Live

Vayakhel Pekudei: Service or Slavery?

PRINT

Positive and Negative Lessons From the Military

Just as I was getting my feet wet with the innocence of kabolat ol – accepting the yoke of a higher authority, in the lessons I learned (in last weeks article To Serve) from military discipline at Scott Air Force Base – I get rudely awakened by a few strong comments protesting my “dangerous naive view of the military.”

“I would hope,” writes one person, “that you would have a more skeptical view of the presentation of military culture as benign and beneficial. Indoctrinating people to believe that they must trust and obey and submit to Authority is a dangerous practice. It’s all to easy for those in power to use convince groups so indoctrinated to follow foolish or even evil paths. A prime example of this was Nazi Germany where respect for authority led to the ‘I was just following orders’ defense during the Nuremberg trials.”

Emmanuel Gruss echoes the sentiment: “The ‘city within the city’ that you describe is a slave colony… To answer your question when was the last time that we unconditionally accepted and order from a superior authority is: every morning when we say reishit chochma yirat hashem. Paraphrase your sentences and you will end with a manifesto for the German SS… Kabalat ol malchut shamayim cannot be learned from a professional military organization. It has to be taught at home m’yirat Hashem and m’ahavat Hashem.”

So there you go. For years I have been railing against corrupt establishments and false authorities. Many of my articles and talks are about the damage inflicted by the abuse of power, by religious or other types of totalitarianism. A healthy system needs to be empowered to challenge blind obedience to the inevitable subjective flaws of human authority and the drive for power and control. After all this, I finally determined last week to wax eloquent about the virtues of submitting to a higher authority that we can learn from military discipline. Only to be reminded of the dangers in blindly accept authority…

Yet, despite these accurate disclaimers about the military (something I also mentioned in my original article), I will not back down from using the military as a case study and a model lesson in discipline and submission to a higher authority. Not because I am obstinate, but due to the fact that this analogy is not my own: The Torah, and its sages, use military service (and many aspects of military behavior) as an example for Divine service.

This, however, just carries over the question to the sages: How can they compare Divine authority to human authority? It seems sacrilegious – and even foolish – to use military hierarchy, with all its inherent flaws and potential abuses, as an example to learn about submission to a pure and holy G-d?

In truth, the same question can be asked of all the physical metaphors, parables and examples in Midrash and other Torah literature given to explain spiritual concepts. We even have a verse that states, “from my flesh I behold G-d.” Can raw human flesh – infinitely inferior to anything Divine – allow us the ability to behold… G-d?!

The answer to these questions provides us with a powerful glimpse into the Judaism’s fascinating and revolutionary perspective on life.

“Kingdom on Earth is similar to Kingdom in heaven,” declares the Talmud.

All our earthly systems and institutions, including the logic and sciences we use to build our infrastructures, reflect in many ways the Divine structures. The mystics explain that everything in the material plane evolves from its ethereal counterpart in the spiritual plane. This includes all the properties of all existence, the laws of nature and the rules of logic – all crafted and shaped in the “image” that mirrors the “Divine mind.”

This doesn’t mean to say that our human structures are flawless and that we are incapable As the spiritual evolves into the physical many distortions take place. Add to that equation the imperfections of human choices, and clearly our systems will be sorely disparate from their Divine counterparts, and sometimes even directly conflict the Divine plan. Yet, despite the distortions, we can find glimmers (and sometimes far more than that) of the Divine within earthly phenomenon.

Indeed, when the Czarist regime fell to the Russian Revolution, some Chassidim were weeping over the fact that “now we have lost a metaphor that helped us understand the Divine Kingdom”… Despite the cruelty and persecution that the Jews suffered under the Russian Czars, they still were able to extract lessons in their Divine service from the Czar’s authority!

Nothing on Earth is completely evil. Even the worst situations have some spark of the Divine, and every predicament can teach us vital life lessons.

Similarly, military service, with all its flaws, remains a lesson that we can learn from in our Divine service – albeit, with all the appropriate qualifications and distinctions between accepting the yoke of heaven and the authority of human superiors.

In effect, we derive two Divine lessons from every earthly system and experience: What that system teaches us about the Divine it reflects. And what that all too-fragile system teaches us how different the Divine is from our human structures and innovations.

When we see how the military are subordinated to their superiors, with no room for variance, we learn the absolute dedication one has to apply to Divine service: Total acceptance of our heavenly calling (kabolos ol malchus shomayim).

On the other hand, as a human institution, military authority can be (and surely at times is) abusive. Absolute obedience can become a destructive force (as history has shown us far too often). This teaches us the critical distinctions between human authority and Divine authority, and that our ultimate submission is only to G-d, never to anything human, as Mordechai demonstrated when “he would not bow and kneel” to Haman.

This of course can raise an obvious question – which is an oft-cited critique on faith: if we are to be truly free human beings, then we should serve no one – not human beings, not man-made institutions, and not G-d. After all, according to this argument, how is serving G-d different than serving other people? It’s just replacing one form of slavery with another?

