Shalom and welcome to Week 2 of the Rockstar Rabbi blog. I feel it should be pointed that I am neither a Rabbi nor a Rockstar. I am neither particularly wise nor gifted musically. I am just out here, trying to make the best of it all.
Which brings me to this past week’s parshah: Ki Teitzei, or “When you go out…”
What is ‘out?’ Or more appropriately, where? I go out a lot. I carouse. I go to class. I go to work. I carouse a bit more. Heck, this past Shabbas I went out and enjoyed a bottle of scotch with the local Chabad House. Is this the “going out” that the passage is discussing? The line continues:
“When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands…” (Deut. 21:10).
Woah! Easy there Mr. Rockstar Rabbi! I ain’t going to no war! You think to yourself.
And I reply, Woah woah! Easy there entranced reader of my blog! I ain’t telling you to go to war and wouldn’t do it myself either. You also used a double negative, but who is paying attention?
So the question is: War. What is it good for?
Okay. That isn’t the question. I just couldn’t pass up the joke. The question really is:
Why does this passage, a passage that contains the most mitzvahs of any for doing good and bringing peace to the world, begin with “when you go to war?”
First, a story of two people; I promise I will keep it short. I was advised by a very brilliant and very beautiful woman that the first post ran a bit long, so I take her advice and shorten this post.
The first person… My Rabbi had some sort of flu on Friday. Another Chabad rabbi led the service while his wife and the Rabbi’s wife helped to run the big Shabbat Dinner for all the poor grad students. Real menches. However, when it came time to give the Davar Torah (lit. word of Torah – kinda like a sermon), the healthy Rabbi didn’t get up to speak. Instead it was my sick Rabbi that did. He stood up, oscillated in the air for a moment, and then balanced himself by grabbing the table for support. He looked tired in a way I couldn’t imagine, given his usual lively self. But he summoned the energy and spoke the moving words I needed to hear at that moment. He pushed on. I will tell you what he said after this.
The second person… I have a friend who has had a rough couple of months. She has had some intense professional problems, even more intense family problems, and raw dealings with friends and significant others on top of it all. It has not been good for her recently. On Friday, it got worse when she received a call from her doctor about some irregular cell growth. Given her history with cancer before, they are concerned and want to run some tests, they say. She breathed and called me. I, not dealing with it as well as she did, in turn bought that bottle of scotch I mentioned earlier. She is all set to take the tests and is unwilling to let it slow her down. That’s why she inspires me: despite all this, despite the worry and never ending struggle, she pushes on.
THE POINT: The Rabbi on Friday night explained that the mitzvahs/commandments of these passages are tied to its title because Life is spiritual warfare. You are always fighting this spiritual war. But you choose how you fight. You can choose to be on the level of your enemies in this war by conceding to them and fighting without regard for others, or you can choose to be better than your enemies by improving the w as you ‘fight’ through the mitzvahs. That’s why these people inspire me: they never stop fighting this spiritual war, no matter what, but still remain good people who serve as examples to others and to me.
It reminds me of a lot of things my mentors have said. Daniel Schneider says “Keep swinging.” He is a real inspiration as well so, while I am on the topic, I would like to plug his programs: http://www.firstmonday.org/, http://icanstilldothat.org/. My dad, in a similar fashion, says to be “fearless”
And fearless is good in the face of mounting spiritual forces.
It reminds me of a Matisyahu song, Refuge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLJmepsBETw
As well, you choose how you fight this spiritual war. Do you so as God’s slave, God’s employee, or God’s partner? I won’t do this justice, so for more on this, please read the following - it’s quite brilliant and surprisingly inclusive: http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/57212/jewish/Eating-on-the-Job.htm
On the topic of war, this week’s parshah also mentions Amalek, the final boss of the Exodus in a way: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear G-d. Therefore... you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.” (Deut. 25: 17 -19)
Amalek attacks the people lagging behind who are exhausted from leacing Egypt. He is the Gary Oak of the Exodus. He does brazenly in an effort to make the people doubt their own faith and the strength of God. He represents that skepticism we all have: the kind where you doubt yourself for the sake of doubting. He is exploiting a weakness and the best way to protect yourself is to know that weakness and understand how to fortify against it. If you fall, learn from it and obliterate that doubt that caused you to fall in the first place.
So what is your spiritual battlefield? Who is your enemy, waiting to strike as you are victorious but tired? How will you fight this war with this enemy?
Be fearless. Figure out how you want to work with God and do God’s commandments. Name your Amalek and wipe them from your memory, and keep swinging.
Have a good rest of the week and a great Shabbas!
-The Rockstar Rabbi
P.S. - I read this quote and really liked it. It’s about how to deal with doing good in the world and really captured how I feel sometimes about trying to do it:
The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master is pressing... It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. –The Ethics of The Fathers.