Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

ISIS in the Torah

In the Mishnah, Rabbi ben Bag Bag teaches: “Turn [the Torah], and turn it, delve deeply into it, for everything is to be found in it”. The Torah includes in embryotic form, all conceivable forms of wisdom, and existential guidance. Nothing human is foreign to it. And the Torah does not focus solely on all that is worthy and sublime and beautiful in the human condition, it also attests the monstrous and the abominable. The Torah also reminds us, time and again, of the pervasive existence of unspeakable evil and cruelty in our world.

In the Kabbalah, the Book of Zohar defines radical evil as the “sitrah ahrah” – which is Aramaic for “the other side” – namely, the dark side of humanity, and the diabolical aspect of being, inherent also in the human condition.

We are witnessing in today’s day and age, such a horrific manifestation of the sitrah ahrah, of the demonic side of being, in the geopolitical shape and form of the political idolatry known as ISIS. Together with the rest of the civilized world, we watch with dread and shock the atrocities perpetrated in the name of piety and Divinity.

This morning (Friday), I heard that ISIS has begun shutting off the water supplies of some cities, which it had recently conquered in Syria. One of the victims of ISIS’ unspeakable cruelty last year was the late journalist James Foley. Shortly before Foley was murdered by the enemies of humankind, the terrorists sent his parents an email. That email included the following words:

“Do not spare our children and women, for we shall not spare yours”. In this Shabbat’s parashah, the Torah explains the reason for G-d’s detestation of idolatry. It states in our parshah that idolaters are loathsome to the Almighty “because they also burn their own sons and daughters in fire” (Deuteronomy 12:31).

This is a chillingly and astonishingly contemporary verse. The people who murdered James Foley, do not shy away from putting their own innocent children in the line of fire, just as Hammas does not shy away from doing so in Gaza as well. And the Torah warns us, lest we follow in their despicable idolatrous ways, for they burn “their own sons and daughters in fire”.

The Torah is an eternal Torah, and its teachings are pertinent “as long as eyes can see and men can breathe”. In the words of the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her seminal work “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, the Torah not only addresses all that is lofty and refined in the human soul, the Torah also sordidly reminds us, time and again, that evil is pervasive and real and omnipresent, and that “normal people do not know that everything is possible” – including people causing the murder of their own children.

May we always be grateful and supportive of those who protect us from our enemies, and as we pray every weekday in the Amidah: “may all evil swiftly wither away.”

Wishing us and all of humankind a Shabbat of peace,

Tal Sessler

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