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Who is our True Enemy #709

01/14/2022 04:40:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Beshalach
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
 –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

Who Is Your True Enemy?

There was tension in the alley that afternoon, as Robert picked up his bowling ball and set his sights on the 10 perfectly spaced pins in front of him.

“How many points am I behind?” he asked as he stepped up toward the lane.

“I think he’s 14 points ahead,” I replied.

Robert squeezed his eyes tightly, and — fueled by his desire to overtake Peter, his best friend — swung the bowling ball as far back as he could hoping to launch a game-winning strike.

But as the ball left his fingers, a dull thud filled the alley, as his ball landed just in front of him, and slowly trickled into the gutter.

“That jerk,” said Robert. “I’ll never beat him.”

I thought for a moment, took Robert aside, and offered a bit of advice. “Maybe the real enemy is not Peter,” I told the 11 year old. 

“You have the skills to succeed. Maybe you need to block Peter out, and focus on being the best bowler you can be.”

There would be no championship trophy for Robert on that day. But years later, as we reflected upon that bowling game, a slightly more mature Robert concluded, “I wanted to win so badly. Maybe that day, the real opponent was me.”

This week, in synagogue, we will read one of the Torah’s most famous stories — “The Parting of the Sea.”

We know the story. We’ve seen the movie.

Nachshon, the head of the tribe of Judah, enters the waters, and the seas part. Moses raises his rod, and the children of Israel pass through.

Soon after the Israelites make it to the other side, they observe the fate of the pursuing Egyptian army. Pharaoh’s soldiers, chariots and horses are swallowed by the sea’s collapsing walls. The Egyptians drown, and the last obstacle to Jewish freedom is removed.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud notes that the Israelites begin to rejoice. 

Even the angels join the celebration. As they observe the Egyptians dying, the angels prepare to sing their traditional celestial chant: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh!” ("Holy, holy, holy!”)

But God wants none of that, and commands those celebrating to curtail their rejoicing — literally to “shut their mouths.”

The Talmud quotes God as saying: “The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs?” As one Sage notes, “This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.”

I often think about this piece of Talmud as I observe a world that is increasingly dividing itself into winners and losers.

Whether at work, within our relationships, in sports or other endeavors, too many celebrate their victories and accomplishments — at the expense of others.

Trash talk and taunting have become an integral part of sports. Revenge is commonplace within this country’s political landscape. Ethical discussions, once conducted between friends “in the name of heaven,” too often turn ugly and divisive.

Too many fault others for their misfortunes. But are we truly defining who our true enemies are?

As one of my teachers, Rabbi Shais Taub, often points out in his lectures: “There is one common denominator in all of your failed relationships. And that common denominator is you.”

Each day, life places obstacles before us. Relationships can be challenging. They require us to navigate troubled waters. But like Nachshon and Moses, it is incumbent upon us to walk forward — toward dry land.

What keeps us under water? In part, ego and misguided blame.

And what are the antidotes? In part, humility and selflessness.

If Covid has taught us one thing, it is to look at life in new ways. Good health can be fleeting. During the past two years, many have come to realize that competitive pursuits can often be misguided — energy misspent.

In many ways, God is inspiring us to count our blessings, to review our priorities, and to consider whether our true life foes are external or internal.

Noted Franklin Roosevelt in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In this week’s Torah portion, the children of Israel restrain their inner angels. God instructs them to focus on their own path forward, rather than the misfortune of others.

The Talmud continues this narrative, inspiring us to consider that how the wicked fall is not our concern. 

That trajectory is captured within this week’s Torah portion. We strive, we advance, we part difficult seas, we reach dry land, and then we begin the process anew.

As Jews, we believe that life is a sulam — a ladder. How we reach the next rung has, ultimately, less to do with who is chasing us, but rather where our hearts, our skills and our faith lead us.

As our tradition inspires us to consider, true understanding of who our true friends and enemies are rests within each of us.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon us not only to reach dry land, but also to claim high ground. It is a lesson our tradition has taught for centuries.

Indeed, God does not rejoice in the failures and suffering of others.

And neither should we.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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