Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Bibi and the Mississippi

Two happenings of great significance, one national and the other international, recently drew much attention from the news media. Superficially, the two stories have no connection to each other whatsoever, yet after some reflection, they are very much related. The first is the damage caused by the flooding of the mighty Mississippi River, cresting to record levels, its worst since 1927. The second is Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's celebrated speech in Washington. Despite the numerous precautions taken by residents along the banks of the Mississippi, with the levies and sandbags, many homes and landmarks were submerged in water. Various floodgates were opened to divert rushing waters on to vast farmlands in order to prevent them from inundating more populated areas downstream. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farmland were sacrificed for the sake of saving larger cities. Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and many farmers lost their entire crops. An elementary lesson that crossed my mind was how appreciative we must be when reciting the daily blessing of “Rokah ha'aretz al hamoyim - Who spreads out the earth upon the waters.” Every day that we can tread upon dry land is a chessed from Hashem. In addition, with all of our engineering prowess and scientific know-how, we are still helpless in controlling the vast waters when Hashem allows them to overstep their bounds.

The second event, Mr. Netanyahu’s eloquent speech before the two chambers of Congress, was the talk of the news commentators for days after. Weeks before his arrival, many wondered how the prime minister would handle the pressure from President Barack Obama that Israel place a construction freeze on the West Bank. Secondly, he was warned that he must restart peace talks with the Palestinians or face the specter of a U.N. resolution in September to recognize a Palestinian state. To the White House, the fact that Fatah and Hamas had just recently signed a unity agreement was of no consequence. Nor was the fact that in their charter, they refuse to recognize a Jewish state and still call for its total destruction.


It was a tough situation for the prime minister to be in, especially since the day before his arrival, he was deliberately preempted by a surprise speech made by Obama. In it, Obama declared that a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians must be the 1967 borders – really the 1948 armistice lines, referred to by former Israeli ambassador Abba Eban as “Auschwitz borders” – which are totally indefensible. Even more upsetting was the request that Israel recognize the Palestinian right of return, through which millions of the enemy would settle in the Jewish state. Accompanying this was the cynical assurance that Obama is totally dedicated to the security and safety of the State of Israel and that no peace plan would be imposed on them.


How would Bibi react to this? It was anticipated that Bibi would do his regular bobbing and weaving, utilizing his political acumen to deflect the issue, at least temporarily. Much to everyone’s surprise, this wasn’t the case at all. At their joint public appearance after their meeting on Friday, Netanyahu stood up to the president. He lectured him on history in the Mideast and stated emphatically that a return to the 1967 borders was not going to happen.


To the joint session of Congress, Netanyahu delivered a brilliant oratory. He stated that Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East, it’s what’s right. That of 300 million Arabs living in the Middle East and North Africa, only 1-1/2 million enjoy democracy, and they all live in Israel. That you don’t have to engage in nation-building in Israel; it’s already built. That you don’t have to export democracy to Israel; we’ve already got it. And you don’t need to send American troops to Israel; we defend ourselves, he said.


Throughout the speech, there were many standing ovations by members of both political parties and a genuine feeling of empathy for Israel. Bibi even handled a heckler during his speech with aplomb. Aside from the fact that Bibi didn’t yield to impossible demands, many took pleasure in the fact that Obama did not get his way.


With the help of the liberal media and an overwhelming majority in Congress, until just recently the president was used to bulldozing his way unimpeded in attaining his leftist objectives. With regard to Israel, he has met a barrier. Of course, liberals and the secular Jews of J Street backed the president and considered it chutzpah on the part of Bibi. But the speech left a good taste in the mouths of those who back the Jewish state and are concerned for its survival.


And yet, after hearing excerpts of the address and thoroughly enjoying them, this writer was left with somewhat of an empty feeling. Something was missing. The prime minister spoke with both courage and conviction, but one must question how he can indeed speak with such assuredness. We are but a little dot on the globe surrounded by nations that want to swallow us up. The other members of the international community are apathetic to our cause, seeing us as the bully and the Palestinians as the underdogs.


What are we to do if the U.N. in fact sanctions a Palestinian state? We have witnessed NATO taking action against Gaddafi of Libya and the U.S. throwing Mubarak of Egypt under the bus. Isn’t it possible that an Arab sympathizer like Obama could do the same to Israel? And what would stop masses of Arabs from staging a mass march and infiltrating Israel as they tried on a small scale recently on Nakba Day? Preventing such a deluge with violence would be a public relations disaster and bring added pressure against Israel.


