Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Courage and Convictions

The wicked think they operate with impunity. All throughout history, tyrants have oppressed their countrymen, deluding themselves that they would live forever without having to pay for their crimes. In the end, however, these despots suffer ignominious defeat and their names become synonymous with evil.

Saddam Hussein was one such embodiment of evil. The full measure of his wickedness is unfathomable. He murdered and tortured countless people without provocation. He was a rabid hater of Jews and sought their destruction. How many remember the reign of fear he engendered by sending his scuds into Israeli homes during the Gulf War? His nuclear ambitions were brought to a sudden, shocking halt by Menachem Begin, yet he continued to promote the killing of Jews, offering a $25,000 prize to any Palestinian terrorist who pulled off a successful attack against Jews.

He taunted the world and his countrymen with remorseless brutality while he led his country into disastrous wars against the United States and Iran, finally meeting his match in George W. Bush.

While he was in power, people trembled in fear before him and his torture chambers; they quaked from his secret police and from his insatiable urge to torture human beings.

His countrymen thought he was invulnerable, that no force could topple him. He seemed more powerful that Stalin and Hitler, history’s most notorious despots. His enemies dreamed of his death, but dared not rise up against him.

As maaminim bnei maaminim, we know that nothing happens by accident and history does not operate in a vacuum. The fact that Saddam’s downfall began on Purim was a potent reminder that all events are orchestrated from Above. This evil human being modeled himself after Nevuchadnetzar Harasha and claimed to be his reincarnation.

He spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding ancient Bavel in the mold of the infamous tyrant who destroyed the Bais Hamikdosh 2,500 years ago. How striking that he was executed one day before Jews around the world mark the day Nevuchadnetzar launched his armies against Yerushalayim!

How many people in the world at large have ever heard of Nevuchadnetzar? How many know what he stood for and what he did? Yet, this madman, Saddam Hussein, convinced himself that he was sent to the world to finish up this ancient tyrant’s odious work.

Seeing the downfall of reshoim who sought our destruction should serve as a chizuk to our emunah. It gives us a handle on understanding a world that seems to have gone mad.

Perhaps the hanging of Saddam should be a lesson to us that when we see evil being perpetrated, we shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines, insisting there is nothing we can do to stop it. Seeing pictures of Saddam at the literal end of his rope should be a reminder to us that man’s power - no matter how awesome it appears - is fleeting. A person’s ability to commit evil may appear unlimited and unstoppable, but the downfall of the wicked is simply a matter of time.

Most people are cowed by ostentatious power. We forget how temporal it is. We attach otherworldly, super powers to mortal man and then tremble before the seemingly all-powerful monster we have allowed to take root in our imaginations.

We need to be reminded that the wicked can only cling to power over a weakened populace. If the subjugated would realize the raw power of their numbers when they are united, they would be able to topple the tyrant.

We, too, in our daily lives, must not flinch before people who molest the community. We have to recognize that properly armed and prepared, we can bring down evil-doers and uproot the effects of their acts.

We calm our conscience by claiming we are not worthy. We say that we are not strong enough or smart enough to get anything done. But time and time again, it has been shown that this is not the case. If we cared enough, we would be able to help rectify some of the world’s most grievous lapses and prepare it for the coming of Moshiach.

I once wrote that we learn how far-reaching the impact of one’s actions can be from Parshas Vayechi, where we learn that as Yaakov Avinu was approaching the end of his life, he called for his son, Yosef, and asked the powerful son for one last favor. “Swear to me that I will not be buried in Mitzrayim.

In justifying his request to Yosef, Yaakov refers to the tragic episode of Rochel’s death, which had taken place many years earlier, when he was returning from Padan Aram after his long sojourn with Lavan.

