May 25, 2024
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Back in the 1980s, when El Al was a national airline owned and run by the State of Israel, a great controversy raged over whether the airline should continue to fly on Shabbat. The company stood to lose a lot of money and some of the workers threatened to strike if the government didn’t let them continue to fly on Shabbat. Prime Minister Menachem Begin stood before the Knesset to address the Israeli Parliament and many of the aggravated workers of El Al:

Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity. It originated with us, the Jews. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew a day of rest. Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet the Egypt of antiquity did not know a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and the arts, yet they did not know a day of rest. Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law which is relevant to this day, yet they did not know a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China—not one of them knew a day of rest…”

One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, ‘so that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.’ Ours is the nation that bequeathed to humanity the imperative of a day of rest to apply to the most humble of beings. Ours is the nation that gave the laborers the dignity equal to that of their employers, that both are equal in the eyes of God. Ours is the nation that bequeathed this gift to other faiths: Christianity—Sunday; Islam—Friday. Ours is the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.

So are we, in our own reborn Jewish State, to allow our blue and white El Al planes to fly to and fro, as if to broadcast to the world that there is no Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandment at Sinai, now deliver a message to all and sundry through our El Al planes—‘No, do not remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.’ I shudder at the thought that the aircraft of our national carrier have been taking off the world over on the seventh day over these many years, in full view of Jews and Gentiles alike” (Yehuda Avner, The Prime Ministers).

When I first read Begin’s inspirational words, I was blown away by the Kiddush Hashem he made on the Knesset floor. What a shout out for Shabbat! However, upon further reflection, I started to question Begin’s decision.

Israel is so often treated as a pariah in the world: vilified by the Arabs and looked askance by Europe and much of the West. Here was an opportunity for Israel to demonstrate itself as a normal country within the nations of the world.

Why distinguish ourselves? Why make it so inconvenient for non-Jews and non-observant Jews to travel on Saturdays? Why cause El Al to lose so much money? Why do we always have to be so different?

In this week’s parsha, God tells Moshe: “Harass the Midianites and destroy them” (Numbers 25:17). This is the second nation God commanded the Jews to engage in battle. The first was Amalek who, with zero provocation, attacked the Jews from behind when they left Egypt. Amalek was the embodiment of cruelty and aggression. But, what was the sin of the Midianites? What did they do to deserve this treatment?

The Torah answers: “For they attacked you in their conspiracy that they conspired against you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Cozbi the daughter of the prince of Midian who was killed on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor” (ibid 25:18).

The Midianites’ plan was to destroy the Jews. Balak, the king of Moab, could not attack them physically because the Jews were stronger. So, he commissioned Bilaam to curse them. The plan backfired. Now, he was left to his last resort—to spiritually attack the Jewish people by sending Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men and draw them into worshiping their pagan god, Peor.

The Midrash elaborates: “They [the Midianites] made booths for themselves and placed in them harlots in whose hands were all manner of desirable objects. An old woman would sit outside and keep watch for the girl who was inside the shop. When the Israelites passed by to purchase an article in the bazaar, the old woman would say to him: ‘Young man! Would you not like some linen clothing that comes from Beth-Shean?’ She would show it to him and say: ‘Go inside and you will see some lovely articles!’ The old woman would ask him for a higher price and the girl for a lower. After this the girl would say to him: ‘You are now like one of the family! Sit down, and choose whatever you desire yourself!’ A flask of wine stood by her, and as yet the wine of heathens had not been forbidden. A young woman would come out adorned and perfumed and would entice him, saying: ‘Why is it that though we love you, you hate us? Take this article for nothing! Are we not all the children of one man? The children of Terach the father of Abraham? If you do not wish to eat of our sacrifices and of our cooking, behold, we have calves and cocks! Slaughter them in accordance with your own precepts and eat!’ Thereupon she would make him drink the wine and the Satan would burn within him and he would be led astray after her; for it says, ‘Harlotry, wine and new wine take away the heart’ (Hosea 4:11).

The midrash continues: “Once the Israelite solicited her she would say to him: ‘I will not listen to you until you slaughter this animal to Pe’or and bow down to the idol.’ He would object: ‘I will not bow down to idols!’ She would answer him: ‘You will only appear as though you were worshiping!’ And so he would be led astray after her and do as he was bidden” (Midrash Rabba 2:23).

This sexual seduction and idol worship raged throughout the Jewish community, culminating with the graphic scene at the end of last week’s parsha. Zimri, a prominent Jewish prince from the tribe of Shimon, publicly had illicit relations with Cozbi, a Midianite princess. This spiritual anarchy unleashed a devastating plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 Jews.

Balak understood that if you cannot defeat the Jews on the battlefield or prevail over them with curses, then attack them in the area of their uniqueness. Lure them from their religious and moral values and bring them into the depths of Midianite depravity. Balak attacked the essence of the Jewish people: the sanctity and purity with which they approached sexuality.

The strength and vitality of the Jewish people emanate from the purity of our family life, the mutual respect between men and women, and the adherence to the Torah’s sexual norms that inspire both intimacy and dignity. When these norms are violated, the very existence of the Jewish people is threatened.

It is for this reason that God commanded the Jews: “Harass the Midianites”; combat the threat of the Midianites, as they pose just as much of a danger as any adversary. As Nechama Leibowitz astutely observed, while Amalek endangered the physical body of the Jewish people, Midian posed a threat to their soul.

The survival of the Jewish people hinges not only on our physical existence but also on our moral character, the principles we uphold and the values by which we live. Thus, Midian—just like Amalek—poses a real threat. This spiritual-physical paradigm repeated itself in the Chanukah and Purim stories. The Greeks, during the Chanukah story, would have been content had we only abandoned our Judaism and Hellenized. Yet, they were just as much a threat as Haman, during the Purim story, whose goal was to physically annihilate the Jews, irrespective of their religious ideology or commitment.

The net effect of intermarriage and assimilation are just as devastating to Jewish peoplehood as any pogrom or Holocaust. While one may appear more severe than the other, their cumulative effect leads to the same outcome: the demise of the Jewish people. Therefore, when Prime Minister Begin took a stand and declared Shabbat a flight-free day in Israel, he was effectively conveying the message that the Jewish people are not just another nation. We are a civilization that represents certain ideals. We embody specific values, which we express through a life of sanctity and holiness, whether in matters of sexuality or the observance of Shabbat.

In our own personal lives too, we must remain true to our unique Torah values, which we must never concede for economic gain or social acceptance. Whether at an office party, on a date or just on social media, we must endeavor to exemplify the values of our Torah. If we were truly proud of our Jewish heritage, we could never trade it in for anything else.

Shabbat Shalom.

Special thanks to my son, Ezra Wildes, for his contribution to this article.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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