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Gladiator (Matot)

Rage, anger: we call it being “mad” for it takes our sanity from us.

There are some passages in Matot, this week’s parashah about rage, that I struggle strongly with,  including one where an enraged Moses has women and children captives killed. When I write or speak about Torah, I often just focus on my favorite verses, and ignore the hard ones, but given the week’s violent and disturbing news in Israel, I cannot.

“I believe that it’s my job to find myself..” in Torah, sings Julie Silver. “I struggle and I question, I criticize and doubt, but surely that is what our tradition’s all about!  Where am I, in the midst of this commandment?.Where am I, I am not between the lines…how can I turn aside, where am I?”

Choral director and composer, Eleanor Epstein taught me something eye-opening last year. “You know how we say about Torah that “all its paths are peace?” Well, that means if you don’t find peace in the words, you are simply not interpreting it correctly, because ALL it’s paths are peace!” So with that in mind, the lesson on rage- that it makes us “mad” even for best of us, even our heroes.

A story (from R. Ed Feinstein’s Capture the Moon): Did you ever meet someone who just turned everything around, set you on a better path?  (or perhaps you been that person?). There once was a Jewish boy named Simon, who lived in Israel during the time of the Roman Empire around the 200CE . Kidnapped to serve Rome, he would become among its fiercest gladiators. His reputation?:  nobody could withstand his rage and might. One day he was traveling in a hurry to get to his next contest when he came to a narrow bridge which crossed a rushing stream. Weighted down by weapons and armor he stopped about half way across, his way blocked by another man traveling in the opposite direction. This man was a very different kind of hero. His name was Rabbi Yochanan, and he was small, had tender eyes and was armed only with scrolls of ancient wisdom.
“MOVE OUT OF MY WAY” ordered Simon. Rabbi Yochanon would not. So Simon unsheathed his sword. “MOVE OR I WILL CUT YOU INTO A HUNDRED PIECES AND FEED YOU TO THE FISH”. But Yochanon would not budge. So the gladiator raised his sword. But just as he would lower it, his eyes met the Rabbi’s eyes, and he saw something he’d never seen before. Always in his rival’s eyes was terror,  enabling him always to prevail. But there was none in Yochanon, only a deep serenity. Here was a man who knew his purpose, and had more inner strength than anyone he knew from the Roman arenas. This meeting of eyes  shook Simon deeply. He stared long at the gentle rabbi, and then  trembled and dropped his sword. And what was the Rabbi seeing? As Yochanon was staring into the eyes of the gladiator, he saw a spark – beyond all the rage and violence, the Rabbi saw an enormous heart, an aching to love and be loved. A soul waiting to be touched.
Softly the Rabbi spoke to Simon: “My brother, talk with me awhile. Don’t be in such a hurry to kill, or to be killed!. Perhaps I can show you a greater path”
“I serve only the Glory of Rome and Ceasar,” replied the gladiator, repeating the oath he’d sworn. “There is no greater glory!”
“Ah, sighed the Rabbi”,  One day soon Rome and its Caesars will be gone and forgotten. Instead there are truths and Ideals that are eternal. You, my brother, have a spark, are in God’s very image! and you can shine the light of Torah, of truth and love. Come, my brother, devote yourself to the study and mastery of God’s Torah!”
“But…Simon’s voice trembled “I know nothing except the arts of war and killing.. I could never study with a scholar like you…!”
“But your heart, it’s much stronger than your sword, and that’s all God requires of you, Come my brother…” the Rabbi gently urged.
Maybe it was the light in the words and eyes of the Rabbi, Maybe it was because no-one had ever before called him “brother”, but Simon’s soul was reached that day on the bridge. He dropped to his knees and cried. He threw away his weapons, turned direction and followed Rabbi Yochanon. Simon became a truly devoted student. and in time the gladiator become one of the most brilliant Rabbis and teachers of our tradition: the great Reish Lakish. He also became Yochanon’s brother in law. And it is this gladiator Rabbi whose teaching enlightened me this week.

From Torah, God gives Moses the following instruction. You may avenge the Midianites, and then you will die, be gathered to your kin.  You see the Midianites had not let the Israelites pass through on their way to the promised land, and instead had tried to curse them, when that didn’t work they tried to seduce the men, and a plague resulted killing thousands.  But here’s the thing: the Torah actually forbids vengence! (Lev 19:18)  Torah goes on to say Moses is furious -perhaps understandably:  he’s lost his family, has been condemned, will not see the promised land,… and these damned Midianites…! Reish Lakish then comments “When a man becomes angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him, if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. That his wisdom departs… we learn from Moses, for after Torah says Moshe was furious with his commanders (for letting women and children live)… Reish tells us that Eleazar has to remind the troops of legal instruction (how to purify their swords  in fire), because MOSES FORGOT!

Poet Roger Kamenetz comments “In the atmosphere of war and violence, anger spreads and contaminates like a virus….Vengeance, even in a righteous cause, leaves a permanent stain, an impurity that cannot easily be washed out. Anger leads us to forget our deepest wisdom…Fire is fine for purifying metal, but how does a human soul cleanse itself from anger?”

So Moses was angry, and he messed up, and that’s a lesson. But doesn’t Torah say God was vengeful?  For ME, I know that although Torah is our Divine inspiration, its words have had to go through the lens of the folks understanding it at that time, in this case a despairing Moses, and it is our SACRED TASK to interpret it more truly.  Maimonides, in  Guide for Perplexed says

“whenever an act of God is perceived by us, we put our own emotion and attach it…. but God’s actions cannot be the cause of human emotions – God is beyond this defect”

It takes a reformed gladiator to criticize Moses, but he understands the rage of war. If Moses cannot handle anger, how much more careful should you or I be?

I was so ashamed of the angry Israeli mobs, and that our rage helped fan flames of war.  I despair that there is so much hatred for Jews on the Palestinian side of the border. Martin Luther King said “Hate cannot defeat hate, only love can do that”  Like the love of a small, wimpy Rabbi to reach the soul of a great gladiator, and turn him around on a narrow bridge.  Shalom, peace, comes from the root meaning “wholeness” and I think love can make us gladiators whole

Roman Gladiator


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