As we approach Passover this question is very timely: The Bible says that G-d instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “let My people go, and [so that] they will serve Me.” Why do we consider this an Exodus from slavery, when all it led to was another form of servitude – serving G-d?

In Leviticus G-d states, “they are My servants, who I brought out of Egypt” “not servants to my servants” (Talmud Bava Metzia, 10a). It is obviously better to be a servant to the “boss” rather than being a “servant to a servant.” But that still does not explain why being a servant to G-d is called freedom.

Questions like this can only be answered by showing how the entire question is based on a stereotypical and distorted view of G-d. If G-d is just a larger, more powerful version of ourselves, than serving Him is indeed just another form of slavery. But if G-d is a reality radically different than our own – an absolute existence that is completely unlike our relative and arbitrary existence, an omnipotent, immortal and indivisible G-d diametrically opposed to our flawed, mortal and divisible lives – then submission to the Divine is a step toward emancipation.

All man-made structures, even the most sublime, can lead us to great heights, but only to ones that we can reach with our own human tools and devices. The Divine– and the fact that we humans were created in the Divine Image – offers us the ability to reach and connect with a reality that is beyond our human parameters; to marry heaven and earth and to fuse the finite with the infinite.

However, there is one necessary condition to achieve such transcendental freedom: We humans must shed the blinding force of self-interest and respond to the call for service; we must weaken the grip that keeps us trapped and enslaved to our own temptations, and allow ourselves to be mobilized to serve – not human structures, but to serve – our higher calling.

Ok, so there you have it: The ultimate rebel is the one who rebels against all forms of human rebellion, and embraces – with kabolot ol – a higher order.

With that being said, the question arises the other way around: If serving G-d is the ultimate freedom, why then is it called service? Your thoughts are welcome.

PRINT

Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Subscribe
Notify of
13 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Reena
11 years ago

You are right when you say, A healthy system needs to be empowered to challenge blind obedience to the inevitable subjective flaws of human authority and the drive for power and control. If we are to be blind in our acceptance of everything, then why were we given the power of reason? The Torah does not appear to teach blind acceptance of anything. Abraham teaches us to question the higher authority. He teaches us that it is OK to argue with G-d when Abraham argues for a chance to find good men in a bad city. So does Moses teach us this. He argues with G-d often in defense of his own people, as in the story of the golden calf. Blind faith is not what the Torah teaches,although it may be what religious leaders seek for their own needs.

As for the military, prior to Hitler, the Prussian trained officer core were trained to make decisions of their own in the field. It was understood that officers in combat had the best access to information and therefore were to know the strategy and plan but were allowed tactical judgment. Many of us have seen movies or television shows about war in which headquarters is bombing its own troops, for example, but not recognizing that mistake. Under Hitler, that freedom to make independent decisions for your troops was removed, hence the reason for disenchantment among many of the career officers. There are many legacies of Nazi Germany that have infiltrated society. The practice of accepting orders unquestioningly is one of those practices that it may be time to reevaluate.

It may be time to question something as simple as the need to shine shoes a certain way or to make a bed to meet certain standards. This allows bullying and demeaning by officers over enlisted men and women, but does it really make the enlisted men and women better soldiers or does it separate them from their souls as do other abusive relationships?

I met a woman recently, whose husband was in Iraq. He cannot forgive himself for the things he was asked to do — and did — while there. He no longer believes he is a good person because of those bad things. Military discipline got him to the point of complete dysfunction in society and to what purpose?

Abraham teaches us it is appropriate to question the higher authority and if we are lucky, we will start to teach frameworks for healthy decision-making and teach information gathering techniques to get the data needed to support the analysis.

In Nazi Germany, many people followed orders and walked into the gas chambers like sheep. It is those who questioned the system who survived. It is those who did not trust the system who got out. It is those who fought back in the Polish ghetto who were the exception, not the rule.

You say, Yet, despite these accurate disclaimers about the military (something I also mentioned in my original article), I will not back down from using the military as a case study and a model lesson in discipline and submission to a higher authority. Not because I am obstinate, but due to the fact that this analogy is not my own: The Torah, and its sages, use military service (and many aspects of military behavior) as an example for Divine service. I acknowledge that this may resonate with you and your soul. I hope that if it does resonate then you will make it your own and not assign responsibility to it to others as you seem to suggest here. In any case, it does not resonate with my soul for that is not my souls Divine service need. Nor, clearly does it resonate with the souls of the entire Orthodox population in Israel which opts out of that service.

It may be time to take responsibility for ALL of our actions and not to justify it because of some system of beliefs that we never question or evaluate. I believe that G-d wants partners, not sheep. I believe it is time to take responsibility for our own actions and to listen to our souls. I believe that it is time to act from our own conscience, not from the direction of others such that we can deny responsibility for our actions and lay blame at the feet of others. It is in the definition of service to G-d that the confusion comes. Any definition of this by anyone, is dangerous, as this is an individual question and each person, when connected to their own soul, must define that for themselves.

