Taking Sides

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on January 9, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

The animals of the forest were all agitated. They each had to make a choice. It was a simple choice, but the consequences could mean life or death. They could talk of nothing else. It was all tied in to the looming confrontation between Ari, the mountain lion, and Dov, the bear. This conflict had been brewing for some time, ever since that day, three weeks earlier, when Ari had first come into the forest.

It had started out as a perfectly normal day. As the eastern sky became lighter, the birds started singing, and the field mice and other night creatures made their way back to their burrows. As the day grew still lighter, the deer and the other animals began to meander toward the brook that ran through the middle of the forest, pausing along the way to nibble breakfast here and there. Then, around mid-morning, they heard the growling and thrashing that meant that Dov was up and about, and not in too happy a mood, either. Of course, he was never in a good mood in the morning. Well, actually, he was never in a good mood, period; and in the mornings, he was even grumpier than the rest of the day.

As Dov made his way to the brook, the other animals gave him a wide berth. He generally didn't attack anybody in the mornings, but since no one in the forest could stand up to Dov, prudence dictated they honor him with a respectable margin of safety. Once Dov was in the brook, and occupied with fishing, they came a little closer, but not much.

Dov was so engaged in trying to catch this one fish that he didn't notice that everyone else in the forest suddenly froze, because of a strange scent that they picked up. They didn't know from whom this scent emanated, but they knew it didn't belong in the forest. As the scent became stronger, they drew closer to Dov, looking to him as protector. Finally, as the mountain lion stepped into the clearing, about 30 yards from the brook, and the animals actually started wading into the water, Dov finally realized what was happening.

"Halt!" growled Dov, rising up fiercely on his hind legs and starting to advance toward the lion. "Who are you, and what makes you think you can just come waltzing into my forest?"

"Whoa, simmer down big fella," said the lion, in a surprisingly gentle and folksy manner, not the least intimidated by Dov's bravado. "I'm Ari, and this seems like such a friendly forest, I thought surely no one would mind if I slaked my thirst at this cool brook."

"You can slake all you want outside the forest, but you'd best not come here again upsetting all my animals, or you'll have to deal with me," Dov growled back. The animals edged a bit closer to Dov, reassured by his protective tone and manner, but still somewhat concerned by the phrase "my animals." Was that as in 'my friends' or as in 'my food?' With Dov, one never knew.

"Well, I can see I've caught you at an inopportune time," Ari said slowly backpedaling, "but I'll be around, and once your friends get to know me, they'll find that I'm not such a bad guy." At the edge of the clearing, he turned around slowly, and defiantly sauntered out, with his head and tail both held high.

Dov glared at Ari until he was completely gone; then he glared at everyone else until they suddenly realized they were far too close to Dov for comfort and quickly moved out. All the rest of that day, Dov was even less fun than usual to be around.

True to his word, Ari did come back. He always did so when Dov was not around, and always was on his best behavior. He never attacked any of the animals, but rather treated them with courtesy. On a couple of occasions, he even scared off a wolf, chasing him for several hundred yards. Most of the time, he just sort of hung out, and several of the animals started talking about how Ari was actually better than Dov as a friend and protector. They all knew, of course, that neither Dov nor Ari was friend or protector. In a heartbeat, either could turn on them, and they would become dinner. Still, that wasn't something that nice animals talked about out loud, and besides, Ari did seem more pleasant to be around.

The confrontation had moved into high gear and taken a personal turn for all the animals the day before. Ari came sauntering into the forest, but this time, Dov was there, and they squared off facing each other, about thirty yards apart. "You know, you're not the only one in this forest," Ari said to Dov, "and the other animals don't seem to mind my being here at all." There was a small murmur of assent from some of the onlookers.

"Well," answered Dov, "the other animals and I have been in this forest together for years, and we've always gotten along." Again, a small murmur of assent arose from some of the onlookers. "I would hate to think that their loyalties are so fickle that they would change allegiance on account of a few weeks of good behavior from a predator like you." 

"Now, now," countered the lion, "there's no need for name-calling. Why don't we just ask your long time friends how they feel about this?" For the third time that morning, a murmur of assent could be heard among the animals looking on. This time, Dov glanced away from Ari and took a long hard look at all the animals arrayed in a circle around the two fighters.

"That's fine with me," replied the bear, "we'll ask them tomorrow, just before the fight. But understand: this isn't a democracy. The ruler of the forest will be determined by you and me fighting. However, since all the animals are so keen to share their opinion in this matter, let them do that. So long as they understand that there's no neutrality here. Every animal in the forest has to line up on one side or the other - Tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow, then," said the lion as he took his leave.

That was yesterday. Today was the day that every citizen of the forest had to make his choice, had to declare his loyalty: to the bear, or to the lion. One thing was certain: at the end of the day, only one of the two would be the ruler of this forest, and whoever had chosen wrong would find life in the forest mighty unfriendly.

* * * * *

This is a terrible dilemma to be in, having to put your life on the line, without knowing what the outcome will be. Oh sure, we can look back in history and say, "Those colonists who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War were foolish," but that's only because we know now how that war ended. At the time, who realized that the colonists would win?

This is precisely the position in which the Children of Israel find themselves in our Parsha this week. The final confrontation between God and Pharaoh is coming, and each Hebrew has to declare his loyalty one way or the other: If to God he will slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on his door, a very public declaration of faith; if to Pharaoh, he will do nothing (other than perhaps cling tightly to his first-born during that long night).

It is this public declaration of faith, of allegiance, that the Paschal lamb is all about. The Omniscient One didn't need a sign to differentiate Hebrew from Egyptian that night. Rather, as Rashi, quoting the Mechilta, indicates in his commentary to Exodus 12:13 ("And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt"), "I put my eye to see that you are occupied in [carrying out] my commandments, and I will pass over you." In other words, the Omniscient One required an affirmation of loyalty. As it says in the Talmud (Berachot 33b), "Rabbi Hanina said, 'Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven.'" Translation: God may know everything in the world, but each one of us still has free will, and must make his or her own positive choice to be God-fearing - Or not. It's a simple choice.

Most of us, thankfully, are never put in the position of having to make that choice. We fulfill those commandments that resonate with us, be they ritual (lighting Shabbat candles, attending synagogue) or ethical (giving charity, being honest in our business dealings), and thus manage to finesse the crucial question the Israelites faced in Egypt: am I willing to bet my life on God?

I hope and pray that we are never put in the position where that decision is forced upon us. But at the same time, I pray that we come to understand that the commandments, the mitzvoth, of the Torah resonate with us precisely because they represent our understanding of how God expects us to behave. And I hope that as we gain that understanding through fulfilling these mitzvoth, we can grow in our faith to the point where we choose willingly accept God as though our lives depended on it, as our ancestors did in Egypt three thousand years ago. It is, in the end, a simple choice with profound consequences. 

Shabbat Shalom.