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Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

Moshe Rabbenu, Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, Theodore Roosevelt, Bibi: In the Arena

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Trigger warning: towards the end of this essay, I say something that might (and should) be construed as expressing approval or, at the least, support for the beleaguered and much maligned Benjamin Netanyahu.  It won’t quite be an encomium, but is likely to be sufficiently positive to precipitate extreme responses in those who devote all their energies to reviling this flawed but prodigious figure in contemporary Israeli politics.  If you can’t handle it, turn your attention to the other pages in Times of Israel or elsewhere in the Israeli press; there are sure to be eight or ten articles with more baleful discussions. It will not be hard for you to find a negative evaluation of Bibi; indeed, it is hard to avoid stumbling upon them.

You are cautioned.  I proceed.

When the nattering nabobs of negativism among the desert-bound emigres from Egypt commence their interminable series of complaints–the manna tastes like leftovers; we want meat; we remember the blissful life in Egypt, free of obligations; who asked you to take us out of Egypt anyway?–the Torah describes Moses’ frustration and despair at having sole responsibility for this wayward flock, the Tribes of Israel.  He laments his inability to control their recalcitrant and headstrong behavior, for which he is angry with them but inevitably blames himself.  Exasperated, he complains to God for having assigned him a task that is so far beyond his, or anyone’s, capabilities.  It is unfair, he says.  Did he seek this job?  Did he, Moses, give birth to the nation, that he should bear sole responsibility for it?  Finally, he asks to be relieved of the obligation, because he simply can not face the consequences of his, and the people’s, failure.  He would rather die than continue, rather die than witness the destruction of his flock, if God persists in His threats to punish them.

The anguish of the man is palpable, like that of parents who perceive themselves incapable of fulfilling their function with regard to their family. Each time the children sin or rebel,  the parents ask themselves how they failed and what they could have done better.  They assume the blame for any failure, they excoriate themselves when their progeny are criticized or punished, and they experience the pain in their bodies, hearts, and souls.

And this is Moshe Rabbenu, far beyond a mere mortal, a man who spoke face to face with God; even he doubts himself, makes mistakes, suffers.  The mantle of authority over a disputatious people does not rest easily on the shoulders of a dedicated leader.

Moshe confronted Pharaoh, negotiated (with some timely divine assistance) the liberation of a nation, led a bedraggled, motley assortment of slaves to freedom, molded them into a nation, transmitted the Torah to them and taught them its laws and wisdom, judged their petty disputes from day to night, suffered their challenges to his authority, took their abuse over his marriage to a Midianite woman, was the conduit to them of their food and water, and . . . was subjected to endless criticism and rebellion.

It was not until after he was taken from them that they understood what he had been for them, what he had sacrificed for them, how fully he had devoted his adult life to them.

Don’t worry.  I know that Bibi Netanyahu is no Moshe Rabbenu.  Not even close.  The very notion of a meaningful comparison is absurd.  But the difficulties of leadership and the burdens of shepherding a fractious Jewish nation should not be underestimated or discounted, even for a Moses, multiplied by orders of magnitude for an ordinary mortal. More about this later.

From Moshe Rabbenu, I move seamlessly to Yehoshua Kohen Gadol (Joshua the High Priest), a historic figure of the Babylonian exile.  He lived in the 6th century BCE, was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, served as a leader in Bavel, and returned to Israel even before Ezra and Nechemia. (Yes, Columbia students, there have been Jews governing and living in this country for the past 3,000 years.  Homework: Define “indigenous.”)