“Va’ani bevo’i miPadan meisoh alai Rochel b’Eretz Kenaan, baderech, be’od kivras eretz lavo Efrasah, va’ekbereha shom be’derech Efras, hee Bais Lochem.” Rashi, in words that have been chanted with a special nigun by cheder children for hundreds of years, explains that Yaakov was saying to Yosef, “I am troubling you to bring my body back to Eretz Yisroel for burial, though I didn’t do the same for your mother, Rochel, (when she died on the journey, after giving birth to Binyomin). I didn’t even bring her to Bais Lechem, and I knew that you were unhappy with what I did.

“Now I want you to know that I acted according to the Divine wishes, for when the tyrant Nevuzaradun will exile the Jewish people from their land, they will pass by the grave of your mother, Rochel. She will then go out onto the kever and cry and beg the Ribono Shel Olam to have mercy on the Jewish people, as the posuk states in Yirmiyahu, “Kol beRamah nishmah, nehi b’chi samrurim” (A voice is heard in Ramah, bitter weeping…).

And Hakadosh Boruch Hu answers, “Yeish sochor lifulosaich ne’um Hashem, veshovu vonim ligvulam.”

Yaakov explains to Yosef that he buried Rochel just outside of Bais Lechem because of an event destined to take place centuries later. But something seems not quite right with this explanation. Does it seem fair that Rochel Imeinu should be left in a lonely, deserted kever for millennia because of a single moment in history - albeit one of great importance - when she would intercede for the Jewish people and win the promise of Hashem’s salvation?

Perhaps the lesson here is that yes, indeed, a single act can be of such sweeping, far-reaching importance that it transcends every other consideration and justifies enormous sacrifice. That act may be the defining moment of a lifetime. It may have the potential to alter a person’s or nation’s destiny.

It takes wisdom to recognize such an act for what it is. And it may take great courage to carry it out.

During the course of life, one encounters many pivotal moments when a specific action or inaction may be the ticket to eternity, but we don’t notice them and we miss our chance. Those special moments when we are presented an opportunity to do something significant and lasting are often overlooked. Perhaps we wimp out. It may be an act of great self-restraint or self-sacrifice that is asked of us. It may be an act of Kiddush Hashem, mesiras nefesh for a mitzvah, or for an ideal.

We say we’re not strong enough to do it. We leave it for someone else.

Esther Hamalkah was alerted to her moment when she was reminded by Mordechai, “Mi yodaiya im l’ais kozos higaat lamalchus.” Mordechai told her that the entire chain of events leading her to the heights of wealth and power had been orchestrated for this defining moment. Most of us don’t have a Mordechai to tip us off when our defining moment has arrived, and thus we fumble the ball and mess up when it comes our way.

There is no one who stands by ready to whisper in our ear that this is our chance to achieve immortality and to give our lives purpose and meaning. We have to be on standby for that moment, prepared to jump into the breach and prevail. Even if no one else alerts us, we have to do the job ourselves.

If you study history, you see that not all men and women who accomplished great things with their lives and led great revolutions were brilliant or charismatic. Many were, but just as many were just simple people who were committed enough to their goals that they were not cowed by naysayers. They had the courage of their convictions to stand tall against people who stood in their way and refused to bend to the dominant thinking of their day.

They didn’t offer up the lame excuses that they weren’t brilliant or dazzling orators; they didn’t cop out by saying that they weren’t wealthy or strong. And we shouldn’t either.

We may be called upon to do things we feel very uncomfortable doing, or deny ourselves what we feel entitled to; we may have to face embarrassment as people question us and our motives. It may cost us money, prestige or time. Things will not go our way each time and we may not win every battle. But we should not shirk the responsibility. We should not run from confronting evil.

There is no price that is too high for nitzchiyus. What shouldn’t we be prepared to do to attain the eternity of Rochel Imeinu?

The reshoim will gain temporary victories. The wicked will seem to prosper and grow in power. The weak among us will say it is impossible to confront them. The meek will say that we should let someone else get dirty battling them. But those of us who heed the examples set by the ancients will remain focused on our missions in this world, exerting ourselves to do whatever we can to strengthen goodness and diminish evil, and prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu, bimeheira b’yomeinu. Amein.


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