The bunker is forty feet long and ten feet wide and strongly reinforced. It is a small, but important space. It is buried far beneath the earth, and it is dominated by a single long table. Above the table, a single fluorescent bulb burns. And at the head of the table stands a dark-skinned man. His face somehow seems pale in the thinly lit space.
The man, the table and the bunker have been in place for decades, living testaments to a war that has not yet ended. The General is an old man now, well into his eighties. But he is still strong. He stands strong, his back straight, his eyes full of power and purpose and dedication.
As he watches, waiting, standing, his people begin to enter the room.
One by one, they make their way in and seat themselves, silently, along the sides of the long table. The General watches them enter. He watches their faces. And he knows, even though he stands erect, that they cannot stand erect. They are burdened. They are frightened. They are exhausted. And they are desperate.
Years of conflict have taken their toll.
Before long, the thin drizzle of people comes to a stop. The table, once brimming with personnel, is half full. One by one, the General’s eyes linger over the empty seats. He remembers those who sat in those places. He remembers their decades of companionship and of dedication. Today, another seat is empty. The occupant – a once notable commander – did not die in battle, but was overcome by the inevitability of age.
The General’s eyes come to rest on the man’s seat. He feels the urge to mourn. And he feels the desperation of his people gnawing at his soul. How long must they battle?
The General feels their desperation calling to him. It invites him, after years of resistance, to bend, to sit and to surrender. But he cannot.
Their freedom is still not complete.
At that moment, the General sets aside his agenda and his plans. He must push, instead, against the desperation.
And so, he begins to speak.
“My dear compatriots, I feel the need to remember why we are here.”
Tired faces watch him. He takes a deep breath and then shares, yet again, the story that has propelled his little nation for so long.
“As you know, I grew up a slave. I was born in a cashew orchard and my mother, her labor complete, simply bound me to her front and continued with her work. She was allowed no rest, even upon the birth of a child. When I was only two-years old, I joined the ranks of her people. My job was simple. I was to carry small bags of cashew fruits – picked by my elders – to giant collection bins. Most two-year-olds, in most places, might not have been able to manage such a job. But we were slaves, all of us. And the pain of resistance was something we could all feel. That pain enabled even toddlers to learn simple jobs and to carry them out for hours on end. We knew there was no choice. We had only pain or work. Indeed, my only joy came from my mother. She would sing to me in the night. She would do her best to hide my shortcomings from the masters. And, when she could do nothing more, she would smile to me from across the orchard. When she was otherwise powerless, she would let me know that I was loved.
“We were slaves. Everything our people produced was given to our masters. But, of course, we were not only robbed of the wealth of our land, we were robbed of our identity. We belonged to no nation, no people, no tribe. We were just the slaves, imported from faraway lands, and set to work. We did not share even a language.
“When I was ten years old, a man led a rebellion against his masters. He had been an administrator for the overlords. He had kept the books for the masters; managing the movement of slaves, material, machinery and goods from place to place within their domain. Others had rebelled before him, but he was the first to have the tools necessary for such a rebellion to succeed. That man mustered the slaves on his plantation. He mustered them and he slaughtered the overseers in that place. And then he kept going, extending his influence and pushing back against our oppression.
“We fought for four long years then. The men fought, shielding the women and the children and the elderly from the overseers. The men fought. And then they established a new city on a small island off the coast. It was a place for the children, it was a place for the women. It was a place for the elderly. It was a place of safety. It was where our past and our future lay, separate from the fields of battle. We called it Harmony.
“We drove the enemy from our lands. But they were not so easily defeated. After all, we were valuable to them. They intended to keep us as their chattel. And so, they gathered a fleet of dozens of ships and hundreds of thousands of men. And they set sail for our land.
“I was drafted then. I was fourteen, but every man, woman and child who could fight was wanted. Only our weakest people were left in Harmony. My mother, once again with child, was in that city. My mother who had carried me in the field and protected me from the oppression of our masters. My mother who had loved me when she had nothing else to give. She was in that city. But we were not. We wanted to meet our enemies on the field of battle. We trusted they would have the honor to fight us there. But they had no honor.
