultimate truth, just as Marx’s writings – both in their brilliant critique of Capitalism and insight on human nature and their equally brilliant failure – can help us better understand and bring us to discover the true way G-d wants us to live.

Qutb writes, that the confrontation is not about economics, politics or military domination; it is theological. The confrontation is to defend against the active efforts of the “Crusaders” and “Zionists” to annihilate Islam. Islam, Qutb insists, is the true religion that corrected the “distortions” of Judaism and Christianity and balances the secular and the sacred.

Christianity, Qutb writes, created a “hideous schizophrenia” between the physical and the spiritual, between religion and science, between the steely impersonality of modern power and technology and the nature of the human spirit.

Berman doesn’t make the analogy, but some of Qutb’s arguments sound awfully similar to Marx’s concept of alienation, how the Capitalist system reduces the worker to no more than a commodity, thus leading to mans’ alienation (Entausserung) and estrangement (Entfremdung) from his essential self.

Though Qutb may have known something about Christianity he sure knows nothing about Judaism. As profound a thinker he may be, his hatred against Judaism is hardly philosophical. Among other ‘brilliant’ theories, Qutb argues that the Jews acquired a ‘slavish character’ during their Egyptian captivity. This he writes about a people who are still here for thousands of years specifically because they did not allow themselves to bow and be enslaved by any people – including Muhammad. Indeed, The Maharal of Prague writes that the liberation from Egypt imbued the Jewish people with an inherent personality of freedom. Nothing would be able to enslave them ever again. So much for Qutb’s Jewish expertise.

Again, here is not the place to demonstrate Qutb’s ignorance about Judaism. But it is no surprise; after all Qutb the Muslim cannot be worse than Muhammad himself who became a virulent anti-Semite after the Jews rejected him.

What I will say is that, the true balance between the secular and the sacred is only possible if all religions go back to the original teachings of Abraham, father of all nations, as they were consummated at Sinai. Every intelligent person should know that when distortions set into any system, the truest way of discovering the real facts is not by adding new theories, but by tracing back to the original roots that preceded human distortions.

I therefore humbly submit that we go back to the beginning and study Abraham’s teachings, and how he passed them on to his children. We need to understand how Abraham’s son Ishmael had extreme energy (of chesed), which needed to be balanced with discipline (of gevurah). Abraham’s grandson Esau also had powerful energy (of gevurah), which needed to be balanced by kindness (chesed). Jacob then ‘redeemed Abraham’ (Isaiah 29:22), because Jacob – Tiferet – balances these two forces. See my article The Plot Thickens

This in turn sets the stage for the revelation at Sinai, when Moses receives the Torah (called tiferet) – G-d’s blueprint for life, how to transform the material universe into a Divine home.

At the time the children of Ishmael and Esau rejected the Torah. They were not yet ready. Generations later they would begin to embrace the teachings that trace back to their ancestor, Abraham as formalized at Sinai. See Esau, Ishmael and Sinai

In the centuries that followed Esau and Ishmael’s descendants would go through their growing pains in learning how to balance religious beliefs and daily life. This would not be an easy process; history is witness to the devastation and bloodshed wreaked by this journey. But slowly, slowly, Sinai would seep into the fibers of all people.The process concludes with the refinement of the last two powers, Edom (Esau) and Ishmael, which leads to the Messianic age – a world where there is no more destruction and terror and all children of Abraham serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace and harmony.

Now, Edom and Ishmael are meeting on the banks of Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon two things are happening at once. Its’ a time to weep – to weep over the losses, the razing, the destruction of Jerusalem – the center of existence where heaven meets earth, the force that balances spirit and matter.

The tears come pouring even more when our captors insist that we sing. It’s not enough that the material world is subjugating us and that we are displaced from our spiritual center, but it also demands of us to go into total denial. “Sing – things are great!” – the world yells at us. “Forget about your past, forget Jerusalem – why don’t you perform a concert for us?!” That’s how powerful the pull of conformity can be.

