Views on the News

Confronting Evil

April 23, 2008

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story exploring the policies of the three presidential candidates vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear threat. They all agreed that a rush to war would be imprudent, but that's where the consensus ended. Here's how I read their positions: One candidate favors negotiating with Iran without any preconditions. Another isn't really sure what to do—but absolutely will not negotiate with a terrorist state. The third candidate would love to take military action, but senses that in the current political climate that isn't the wisest thing to say.

Which got me thinking: What is a Jewish approach with respect to evil regimes?

Then I realized: One second, how do I define evil altogether? So here goes:

I believe that there is a difference between evil and hurtful. Two people can be equally damaging, but one is evil and one isn't. By the same token, two people can be equally evil, but only one is hurtful and damaging.


a) Two people set out to commit murder. Both pull the trigger. One of them succeeds in executing his heinous plan, while the other's gun jams. One has been infinitely more hurtful, destroying a life and wreaking havoc on many others. The other is equally evil, but has not managed to be (as) damaging.

b) Two people rob a bank. One does so because he has bills to pay, and feels incredible guilt. The other simply gets a kick out of it. They have both committed equally criminal acts, but one exhibits an evil trait while the other has succumbed to weakness.

We all make mistakes, often hurting others in the process. But usually these offenses are triggered by weakness or an honest mistake. The parent who spoils his child is simply misguided, definitely not evil. An evil person, to my mind, is one who hurts others in cold malice or sadism, or because of a warped personal philosophy—with no compunctions about it.

Now, I think that the same principles holds true on the global scene. There are good regimes and evil ones. I'm not sure there can be a "gray area" in this area. Good regimes make mistakes all the time. Catastrophic mistakes at times (Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza strip is one such example—already painfully exposed as such by the barrage of rockets and the recent deaths). Sometimes the leaders of good regimes are greedy and corrupt and need to be prosecuted, but the motivations and governing principles of these nations are not evil.

And then there are "evil empires," as President Reagan once fittingly called the former USSR. Nations whose dictators – yes, as a rule these nations are led by dictators, because the masses are rarely innately evil – are on a pathological ego trip. Their goal is to dominate others. They have successfully forced their own populations into submission, and now they are drunk for more.

This past Saturday night we ushered in the holiday of Passover. More than 3,300 years ago, our nation was extricated from the death-grip of an evil nation.

"And the Egyptians were evil to us and tormented us, and they imposed hard labor upon us" – Deuteronomy 26:6; part of the Haggadah liturgy.

If they tormented us and forced us into slavery, is it necessary to add that they were evil? Torah is written concisely and is not known for adding superfluous adjectives.

It seems, however, that the Torah is discussing their intent.

We had never harmed the Egyptians—to the contrary, Joseph, the one who single-handedly saved the land from a catastrophic famine, was from our ranks. But the entire slavery was designed to hold us hostage in the land—we were to be a token of Egyptian supremacy. It wasn't merely a national weakness of character, it was a Nazi Germany-esque desire for domination.

What was G‑d's "approach" with regard to this evil regime? Well, He certainly didn't negotiate. His message to Pharaoh was blunt and to the point: "Let my people go or I will devastate you and your land. There will be nothing left by the time I'm finished with you..."

It seems then, that the Torah's account teaches us that you don't negotiate with evil. Idealistically speaking, this is because negotiating with evil lends legitimacy to an illegitimate entity. Practically speaking, the evil party won't negotiate in good faith. If he's evil, if he's rotten to the core, then he'll always be looking to undermine you and will pounce at you when the moment is opportune.

Instead G‑d unleashed on Egypt a torrent of plagues. The stated goal of these plagues was to bring Egypt to submission: "And Egypt will know that I am G‑d." An individual or entity that thinks that power is the answer to all will only be vanquished through a stronger demonstration of power.

I recognize that this is a sensitive and polarizing issue. This is only my humble little opinion on that matter. I'd love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Have a happy and kosher Passover!

The Rebbe, the Venture Capitalist

April 13, 2008

The recent government bailout of Bear Stearns and the prevailing concern about the mortgage crisis and what it means for local banks has the 1980's culture of corporate takeovers readying for a comeback. I figure there has to be something here that's a) positive and b) relevant to our service of G‑d. There must to be a "bright side" spin to this whole takeover phenomenon.

Consider an alternative scenario: a corporation reaches its output capacity and seeks new avenues for growth. A keen-eyed executive searches for an under-funded enterprise with a valuable product. They enter into a partnership, providing the capital to allow the Mom & Pop venture to grow to a level it could never have achieved on its own.

Judaism has its spiritual embodiment of this model: a Rebbe.

A Rebbe is a tzaddik, a wholly righteous Jew who has mastered his personal mission. He then turns his attention to infusing the undercapitalized startups of the generation with G‑dly vigor and shepherds them to otherwise unattainable heights, pumping spiritual capital into the corner stores and empowering them to spiritually swell beyond their own abilities.

A Rebbe's leadership does not diminish one's independence it enriches it. Like the conglomerate that seeks out the investment, it does so precisely because it values what the startup already is; the corporation seeks to augment its new partner not alter it. In fact, the investor's sharp eye often sees value that the small business never realized was there.

This Wednesday, the 11th of Nissan, is the 106th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory—a leader who personified this idea.

