Dovid M. Cohen
Rabbi, Author, Podcaster

Beheading ISIL


I recently read an article in the Boston Globe entitled, “Why Beheading?” by orthodoxly observant but politically conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby. In it, he explains that the Islamic State (ISIL) has used the traumatic and dramatic tactic of “beheading” to strike fear and terror in their adversaries’ hearts as they attempt to conquer Iraq and Syria. He mentions the recent painful examples of journalists and relief workers James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines, as indicative of the psychological warfare being implemented. Significantly, and contrary to recent comments of President Obama, he adds that beheading is also part of Muslim theology and history. The Koran explicitly states, “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks.” He explains this verse is interpreted by leading Islamic scholars as a directive to literally behead such individuals.

It is interesting to me that the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah also focuses on the “rosh” or the “head.” Jewish esoteric sources comment that the three core festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos are parallel to the inherent traits of the three patriarchs and represent different aspects or parts of the human body. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah represents the head. The relationship between Rosh Hashanah and the other three festivals is comparable to the relationship between the head and the other body parts. Rav Shimshon Pincus zt’l explains this further and suggests that arms, legs, eyes and ears all have a certain limited expanse or range they can reach. They each capture a limited terrain in the realm of space. In parallel, the mind and its imaginative capacity are able to traverse time and reach all the way to the higher spheres of the heavens.

The core message then of the Jewish New Year is our limitless potential and capacity.  The day is an expression of the limitless perception of the mind.  This potential is apparent on the day that celebrates the anniversary of the creation of man.  On that initial day, original man was created perfectly with an incredible breadth and length of being, both in spiritual and physical talent and reach.  Strikingly, the Brisker Rav zt’l noted that in the initial week after birth, a person’s purest natural tendencies and predilections are most discernable.  After that, he argues, the baby begins to imitate and continues on this path for the rest of its life.

Generally, we assume G-d has the amazing ability to create something from nothing (“yesh m’ayin”) while we only have the ability to create something from something (“yesh me’yesh”).  Yet, on Rosh Hashanah we too have the ability to dream and to imagine new horizons and the creation of seemingly something from nothing.  Rav Pincus zt’l brings an interesting parable.  Although we have many personal aspirations and requests during this period, nobody we know prays for a third eye.  This is presumably due to the reality that nobody believes it possible. In truth, a third eye could be very handy, yet nobody wastes time praying for such a thing. Yet our matriarch Sarah conceived a much-desired child on Rosh Hashanah, even though our rabbis teach that she lacked a uterus and thus the capacity to carry a child. Imbedded within this initial day of the year is a miraculous, almost super-natural “yesh m’ayin” capacity for growth waiting to be accessed.

One can posit that ISIL is a current day manifestation of Amalek, our historical archenemy, per the insight of Rav Chaim Brisker ztl in understanding the Rambam.   The etymology of Amalek stems from the Torah word “Melika.”  Melika is the process of snapping the neck of a bird as an offering to G-d as atonement for our sins.  Its imagery communicates that our being stiff-necked resulted in our pursuing a direction opposite from G-d.  This process and mechanism of our sacrificing a bird is a realization that inflexibility harms spiritual growth. We ultimately do possess the ability to change and seek a different road.  The symbolism of this sacrificial process is the lesson that a head turns upon the body and can see new vistas and perspectives, an allusion to the authentic aim of Rosh Hashanah.

ISIL beheads as a punishment for those who don’t subscribe to their “sacred” ideology. As in the Melika process, the neck represents obstinacy in refusal to defer to their truth.  It is the “smiting” or slashing of the neck of the “non-believers” as the Koran instructs.

To us, Rosh Hashanah is the complete anti-thesis.  We emphasize the head because to us it embodies endless possibility.  It represents using our imagination to soar upwards toward the heavens.  To break the “surly bonds of time.”  This maybe is why such prominence is given to the head of a fish as a symbol on the initial night of the festival.  The fish represents procreation, productivity and expansion.  Our cries from the shofar pierce the higher realms.  We are using our mouths (attached to our heads) as an expression of limitlessness, not limitation, of growth and not an untimely brutal end, particularly in the period that Hashem ponders and ultimately uses to decide our individual and communal fate.

The reason we often fail at having lofty vision is something called “FEAR.”  A mentor of mine once explained that fear is an acrostic for “False Evidence Appearing Real.”  We stumble, stagnate and even freeze because we don’t believe in our limitless G-d given potential.  As Rav Cook zt’l commented, “The eternal people do not fear the long road home.”  This mantra hung outside the home of the Frenkel family in Nof Ayalon, Israel as they sat shiva this summer for Naftali z’l.  They perceived something beyond, a bigger picture, in their darkest personal moment.  They earnestly felt and continue to project the reality that there is no fear when one perceives the presence and hand of the orchestrator of the world tapestry.

Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love has a popular inspirational quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

These comments of “shining as children” and “liberating from fear” are echoes of the Brisker Rav ztl and our spiritual charge and duty in the New Year.  We are each pure and holy.  “Elokei Neshama Shenasata Bi Tehora Hi.” The fact that I have a pure G-d infused soul takes on an entirely new meaning each year.  We must think big and realize that we can attain new levels in our spiritual aspirations.  Why continue to limit and dismiss our infinite potential? We stand on the launching pad of the New Year.  We must lift our heads proudly and imagine our better selves.  Our shofar cried heavenward as the blower, the baal tokeia, lifted his head upward in sublime prayer. This is our beheading of ISIL.  The ultimate expressions of the triumph of hope and light over oblivion, terror and darkness.

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen has served as a communal Rabbi for decades, serving Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, NJ, Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan and Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. Rabbi Cohen appreciates knowledge of all types, earning a law degree from Columbia Law School and a Masters degree in Family Therapy from the University of North Texas with a concentration in couple dynamics. He has also done course work at the Columbia Business School, Yad Vashem and the Tikvah Fund. He served for many years as a rabbinical judge on the Beis Din of America, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. He is the author of the book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose,” published by Mosaica Press in 2016, presenting a pathway for confronting challenges. His most recent book “Together Again: Reimagining the Relationships that Anchor Our Lives,” an exploration of critical relationships post the pandemic was published in 2022. The Rabbi is the host of the popular Jewish Philanthropy Podcast (“The JPP”) with thousands of listeners and a skilled fundraiser as a Senior Relationship Officer at the Orthodox Union’s Yachad division. He is the proud father of six children and lives with his wife & family in North Woodmere, NY.