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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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.