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Olah, Zevach Shelamim and Iraq

As I write this d'var Torah I couldn't help but wonder how I might connect this week's parashah, Tzav, to the war in Iraq. The parashah is a continuation of the details concerning the various offerings and sacrifices made in the mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert, as well as later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

At first glance this seems to have no relationship to the topic of war, except perhaps to discuss the various meanings of sacrifice. However, thanks to some brilliant interpretation by our Sages I believe that there is something that we can learn from this week's parashah. In the Talmud, Ben Bag Bag says of the Torah, "turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." I believe that this is a prime example of the veracity of this statement!

In discussing the offering known as the 'olah' (burnt offering), Rabbi Levi, who lived in the third century CE, commented that 'olah' could also be read as 'alah' which can mean "behave boastfully." Therefore, "This is the law concerning the olah. It shall go up upon its burning place on the altar" can be interpreted as "the boastful person shall be destroyed by fire." He then gives examples, such as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were destroyed by fire because of their excessive pride and hubris.

In analyzing this text the phrase "boastful person" can also be redefined as one who is so focused on his/her ego, or his/her own needs, that s/he only acts in ways that are meant to raise up him/herself. This person will eventually be consumed by his/her needs and ego. One could certainly apply this to Saddam Hussein and how his egotism has led him to become one of the most oppressive and tyrannical rulers of the 21st century. However, I believe we also must look at how our own leadership has been so consumed and blinded by their own sense of what is right that they too run the risk of being consumed, and causing us to be consumed, by the fires of unilateralism and self-righteousness. Though I do consider myself to be a pacifist I also consider myself to be a realist. I am aware that war is sometimes, if not often, necessary. I supported our nation's military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and even, to a lesser extent, in the first Gulf War. However, I don't believe that Jewish teaching or other ethical and moral teachings can support the claims that our administration is making for this war. For a much more eloquent discussion of these issues I recommend that you read Jimmy Carter's op-ed in the Sunday New York Times of March 9. (click here )

The other commentary that I found particularly meaningful with regard to the current political situation is a teaching of Rabbi Meir, who lived in the land of Israel in the second century CE. He commented on the fact that the last offering mentioned in the list of sacrifices found in this week's parashah is the 'zevach shelamim' which can be translated as 'wholeness offering', 'offering of well-being' or 'peace offering.' Using the latter Rabbi Meir taught that the peace offering was mentioned last because the Torah always emphasizes the importance of peace/shalom. "Great is peace," he taught, "for the sake of peace a person may suffer humiliation." He then tells the story of a woman who is late returning home because she spent time at Rabbi Meir's study session that lasted longer than usual. When told this, her husband refused to believe her and told her "I will not allow you into the house until you have spit in Rabbi Meir's eye." The woman then returns to Rabbi Meir and tells him what has happened. He pauses and says to her "It seems that I have an infection in my right eye that can only be cured with the spittle of your mouth. So please spit in my eye seven times." After the woman had done so he told her to return to her husband and tell him that she had indeed spat in Rabbi Meir's eye.

Ignoring for the moment the inherent sexism and misogyny of this text, it is clearly meant to teach the reader that "Great is peace. You may suffer shame to make peace between friends, between a wife and husband." (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9)

You might ask how this applies to the current war. As I read this text I couldn't help but think that much of what is happening in Iraq in this moment has to do with the inability of certain world leaders to sacrifice their own egos and sense of pride in order to pursue peace. Saddam Hussein is clearly unwilling to even consider risking his pride and ego by doing what is best for his people and the world and stepping down from leadership in order to bring about peace.

And not that I am in away equating President Bush with Hussein here or elsewhere in this d'var Torah, but it seems to me that he is also unwilling to put aside his own pride and ego, and to perhaps embarrass himself, by acting in concert with the majority opinion of the citizens of the United States of America and the world and not going to war - at least at this point in time. Whether it is ego or hubris, or simply truly believing that he is morally right, I still do not believe that gives any leader the right to go against the will of his people, let alone the world community.

A few weeks ago, when discussing the Golden Calf, I spoke of how important it is to remember that we are part of a greater whole and that none of us stand alone in this world, whether as an individual or as a nation. I also stated my firm belief that our position as the sole "super power" in the world gave is a greater responsibility not only to our own residents, but also to the other nations of the world.

In the spirit of these two ancient rabbinic texts, that responsibility means that we must always remember that peace is our primary goal. Yes, at times we must fight and kill in order to achieve peace, but that should always be the very last resort. In addition, our leaders - and all people - must remember the importance of not putting one's pride and ego ahead of the good of others, lest they be consumed by the fires of passion and war and cause others to be consumed as well.

In closing, I must state unequivocally that do believe that Saddam Hussein is an evil person and that he is a tyrant who should be deposed. However, I do not believe that involving our troops in a war that is not supported by our people is the solution at this point in time. If it were the best solution I have enough trust in the American people and in humanity in general, that there would be a groundswell of support for the war that has begun, rather than the continuation of protests and opposition.

Now that the war has begun I hope and pray that our soldiers and all civilians will remain safe. But more than that I hope and pray that this war is speedily brought to an end so that the work on building peace in the Middle East and throughout the world can continue.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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