So step one is to weep and remember. Yes, weeping isn’t about sadness; it’s about remembering. Even as we sit at the rivers of Babylon and drink from the unclean waters of the Euphrates we always remember Zion and the oneness it represents. And this memory is our salvation. Through our tears and our awareness we begin freeing the energy that lays trapped – and has been drawn (like rivers) into Babylon (see Siddur, Ha’oro l’Tikkun Chatzot, 152b).

And through our pain and cries we merit to revelation – and we recognize that G-d and His entourage is with us, sitting at the rivers of Babylon. “[As they were] exiled to Babylon, the Shechina was with them.”

What can we each of us do about this in our personal lives?

Even if we are not personally fighting the physical war on the Euphrates and Tigris, each of us has our own battles by the rivers of Babylon.

Babylon represents confusion [“He named it Babel, because this was the place where G-d confused (balal) the world’s language, and it was from there that G-d dispersed [humanity] over all the face of the earth – Genesis 11:9]. It also refers to the “soiled garments of mundane matters and worldly desires” (Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh ch. 4). The rivers of Babylon refers to the (the rivers) of human reason which is intermingled with lies (Tzemech Tzedek, Psalm 137), the rivers that channel energy and feed the confusion and blind distortions of the material world. Mundane matters and material desires cloud our judgment and don’t allow us to see our soul’s mission.

Our first step in fighting our Babylonian/confusion battles is – awareness: To rise above the confusion of Babylon and recognize that our true home and center is not at these rivers. At times we must also have the courage to weep and remember.

Ironically, confusion itself – the awareness of our confusion – gives us the power to discover clarity. Knowledge of a disease is half its cure.

The Babylon of life reflects our personal and collective confusions, the confusions of history and religion, all the uncertainty and doubts that pervade our lives – the confusion between true and false, good and evil.

As we sit at the rivers of confusion we have before us the unprecedented opportunity to recognize that the distortions that have shaped life as we know it today. We have now an opening – a crack in history – that allows us to see the forces within and the birthing possibilities.

But awareness is just the first step. The most powerful counterforce to confusion is unity. Our mission today is to once and for all figure out how to integrate our lives – what we do and who we are. To fuse your spiritual and material needs – your body and soul, matter and spirit.

Indeed, of all rivers it will be the Euphrates that will part in the near future into seven streams (Isaiah 11:15). This parting represents the unity of opposites on the highest levels – the power to unite heaven and earth, land and water.

At Sinai (which followed the parting of the Red Sea) we were first given this power. Over the centuries nations and religions have been struggling to find the right equilibrium between individuality and responsibility, between personal freedom and G-d’s will. Finally, now, as we sit at the rivers of Babylon, we can and must make our peace with Sinai.

The nations of the world must and will embrace their legacy — to integrate G-d into their lives, teach G-d’s laws to their children and infuse spirituality into all systems. Jews must fulfill their calling of being a “light unto nations,” bringing Sinai and its teachings to all.

Today, as the nations – especially Esau and Ishmael – confront the world and each other, with Israel as usual in the middle, all on the banks of Babylon we have our opportunity.

From amidst the confusion of our times, we must create a new world, a world in which all nations speak one tongue and serve one G-d – unlike Babylon whose tongues were confused in their defiance of G-d.

I would also like to remind Qutb, that indeed, unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism categorically discourages conversion to Judaism. Every human being is created in the ‘Divine Image,’ and each has his/her destiny in serving G-d. One need not be or become Jewish to have a relationship with G-d.

Our role today is for each of us to discover our Divine mission and calling, and help inspire others to do the same. We have to prepare the world for the time when the entire preoccupation of the all nations will be to know G-d (Maimonides end of Laws of Kings) – a “world filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.” The entire world will serve G-d in unity, “I will turn to the peoples a pure tongue that all shall call upon the name of G-d and serve Him with one consent.”

So here we are, at the rivers of Babylon once again. This time, we can part the river and discover the power of one sitting at the rivers of Babylon.

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