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Not by Power

Mel Brooks in the 2000 year old man was asked by Carl Reiner if he remembers a time before religion. And he replies that before religion there was Phil. Phil was the biggest and strongest guy, everyone was afraid of Phil, until one day Phil was struck by lightening, and we realized there was something more powerful than Phil! listen here  . Is God just a power bigger than Phil? Perhaps just the opposite, God is what happens when we reject the search for power!

It may be in our human nature to use our power to control others, and this leads to terrible abuses, including the worst that humanity has to offer. From the bully in the playground to the Holocaust to the Janjaweed, a torturous military group in Sudan that puts guns in the hands of boys and turns them into destroyers. Both the abused and the abusers are degraded. Humans have been gifted tremendous power, never more than today, and famously power corrupts. The Torah portion for this week, Mishpatim, which means Laws, has a ton of rules dealing with abuses of power, from slaves that are beaten, to pregnant women (who are beaten) to kidnappers, to elder abuse (the adult child that curses his parent)  And in the midst of all of these rules reigning in power abuses is a startling scene, seemingly misplaced: Moses,  Aaron, 2 of Aaron’s sons and 70 elders climb a mountain and behold God and eat and drink!  Ex. 24:9  Seeing the Eternal, Creative force of the universe? Beautiful, otherworldly but not very Jewish, and how is that even possible?  Perhaps its placement here is meant to give insights into rejecting the power race of the world: rejecting war, and slavery and abuse of women, children, elders, even animals. And that if we reject power, our reward is spiritual fulfillment.

A story which begins with a kidnapping, moves to more violence and ends with liberation is told of a Rabbi and a Gladiator (retold from R. Ed Feinstein’s Capturing the Moon)  On a Bridge in Northern Israel, a long time ago, around the second century, two very different men met. One man, named Simon, was a gladiator. Born of a Jewish family, orphaned, and then kidnapped by Rome to be a fighter in the arena, he was the strongest, fiercest and most feared of all the gladiators. As he hurried across the bridge in full armor on his way to another contest, he met the second man, a very different kind of champion. Rabbi Yochanan was a slight man with kind eyes, a leader in his community renowned for the depth of his learning and love of Torah. He carried no weapons, just his scrolls. As the men met, Simon demanded that the rabbi move to let him pass, but Yochanan would not budge. Simon shouted, and threatened him: I’ll cut you into little pieces and feed you to the fish!, but still the rabbi would not move. Simon raised his sword, poised to strike the rabbi down, but then something amazing happened. Simon’s eyes met the calm eyes of his victim. Accustomed to seeing fear in the eyes of his rivals, and using terror as his weapon, he saw in the rabbi’s eyes only the calm strength of a man fully at peace with God and his place in the world. Simon had never seen this in anyone’s eyes, let alone one threatened by violence, and the power  and kindness in Yochanan’s face shook him to the core!  He stood there for several minutes staring, and then dropped his sword, fully captured by the gentle face of the great rabbi.

And Rabbi Yochanan saw something remarkable in Simon’s face. Beyond all the fury, the violence and arrogance, the rabbi saw a passionate desire to love and be loved. Beyond the armor of a gladiator was a soft heart, and a soul waiting to be touched. My brother, where are you going in such a hurry, began the rabbi, to kill or be killed in the service of the Empire? Replied the Gladiator: There is no greater service than the glory of Rome! I have sworn allegiance to Caesar!   Rabbi Yochanan slowly replied: One day Rome will be gone, her arenas reduced to Rubble, Caesar long gone and forgotten. Only God’s glory is eternal. You are created in this Eternal image, and carry God’s light within you. This is Torah: only this power should you put above yourself and serve, not Caesar’s! Come join me in this greater quest, my friend – the quest to master God’s teachings.
But Simon shook his head I know only how to fight and kill, I don’t even know how to read or write, how can I study?  The Rabbi replied Your heart is stronger than your sward, and that is all God requires of you. Come, my brother.  Perhaps it was the Rabbi’s kind voice or eyes, or perhaps the fact that no person had yet called him brother, but Simon began to cry. Tears streamed down his face, and his cries echoed across the bridge. He dropped his sword, and unbuckled his armor, wiped his face and followed the Rabbi. Simon became Rabbi Yochanan’s best student, and in time became a Rabbi himself, the great Reish Lakish. He also became Yochanan’s brother in law when he married the Rabbi’s sister. They wrestled over Torah for rest of their days, bringing the love of learning to all.

And of course the musical link to all this, Debbie Friedman’s Not by Might here at three minutes in to the video



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