from the heart of jerusalem

Jews in defiance of the natural order


There is war, and then there is madness. In war, one has to fight, but when madness sets in, sometimes has to run. Such was the question on a dark October afternoon in 1973, when the quiet beauty and desolation of the Suez Canal was ruptured by the roar of an entire army crossing the water, bent on bloodshed.

Israel believed it could not be breached and that the Arabs would not dare attack just six years after their humiliating defeat in the Six Day War. Only someone forgot to tell the Arabs. Which is why there were fewer than 500 Israeli soldiers and three tanks facing the 70,000 Egyptian soldiers who crossed the Suez Canal.

So what do you do, when there are so many enemy soldiers headed your way that you don’t even have enough bullets to slow them down? Obviously, you run! Yet these brave men stood their ground, and all these years later, the state of Israel is still here to tell the tale.

There is a story in this week’s parsha, Vayetze, which might help us understand what happened on that fateful day. Ya’acov after 22 years, is getting ready to make his escape in the middle of the night from the clutches of his cunning and wicked father-in-law Lavan.

“And Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the terafim that were her father’s.” (Bereishit 31:19)

While Lavan is off shearing his sheep at dawn, and Ya’acov is saddling up the camp preparing to steal away in the darkness, Rachel takes the time to steal her father’s idols! What interest does Rachel have with the graven images of the father whose home and way of life she is about to willingly leave behind?

Rashi quotes the suggestion (from the Midrash) that she was trying to distance or separate her father from idolatry. However, the continuation of this story makes this suggestion appear tenuous.

When Lavan finally catches up with Yaakov and his camp, Lavan challenges Yaakov’s decision to flee with Lavan’s children and grandchildren — but he is especially upset that Ya’acov stole these idols. But he cannot find them, because Rachel hid them beneath her camel’s cushion and is sitting on them!

Now, if Rachel had really taken these idolatrous images just so they would no longer be an influence in her father’s home, the logical thing to have done with them would have been to get rid of them, or bury them in the earth. Why is she keeping these idols?

Perhaps one way of understanding this strange story, is to place it within the wider context of the mission and struggle of the emerging Jewish people. Ya’acov, like his father Yitzchak and his grandfather Avraham, lived in a world steeped in pagan idolatry. The world was immersed in the power of nature, and the prevalent idea of the time was that there were hidden forces in nature that determined one’s destiny, and those who were sensitive to these forces of nature were able to intuit the future, and even manipulate the people and events around them.

Interestingly, Judaism’s position has never been that these forces are not real. The issue Judaism has with astrology is not that it is not true, but rather, that we are not bound by it, or limited to its interpretation. The astrologist will assume that whatever the star pattern teaches has to be, so if the stars say that you are an angry person, or that you will die young, then that is what will have to happen.

But the promise G-d gives Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov, on different occasions, is that “Your offspring will be greater than the stars.”

We are not limited by the natural patterns of the constellations. As a people, we don’t fit into the normal trends of history, and just because the laws of nature would seem to dictate that the Jewish people should disappear, does not mean we will.

In the natural order of things, 70,000 soldiers should not even blink when running through a scant five hundred men.

And this may be the meaning of Rachel’s decision to sit on top of these idols. All of these forces of nature have power over us only if we give it to them. But if they are just pillows to sit on, then they no longer control our lives; we do.

And we find this idea almost everywhere we look in Judaism. This is how David, at the time a simple shepherd boy, defeated Golaith when the entire army of Israel seemed helpless before him.

If you see the man before you as a giant, then he is indeed a giant, and he will rule over you, one way or another. But if you see that he is just a fellow who needs a lesson in manners, then to you, that is all he will ever be.

Thirty years ago, a small group of men, peering over the walls of the Bar-Lev line, saw something that would have, indeed should have, sent them running through the desert to escape with their lives. And the Egyptians, based on all the rules of military strategy, doubled and quadrupled to be absolutely sure, were counting on this. But they forgot to study their history; Jews don’t seem to be able to count too well.

Published in 2011.