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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Teshuva, Tefilah, Tzedaka...and ISIS

Many comments out there suggest that the U.S. brought ISIS on itself because of its own behavior in the Middle East. Of course, nobody deserves terrorism. But there is no doubt that our actions have contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves. 
So from a spiritual perspective we have debts to pay, and either we will pay them the harsh way or through a combination of lesser suffering and G-d's mercy. It all depends on how we understand the problem, and what we do in response. If it seems like a contradiction to say "it's not our fault" but "it is our fault" there are a few parallels in the Bible that illustrate. 1) The mistreatment of Hagar, mother of Yishmael, forefather of the Muslim people. At first Abraham's wife, Sarah, tells him to sleep with her so that he will bear children. Then Sarah feels threatened when she has a son with Abraham, Isaac. She doesn't like Ishmael's behavior, she doesn't want him around and she gets Abraham to send him and Hagar away. From a Jewish point of view, that was all meant to be but from a reality point of view it's pretty shitty and disrespectful treatment at best. Humiliating really. And it created a Karmic debt that haunts the Jewish people to this day. 2) The incident where Jacob, prompted by his mother Rivkah, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the birthright blessing. Rivkah knew that Esau shouldn't have it, since he was not spiritual enough and preferred instead the pleasures of hunting and killing in the field. There's no convincing Isaac. So she gets Jacob to put on Esau's clothes and pretend. He gets the blessing he is supposed to get, but Esau is cheated nevertheless and vows to get his revenge. Jacob hears that his brother is coming after him, and the Bible says that he was afraid - because he knew he was not blameless. 3) Joseph's mistreatment of his brothers in Egypt. In this week's Torah reading, Joseph's brothers (who had previously sold him into slavery) come down to Egypt where he is now second only to Pharoah in power. When things go badly for the brothers - Joseph purposely gets them into trouble, takes one of them hostage and sends them back to fetch their beloved youngest brothers - the Bible recounts their awareness that the sin of the past directly caused the troubles of the present. Again, everyone is responsible for their own actions, and no rationale on earth excuses ISIS or any terrorist. But at the same time, Jews and many others know that karma can truly be a bitch. If we thought something evil about someone else, if we underhandedly tried to hurt them, if we aggressed and hid it, etc. etc. - we will be made to pay, even if they deserved it. "It takes two to tango," most of the time. Jews understand this and we do not rely on our own merits to get us out of a bad situation. Nor do we count on worldly things, like military might alone. Instead we say - "Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harsh decree." Since we are in a war with terrorists whose declared intention is to kill us, maybe it is time to start fighting spiritually and not just physically: 1) Repentance means being sorry for what we did, admitting what we did, and resolving never to do it again. I'll leave it to others to articulate better than I can the various ways we have caused harm to Muslims and pushed them in the direction of extremism. (Again, we aren't blaming ourselves for the entire historical development of Arab nationalism - only taking responsibility for our part in fueling the growth of radical Islamic terrorism). One thing that comes immediately to mind, though, is the relative silence about civilian deaths on "their" side. 2) Prayer means recognizing that there is a Power above us - WHATEVER YOU CALL IT - that created the world, sustains it and makes decisions about which way things will go. It doesn't mean PERSECUTING people who do not share this belief, but it does mean empowering those who have it and making it politically correct again to actually pray to G-d for help. Since by natural means it is a very bad idea to assume that you are "better" or "more deserving" than anyone. 3) Charity is about taking material things that you have and giving them to somebody else in need. I heard a sermon in synagogue today about the tendency of people to be jealous of others' success, rather than wishing them well, because we think that everything is up for grabs. The truth is that G-d has granted you whatever you have, you only think that YOU have earned it, but in fact the entire thing is a blessing from Heavenly channels. Giving of yourself to others, whether through money or service, is a way of acknowledging that you don't win by acquiring but rather by emulating the ultimate giver of all things, which is G-d. All in all I think the fatal flaw of any military strategy is to assume that it's the strategy alone that wins. In reality it's the One above that makes the decision beforehand. All you can do is try your best and prepare spiritually, knowing all the while who's really got the power. This is also why hating on Muslims or any religious or ethnic or cultural group is stupid. G-d made all of us equally with love...is there anybody with a serious, thinking, critical brain who thinks that one kind of spirituality is actually "better" than another? It is further why pretending that we aren't at war is stupid too. You have to face the facts without emotion or distortion. "They" have their reasons and they have a plan as well. To put blinders on and insist that fighting back is a form of hatred is tantamount to collective suicide. May G-d have mercy on all of our souls and give us the strength we need to defend ourselves against those who want to kill us, without losing our sense of perspective or humanity.
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All opinions my own. Photo by Leland Francisco via Flickr (Creative Commons).