It Is Not Easy To Be Different [Parshat Shelach Lecha By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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In October 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada, two IDF reserve soldiers took a wrong turn into Ramallah in the West Bank. Their names were Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami Hy”d.  They ran into an Arab mob, were pulled from their car and were lynched, beaten, dismembered and burned.

British photographer Mark Seager tried to photograph the event but they assaulted him and destroyed his camera.  After the event, he is quoted as saying, “It was the most horrible thing that I have ever seen, and I have reported from Congo, Kosovo, many bad places…. I know the Palestinians are not all like this and I’m a very forgiving person, but I’ll never forget this. It was murder of the most barbaric kind. When I think about it, I know that I’ll have nightmares for the rest of my life.

Here in the West, the only image of the lynching we were shown was the one of Aziz Salha ym”s waving his blood stained hands from the window. Thankfully, we were spared the graphic and gruesome images of what really took place. Salha was caught and given a life sentence, but was recently released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, and is now living with his wife in Gaza. This is a literal example of what was at the core of the debate in Israel over the exchange; whether or not to release a large number of prisoners with “blood on their hands” in exchange for one captured soldier.

I was reminded of that grotesque image last week when we saw the images of a British soldier lying dead on the streets of London, having been run over and hacked to death in broad daylight, and his murderer displaying his blood-soaked hands and murderous implements to the gathering crowds and cameras. Evil has many faces, but to me these two evils look the same. It sickened me to my stomach twelve years ago, and did so again this past week. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents; similar brutal and callous murders are taking place daily across the globe as thousands are butchered without respite – an estimated 90,000 in Syria alone at the last count.

What is our response to these horrors? The politicians, pundits and philosophers will discuss why these things happen … they will try to understand how normal, stable members of society get radicalised and indoctrinated into believing that the only solution is to murder another innocent. They will look for understanding, solutions and prevention. We as individuals cannot hope to fix such complex societal issues, but we do need to respond … to do something. As Jews what we can try to do is fulfil our mission of being a “light to the nations,” to try to produce and share some spiritual light and goodness within the brute world we inhabit, a world corrupted with theft and murder, darkness and evil. We need to encourage that light to grow and spread and chase away the darkness, because one small candle can banish a roomful of darkness.

When the Mishkan (desert tabernacle) was dedicated, Aaron the High Priest was commanded to light the seven branched golden menorah every single day. The Torah there uses the expression “be’haalotecha et haneirot … when you raise up the lights,” rather than the word “lehadlik,” which means “to kindle” or “to light,” and would seem more appropriate.

Rashi explains this unusual choice of words, “raise up” rather than “light,” by quoting the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat (21a), where it clarifies that the terminology is very specific. Be’haalotecha, to raise up, means that it wasn’t enough for Aaron simply to light the flames – he had to light them well enough that they would continue to burn without help, on their own.

Aaron, as a kohen, and as a lover of peace and harmony, models for us here how we are meant to approach life. First and foremost our task is to be like a kohen – to be holy, to stay away from negative influences and to stick close to good ones. Then we try to make the world a better place, by lighting torches of peace and harmony with everyone we encounter, by kindling and spreading light. But that is not enough: Aaron’s responsibility was more than that … it was not just to light, but to light so well that it was “oleh me’eleha” it continued to burn bright long after Aaron had gone. That is our task, to spread light in a sometimes dark world, so much light that it takes on a life of its own, and has a far-reaching ripple effect.

We are living in difficult times, where we can sometimes feel so helpless about the horrors we see, committed in the name of war or peace, love or hate, patriotism or sedition, or in the name of one god or another.

Our job is simply to spread light.

Like the village lamplighter, the lanterchnik, who would walk through the cold, dark streets lighting one street lamp at a time, our job is to bring light wherever we find ourselves at that moment; to bring faith and hope, Torah and mitzvot, to those who need it, spiritual light and warmth to those in the cold. And it is not enough just to light … no, it must be “oleh me’eleha” enough light, warmth, love and inspiration that it has a ripple effect, another person and another person and another, spreading light and expelling darkness.

In the parsha today we read of two individuals who were able to stay true even when surrounded by strong negative influences. Joshua (Yehoshua) and Calev were sent by Moses with another ten influential men to reconnoitre the Land of Israel, the Land of Milk and Honey. Ten of the group were set on bringing back a negative report about the land, and only two were able to withstand the peer pressure and to do what was right.

It is not easy to be different, to do what you feel is right when your peers all disagree. But the message we learn from Joshua and Calev has been relevant for over three thousand years; however difficult it may be, we need to do what is right. In places of negativity we need to be positive, and in times of darkness we need to bring light.

If we can achieve that, we will truly merit to reach the Promised Land. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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