So this Yehoshua Kohen Gadol was exiled to Bavel.  He was among those who presided over the amazing recovery and success of the Babylonian Jewish community, making sure all along, together with the prophets of the time (e.g., Chaggai, Zecharia, and Malachi), that they understood that the exile had been visited upon them by God using the Babylonians as a tool, and was not a result of the superiority of the Babylonian religion or culture (thus providing the model for Jewish survival in exile).  The Jewish religion survived, even thrived, with a new, or revised. invention, synagogues, mikdeshai me’at, to preserve the community with prayer in the absence of a Holy Temple, and with yeshivot, to preserve learning. The Jewish community in Bavel was a marvel of material and spiritual achievement.  The Jews thrived in exile.  Perhaps, think Teaneck.  Or Flatbush.  Or Baltimore.  Or even Lakewood.

When the Persians, having defeated the Babylonians, decided to allow the Jews to return to their land, Yehoshua Kohen Gadol went with the minority of the population that returned, working together with Zerubavel, the King, smoothly and without a shred of discord.  One ruled in the religious domain, and one in the political.

ועצת שלום תהיה בין שניהם ולא יקנאו זה בזה.

Peace prevailed between them and neither harbored jealousy toward the other.  Imagine that!

What did they do when they arrived?  They did not have the wherewithal to rebuild the entire Holy Temple, so they started with an altar, gradually adding to the work.

ויקם ישוע בן-יוצדק ואחיו הכהנים וזרבבל בן-שאלתיאל ואחיו ויבנו את-מזבח אלהי ישראל להעלות עליו עלות ככתוב בתורת משה איש-האלהים.

They started offering the sacrifice in the seventh month after their return and the daily sacrifices continued more than 500 years, until the destruction of the second temple.  Quite an accomplishment for the hardy band of Jews that left comfortable homes in Bavel to deal with what had become a hostile, dangerous and impious environment in the absence of Jewish control.

And that brings us to the vivid description of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol in the third chapter of  Zechariah.  That prophetic book is full of intense and unexpected images, but this one, of a venerated High Priest wearing filthy clothes, stained with excrement, is right up there with the most jarring of them.

Zechariah is shown the image of Yehoshua standing before the angel of God, garbed in clothing covered with filth, with Satan standing on his right to obstruct, or accuse, him. This is sufficiently strange to require multiple interpretations, and there are, indeed, many interpretations, but the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the soiled clothing that were defiling the high priest represented the fact that his progeny turned away from the Torah and married gentile women, as did many of the Jews who returned from Bavel and were unable to withstand the pressures and temptations they found in the despoiled land.  Ezra tells us explicitly that the children of Yehoshua were exogamous.

One must recall that the Judea to which the exiles returned was a wasteland.  The comforts of Bavel, both spiritual and material, were absent.  The return to the land was most challenging, and many, including the children of Yehoshua, succumbed. Ezra comes and requires everyone to surrender their gentile wives, but, according to the Talmud in Sanhedrin, the shame of his progeny is symbolically reflected in Yehoshua’s soiled garments.

God, however, intervenes, saying that Yehoshua is an “אוד מוצל מאש,” a brand salvaged from the fire, and commands that the filthy garments should be replaced immediately by pure and unstained priestly garb.  One interpretation of the “brand” imagery is that he had survived the conflagration of the first temple.  Another relates to a medrash from Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer that tells of two Jewish doctors who seduced their Chaldean female patients and were sentenced by Nebuchadnezzar to death by incineration.  They decided to perjure themselves and say that Yehoshua had taken part in their immoral activities, believing that if Yehoshua were sentenced with them, God would never allow such a righteous man to be punished and, thus, they would all be rescued.  They were partially right. The king indeed sentenced all three of them to burn, but the angel Michael saved Yehoshua and brought him before the throne of God, while the two doctors burned.  Thus, a brand saved from the fire.  But . . . his clothing was singed, and, later, he is pictured wearing soiled clothing.  The prosecuting angel indicts him as a failure, based on the behavior of his children.