The Rebbe sought out Jews with an unprecedented vigor; he saw significance in every individual by virtue of the spark of G‑d invested within him or her. All too often we undervalue ourselves, thinking that we are a corner store when in fact we can be an international conglomerate. We think we are okay when we are great; that we are the simple son when inside there is a wise son eager to break out. The Rebbe infused us with his spiritual wealth, empowering us to discover our abundant, though often latent, abilities.

Perhaps this is why the Rebbe dispatched thousands of emissaries beyond the "enclave" of Brooklyn—despite the pleas of well-meaning contemporaries who feared that exposure to the "outside" would do irreparable damage to young impressionable couples. Like a venture capitalist that sees the undervalued company, he was willing to take the risk of investment, confident that the "gamble" would pay huge dividends. The Rebbe saw G‑dliness everywhere and trusted his emissaries to see the same. He didn't send them to "bestow upon strangers," but to evoke the natural G‑dliness from within their brothers and sisters.

A Jewish leader is obsessed with the needs of others. Everyone else gets to go to sleep at night; content to concern themselves with their family's needs. Perhaps they are active in their neighborhood or city, even their state or country, yet at some point they say "dayenu" (enough); sorry that's not my department. I often tell people who question why we refer to the Rebbe as the "leader of the generation," and not just the leader of the Lubavitch Chasidim: "The response is simple; no one else wanted the job!"

May we merit to believe in ourselves as deeply as the Rebbe believes in us.

Is Freedom of Speech Beneficial?

April 6, 2008

Three items from this past Friday's New York Times:

BEIJING — Tibet will be reopened to tourists on May 1, a decision announced Thursday even as Chinese authorities showed no sign of lifting restrictions preventing foreign journalists from freely visiting Tibet to report on episodes of ethnic unrest.

Tibet has been closed to domestic and foreign tourists since March 16, two days after violent riots erupted in Lhasa. State media have reported the police in Aba fired on Tibetan protesters after they tried to storm a police station. Overseas Tibetan advocacy groups have asserted that up to 20 Tibetans were killed...

BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced an outspoken human rights advocate, Hu Jia, 34, to three and a half years in prison after ruling that his critical essays and comments about Communist Party rule amounted to inciting subversion. Critics say his conviction is part of a government crackdown to silence dissidents before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in August...

SEOUL — North Korea's rising tensions with the West, along with soaring international grain prices and flood damage from last year, will probably take a heavy toll among famine-threatened people in North Korea. The warnings followed a report on Thursday that North Korea's government had suspended distribution of food rations for six months in Pyongyang, the capital. The report was released by Good Friends, a relief group in Seoul that collects data from informants in the North.

Korea's isolationist government asked for foreign aid in the 1990s only after a famine killed more than one million people of an estimated population of 23 million...

This week's Torah portion, Metzora, discusses tzara'at, a disease that causes skin discoloration. Though the symptoms of this ailment are physical, our sages teach that it is triggered by lashon hara, evil talk about another. Lashon hara isn't (only) slanderous talk; we are forbidden to discuss another's faults and misdeeds even if true. The Rebbe explains that speech has the ability to reveal that which is hidden. Speaking negatively about another reveals and reinforces those very negative qualities—just as speaking about another's strengths and talents brings those qualities to the forefront of his consciousness.

Is this an endorsement of the Chinese and North Korean simple philosophy: instead of dealing with an issue, deny its existence—and then silence anyone who dares to suggest that the problem does exist?

Let's hear what you guys think...

Is He Dead Yet?

April 2, 2008

Zach Dunlap's story, which took place in Oklahoma City, is a unifier.

No matter what side of the organ donor argument you are on, when you read Zach Dunlap's story you will probably take a step back—to contemplate.

Zach Dunlap, 21, was "more dead" than Terri Schiavo was before he woke up from his coma.

He was pronounced dead in Wichita Falls, Texas, after he was injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident. After seeing the results of a brain scan in which "there was no activity at all, no blood flow at all," his father, Doug, approved organ harvest from Zach's "lifeless body."

But as family members were paying their last respects, they wanted to check if he was really dead. He wasn't. Zach suddenly moved his foot and hand and reacted to a pocketknife scraped across his foot and to pressure applied under a fingernail.

Incredibly, though Dunlap said he has no recollection of the crash, he does remember one thing and that is hearing the doctors pronounce him dead.

"I'm glad I couldn't get up and do what I wanted to do," Zach said.

"Just makes me thankful, makes me thankful that they didn't give up."

This is quite a horrifying statement. How many other "brain dead" people heard doctors declare them dead? How many others were given a death sentence while lying helpless in a hospital bed?

Four months after he was declared brain dead and doctors were about to remove his organs for transplant, Zach Dunlap says he feels "pretty good." I would say he should. Not just because he's alive and well, but more so for the message his story sends the rest of us.

The story of Zach Dunlap should make a lot of people feel good—all those who understand that while there is breath there is life.

No matter what side of the argument you are on – pulling the plug or not, donating organs or not – this story really has to make you think.

Perhaps when it comes to life and death decisions people are too quick to pull the trigger.

Certainly one thing we can learn from Zach Dunlap's "return to life": Not enough effort is made to watch cases like this and allow them to play themselves out before we pull the plug.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
Related Topics