There is only one answer to these problems. “But the land to which you cross over, to possess it is a land of mountains and valleys: from the rain of heaven it will drink water: a land that Hashem, your G-d seeks out: the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end” (Devorim 11: 11-12). Only Hashem guarantees our security in the Holy Land, for he watches over us. Our safety there is not determined by the army, by the fact that the state is a democracy, or by trying to find favor with other nations. It is solely dependent upon our relationship with Hashem. And this is something we can learn from the Mississippi.




It was about a hundred years before churban Bayis Sheini when Herod the wicked slave murdered his masters, the entire household of the Chashmonaim, and usurped the throne for himself. Based on the words of the chachomim that the kingdom can only belong to one of pure lineage, the people did not accept him as their monarch. He therefore took vengeance against the chachomim and killed out most of them, causing the others to flee for their safety. But he did spare one of them to keep as an advisor: the saintly Bava ben Buta, a talmid of Shammai.


Afraid of the tzaddik’s popularity and suspecting that he might secretly plot against him, Herod had him blinded in order to confine his activity. But this was not enough. Still ever suspicious of this great man, he posed as a stranger and disguised his voice to get him to curse the king. But his attempts were fruitless, as Bava was careful with his speech. Recognizing how great this man was and realizing what a heinous crime he committed in murdering many tzaddikim, Herod asked the tzaddik how he can rectify his sin.


Bava answered, “You extinguished the light of the world by eliminating the chachomim, and you must rekindle it by rebuilding the Bais Hamikdosh.” Having stood for three centuries, the Bais Hamikdosh was in desperate need of repair.


Herod listened and built a stunningly beautiful new edifice. “Whoever did not see the building of Herod never saw a beautiful building in his day.” It was conducted of white, blue and green marble stone, with protrusions and indentations that he wanted to fill with gold. However, the chachomim told him to leave it this way, for it looks like the waves of the ocean (Bava Basra 4a).


What is the significance of the waves of the ocean regarding the Bais Hamikdosh? In Akdomus, which we say on Shavuos, we state, “They come and they gather,appearing like waves.” This refers to the wicked people of the world who strive to destroy Am Yisroel. Yeshaya Hanovi said, “The wicked are like the turbulent sea” (Yeshaya 57:20). Each wave says that it will rise to flood the entire world, but upon reaching the shore, it is stilled. The second wave, not learning from the first, tries to do the same thing, but meets with the same failure.


In Selichos for Asarah B’Teves, we say, “May He reveal to me His goodness, the One who says to the sea, ‘Till here you may come.’” This is based on the posuk, “As He enclosed the sea with bolted doors…and I constrained it with My limits and I placed a bar and bolted doors and said: ‘Until here shall you go, and no further…’” (Iyov 38:8-11). Just as Hakadosh Boruch Hu sets limits on the ocean and doesn’t allow it to inundate the world, so does He limit the power of the resha’im.


By the last century of Bayis Sheini, because of internal strife amongst the Jews, the Romans had gotten a foothold in Yerushalayim, and the Holy City lived under a black cloud. The spiritual level of the Jews was headed downward and they were oppressed by the strangers in their midst. There was a feeling of despair amongst the Yidden and a real fear that the commonwealth wouldn’t last much longer.


For this reason, the chachomim wanted the walls of the sanctuary to resemble the waves of the ocean. It would remind the Jews that just as the waves of the ocean rise with pomp and fury but die when they reach the shore because that is the will of Hashem, so do the wicked, who are compared to the waves of the ocean, die when they reach their limit.


What is the limiting factor that confines the power of nations that infringe on our freedom? The walls of the Bais Hamikdosh. The resha’imstop at the outside of the place of our avodah. Inside those walls, they have no power. As long as we serve Hashem in the proper manner, the nations cannot affect us.


This was meant as chizuk for that generation. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of Klal Yisroel in those days was so deep and prevalent that it hindered the avodah and the general morality of the community, leading to the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. But Hashem continues to dwell amongst us in the mikdoshei me’at, the botei knesses and the botei medrash. These are the greatest levees, the bastions that contain those stormy waves, the nations that imperil us.


Thousands of years ago, when the Yidden battled against the authentic Palestinians and Dovid Hamelech faced off against the terrifying giant Golyas, he opened the confrontation with the proud declaration, “You came to me with a sword, a spear and a javelin, but I come to you with the name of Hashem, Master of the Legions, the G-d of the battalions of Yisroel that you have ridiculed” (Shmuel 17:45).


Contrary to what the prime minister said, we do not defend ourselves. We are dependent on the One Above, the Shomer Yisroel. The Melech HaMoshiach will arrive with the same ideal as his ancestor Dovid, “Not through army and not through strength,but through My spirit, said Hashem, Master of Legions” (Zechariah 4:6).



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