Let me propose another interpretation for God’s intervention. Yehoshua could have stayed in Bavel and lived out the remainder of his years in comfort and dignity.  He could have written op ed articles for the Babylonian Times. He could have lectured and taught in the institutions of higher learning.  He could have raised his children in a Torah environment within the exile, where they probably would not even have encountered gentile women.  No one would have criticized him.  Indeed, Ezra himself did not return with the first “Aliyah” (some say it was because he wished to finish his studies; some say that he did not want to compete with his cousin Yehoshua for the position of High Priest).  There was work to do in Bavel, students to be taught.  And Israel was a scary place, overrun with enemies determined to drive the Jews out, undermine their position with the Persian authorities, challenge their religion, and seduce them away from their faith.

Yehoshua knew all this and, intrepid, dedicated, and faithful, he nevertheless returned to the land and did his part in restoring the Temple.  And, yes, there were personal consequences for him that he must have deemed disastrous.  One could certainly judge him harshly for placing himself and his family at risk.  The angel appears to be doing so, until . . . God Himself intervenes, saying that he actually deserves the crown of gold and elegant garments.  He deserves not only to be stripped of any vestiges of guilt and restored to his previous condition, but elevated above it.  Perhaps he was not successful, but . . . he did not take the easy way out.  He went right into the fire and is a brand salvaged from the rubble.  He fought the good fight. He placed himself in the arena.

As a leader, he only partially succeeded, but he entered the fray on behalf of his people and his God, and in so doing, he exposed himself and his children to danger.  Such a man, Zecharia tells us, earns and deserves the approbation of God.  Perhaps we also could be more charitable to such people, who engage on our behalf in battle, who, perhaps, make mistakes, and suffer the slings and arrows that inevitably follow.

Finally, after Moshe Rabbenu and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, in the interests of ecumenism, who else but Theodore Roosevelt?  In college, I took a required course in Speech; we had to learn by heart and deliver famous orations.  I remember absolutely nothing of this class, except a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt after his Presidency ended.  The speech was recently discussed by Douglas Murray in The Free Press.  I can’t improve on it, and I hesitate to paraphrase it, so I will quote portions, trusting my readers to read between the lines:  “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deed could have done them better . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

And now I screw my courage to the sticking post and say it.  For all his faults and all his failures, and all of his personal deficiencies–all catalogued ad nauseum by politicians, academicians, and journalists who have never had to make life and death decisions for a nation– Benjamin Netanyahu deserves not our scorn but our sincere gratitude for all that he has done, all that he has borne, all that he has tried to accomplish. His job is not an easy one; he leads a people and a state under constant, existential threat of annihilation.  Of course he is not above or beyond disapproval.  He appears to have, like all of us, defects and deficiencies, and he appears to have made, like all of us, mistakes, but seeing empty vessels like the two Ehuds, both epic failures, take very public, self-aggrandizing potshots from the sidelines at this embattled leader engaged in trying to perform the hardest job in the world, strikes a discordant note.  

This is a democracy, and Bibi is a flawed human being.  I venture no judgment here about his policies or some of the behavior he has demonstrated that appears to have fallen way short of the mark.  But, reminiscent of Moshe Rabbenu (though hardly comparable to him in any qualitative respect), he stands before a deeply and uniquely quarrelsome, irascible people, each of whom, God bless us, has an opinion.  Like Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, he could have opted for a far more comfortable and remunerative life, but he followed what he saw as his duty, destiny, and mission, even if he did not always succeed.  And like Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” he stepped into the fray and tried to lead us, getting bloodied and maybe a bit bowed in the process.  He should not be exempt from criticism, but the criticism, even if harsh and merited, should be accompanied by the respect that he has earned.  He, as one of Roosevelt’s “men who quell the storm and ride the thunder,” is worth a thousand contemptuous and judgmental journalists and professors and demonstrators and retired politicians. In the final analysis, this man is no traitor; he is a flawed hero and he deserves our gratitude and respect.  We owe him the dignity he has earned in service to his people.

Go ahead.  Write your nasty letters.  But don’t blame me; I voted for Ayelet Shaked.

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.