Driving back from a family event, I was pondering on the words of one of the speakers about this week’s Torah portion, and wondering what I should be writing about in this column. I looked out the window and my good friend, Col. Jacob Z. Goldstein, Chief of Chaplains for New York State Army National Guard, saluted me.
In the spirit of Divine Providence, the content of this week’s column suddenly emerged.
The military salute is a motion that evolved from medieval times, when knights in armor raised their visors to reveal their identity.
Interesting how seemingly trivial acts carry much meaning.
There are some other aggressive symbols in modern culture.
Why do people tip their wine glasses in a toast? In ancient times, as early as the 6th Century BCE, the Greeks – and later the Romans – were toasting to the health of their friend’s to assure them that the wine they were about to drink wasn’t poisoned. To spike the wine with poison, had become an all too common means of dealing with social problems — disposing of an enemy, silencing the competition, preventing a messy divorce, and the like. It thus became a symbol of friendship for the host to pour wine from a common pitcher, drink it before his guests, and satisfied that it was a good experience, raise his glass to his friends to do likewise. Others explain, that tipping the glass and allowing your wine to drop in your partner’s cup showed that your wine was not poisoned.
Yet another example:
In secular society, all men’s clothing button in the same manner: left over right. According to legend, this practice dates back to the days of knights in shining armor. Most knights were right-handed and so held their sword in their right hand and their shield in their left; their armor fastened left over right. Though men dropped armor in favor of modern and, thankfully, more comfortable clothing, the left-over-right tradition remained.
Interestingly, Chassidim, by contrast, button their garments right over left, to show that chesed (love of the right side) dominates over gevurah (aggression on the left).
Since we’re on the topic, I should mention another interesting contrast. At birthdays it has become customary for the birthday boy or girl to blow out candles on the birthday cake. The number of candles often corresponds to the age of the celebrant.
Our editor once shared with us a story (here is the link, The Candle of G-d), how her two year old niece, instead of blowing out the candles, covered her eyes and blessed them, as she and her mother do every Friday before sunset when they light the Shabbat candles. The little girl remembered how her mother reminded her not to blow at the candles. The candle is symbolic of the human soul (“the candle of G-d is the soul of man”). Jews don’t blow out a soul; they ignite it.
It’s quite fascinating how aggressive, military-style behavior still remains so much part of our modern lifestyles!
Aggression seems to have has permeated so much of our lives, to the point that we don’t even recognize it.
The Torah, on the other hand, always celebrates the dominance of spirit over matter, subtlety over aggression, gentleness over brutality. Torah heroes are not military leaders, but refined individuals – men and women of virtue, scholarship and wisdom. Jewish customs all demonstrate the dignified power of the human spirit, instead of the symbols of human aggression.
Take this week’s Torah portion. Moses is commanded by G-d to speak to the rock so that it will give forth water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. He is duly punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Among the many explanations of this strange story, is one (cited by the abovementioned speaker) that focuses on the power of words rather than force. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says G-d” (Zacahriah 4:6). By striking the stone instead of speaking to it Moses defied this cardinal principle that true power lies in the spirit not in brute force.
To be sure, Moses intended to sanctify G-d by demonstrating to the Jewish people G-d’s miracle of a stone producing water. So, after he attempted to speak to the rock to no avail, Moses felt that perhaps he had misunderstood G-d, and he needed to strike the rock, as G-d commanded him to do 40 years earlier. After all, water coming from a rock is a miracle either way, whether you speak to it or strike it!
Had Moses challenged the very notion that a rock can deliver water, one could then argue that Moses defied G-d. But to strike the rock instead of speaking to it seems quite an act of faith.
For any other person this “small” alteration would have been a mitzvah. However for Moses, the man of G-d, even a slight shift is a major event. G-d was attempting to teach a lesson that the ultimate method in life is to “speak” to the “rock,” spiritual power, rather than physical strength.
Even if your child, student or yourself is hard like a rock, effective education is primarily through communication, not force. Words from the heart will enter the heart.
Needless to say that at times force is necessary when confronting enemies, and often as a last resort. Hence, striking the rock the first time. Yet, the primary emphasis is always on communication, on chesed rather than gevurah.
Life around us always offers us two options: Aggression or benevolence. Symbols of belligerence and hostility abound all around us. Even seemingly pleasant and non-confrontational situations – as we toast or salute each other, as we celebrate birthdays and button our jackets – are permeated with an aggressive undercurrent, a constant reminder of the harsh world in which we live.
Yet we have a choice at all times: A choice to either succumb and become a shark as we swim with the sharks; to conform to the “survival of the fittest,” “dog eats dog” mentality, or to transcend the hostile world and live up to our Divine calling and the majestic spirit of our souls.
Remember, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
Please don’t see this as an attack on some of our contemporary customs. Rather it is an attempt to introduce a measure of sensitivity and conscientiousness into our lifestyles, and see how even small matters carry much significance. Above all, we must transform our customs into forces for good.
So, let us tip our glass, light our flame, salute each other – with jackets buttoned right over left – in one grand toast of unity and love, declaring to the world: L’Chaim, to life.