Binah Bindell
11 years ago

Service is a word in English. I think our goal, what G-d wants as well, is for us to be connected
to Him.

Ivan Stux
11 years ago

Using the military as an analogy in my view is OK as long as we remember that an analogy is a comparison to something that is familiar to us, but where we need to be clear in what sense it is like it and in what sense it is not like it. (E.g., the earth is like a soccer ball refers to the shape not to the size of the ball, etc).

Deana Truman
11 years ago

Regarding your question, If serving G-d is the ultimate freedom, why then is it called service?
The first thought that came to mind is that to ask this question, we are assuming that freedom and serving are opposites. But maybe our assumption is incorrect.

11 years ago

Sometimes we can find the hint vert close: in ambiguity of the very meaning of the word exploit we can see crucial references to our own choices. From one hand it mean to use or develope to a good purpose (as we deal with any kind of device or thing that had been designed and has its maintainance). From another hand it means to treat unfairly, take advantage. So we have exploits and exploitation in one. It is up to us: what more refer to our personal existance. Have a Good Shabbat!

Kathi Kreider
11 years ago

While I thought most of your article was well written and thought provoking, I have a serious problem with one section.

You state that Nothing on Earth is completely evil. Even the worst situations have some spark of the Divine. Really? So murder, rape, and child abuse are not completely evil? They contain a spark of the divine? What does child abuse teach us about the Divine it reflects (to use your own term)? As an abuse survivor I would really like to know what attribute of the Divine it teaches me. Is it that Hashem is no more a father to me than my biological father was? Is it that Hashem is too busy to hear the cries of His children when they are in pain?

I was under the impression that certain things were completely evil. Otherwise, why would Hashem destroy the world with the flood, after stating that mans wickedness was great and every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always (Artscroll translation Bereishis 6:5)? If the Torah calls something evil, who are we to say it is not completely evil?

Stacy
11 years ago

Hi Rabbi Jacobson,

I am an avid reader of your weekly columns and enjoy them.

Having grown up religious, I find that Kabalat ol is a double edged sword. Were Kabalat ol really to be directly only for G-d it would be one thing.

This is rarely the case. In Judaism our relationship with G-d is often based on interpretations of rabbis or other mentors, interpretations that usually are subjective, based on the teachers personality and his or her understanding of Torah, G-d, G-dliness, and so on. As such our relationship with G-d and Kabalat ol to him become tainted with human teachings. Thus, in judaism we sadly rarely have the opportunity to relate to G-d on a first person basis w/o the intervention of teachings of how were supposed to relate to Him based on human understanding.
Kabalat Ol based on human understanding is IMHO unhealthy and leads to abuse and other unhealthy situations.

Kia Kaha,
Stacy

Esther Sarah Evans
11 years ago

bH
Its all there in the Seder: we are free to accept the yoke of responsibility for Torah Mitzvot or rebel and have our teeth blunted to say the least (as in the case of the one rebellious son at the Seder)

Esther Evans
11 years ago

bH
Ask Rav Yaakov Moshe Poupko, Yerushalayim, about this: three relationships with HaShem: slave (Shammai)- father and son (Hillel) – Brit (allusion to HaShems using the third person in the first set of Luchos and not using the imperative). This is also the inyan with our cousins – finally accepting, recognizing and thus – after all the Balagan – becoming a partner with us in fulfilling our side of the Brit.

George Shimanovich
11 years ago

Because we are not equal:
— we and our parents
— we and people who employ us
— we and our teachers
— we and our G-d

Josh Gressel
11 years ago

Thank you for both last weeks article and this one. As someone who has served in the military (albeit the Israeli army) I appreciate both what the military is and what it isnt.

I appreciate you saluting the positive to be found in military service, your receptivity to readers objections, and your use of these objections to bring even deeper insights to the original points.

What I appreciate about my military service — which I detested at the time, by the way — is that there was no out. In every other volunteer activity to which I give myself, including Torah study and prayer, I always allow myself an out, even though I dont always admit it. There is something about knowing you will be arrested and put in jail if you leave service to a higher ideal (in this case, defense of Israel) which was a valuable lesson I imagine has a correlate in the higher realms. Thanks for making the connection.

Karsten Bannier
11 years ago

Dear Simon,with regards to your article,I believe that trashing the military by certain folk is totally out of preportion.The military way of life is certainly not suited to all people.You will certainly find that the vast majority of people serving in democratic countries (and others), have a good balance between knowing right from wrong & it is this balance between the physical & spiritual that is all so important.I believe this is the inherent goodness in man.As we know,not all German soldiers were nazis.
Best regards,Karsten (Johannesburg-S.Africa).

Ivan Stux
11 years ago

Using the military as an analogy in my view is OK as long as we remember that an analogy is a comparison to something that is familiar to us, but where we need to be clear in what sense it is like it and in what sense it is not like it. (E.g., the earth is like a soccer ball refers to the shape not to the size of the ball, etc).