“The enemy’s ships came. But they did not attack our armies. Instead, they lay siege to that city. They were clever. Their armies were safe, on their ships in the sea. We had no ships. They wanted our army to come, to try do battle against them there. To try to cross the shallows in a useless assault. They wanted us to be cut down by their guns until we cease our rebellion. But we were not stupid. We knew they were offering us a trap; a trap we could not afford to spring. Even I, a fourteen year-old boy, understood that fighting for Harmony meant death for our people. And so we watched. We all just watched as Harmony began to starve. But we did not attack. Our enemy grew impatient. They began to fire on the city. And still, we watched. I knew my mother was there. I knew so many of the mothers were there. And I knew they were dying of starvation and fire. But we watched. Our greater purpose demanded it.
“We watched as the enemy destroyed the young, the old and the weak. We watched, suffering in our souls. But in that battle, our people were born. We were born of our anger and our defeat and our shared loss. Harmony was destroyed. But then, their hostages gone, the enemy had no choice by to attack us directly. And so, they came ashore with their armies.
“Our people, vastly outnumbered and facing an enemy with machine guns and artillery, faced them on the field of battle. We had rifles and knives. We had rifles and knives and anger and will and commitment. It was then that the leader of the slaves, the administrator with the records, told me I was his son. He knew what would happen next. It was during that battle that we were truly forged as a nation. We joined together, our individual wills growing in their unity. And we defeated the enemy. We stole their guns and turned them against them. We broke their will and their pride. And we came to life. We came to life as a people. We had finally thrown off our oppressors.”
The General looks around the room. The faces there are younger than his. All of them are younger. Only one person, his own wife, had been there on that critical day. He looks around, and then he continues to speak.
“My father died in that battle. At fourteen, as an orphan, I became the leader of our people. But our war did not stop then. The threat of our enemy has remained on the edges of our reality. They have not invaded our land, but still they threaten our will and our freedom.
“And so, we have learned to trust only in ourselves. There are those who call themselves allies. They offer us food and wealth and support. They want us to believe that a relationship with them is somehow more real than the guns and the bullets that our hands can touch. But we know better. They too want to rob us of our will, and of our identity. They want us to conform to their rules and their values. They want us to put aside our anger and our pride. But we know that they want us to put aside the very things that give us our identity.
“This, my compatriots, is why we stand alone. This is why we keep fighting. We must depend only on ourselves. Because to do otherwise would be to surrender. It would be to trade our identity and our will for the cheap promise of wealth. We were forged in battle. We came to life in battle. We can never surrender the determination that gave us life. No matter our hardship, any who threaten our independence will never be satisfied.
“And we will, soon, be free.”
The General looks around the room. He is proud, he is strong. Sixty-five years of war and he is still strong. He looks around the room and sees the hungry and thin faces of his compatriots. But he also sees their hope. He also sees their pride. And he knows that they would suffer, but they will remain – free and proud – despite their hardships.
The meeting continues then. The planning and the strategy. The agenda as it had existed before. Everything is dedicated to the war. Everything is dedicated to keeping the enemy at bay. But such dedication takes tremendous planning and oversight.
The General considers: once, their wealth had gone to their oppressors. In a way, it still does.
All they have gained is their identity and their will.
When the meeting is complete, the General retires from the bunker. He has his quarters underground, adjacent to the meeting space. And so he comes to his room, a small space appropriate for a wartime commander. In this place, this private place, he allows himself to be old and tired.
He is old and tired, but his pride remains strong.
His wife follows after him and, once their door closes, she puts her hand on his shoulder and turns him towards her.
“My husband,” she says, solemnly, “Your story was not complete.”
He cocks his head at her, confused.
“After the massacre at Harmony, an army was mustered. It was an army raised from a nearby nation, in reaction to the crimes against us. And while we fought our masters, they attacked the fleets of our oppressors. And then they came ashore, surrounding our enemies. We fought, bravely. But it was they who won the war.”
The General grimaces slightly. It is not the story his people need.
But then she continues, “And then they offered us help. They offered us support. We needed only to conform to their treaties and their moral codes. We needed only to recognize their assistance and give thanks for it. They offered us blessing. But we did not accept their offer. And so they embargoed us. They accused of war crimes against our enemies and against our own people. They afflicted us, hoping we will join them in their moral reality. They offered to empower us with their laws and their technologies and their investments. But we refuse them. My husband, generations of our people could have been living lives of fulfillment. They still can. All we must do is step away from our anger. All we must do is give up on the emptiness of your freedom.”
The General smiles then. For he knows that he will never trade his will and his pride and his independence for the false and empty promise of wealth.
“All we need to do,” his wife insists, “Is reach towards them and allow them to embrace us.”
But the General does not listen. He just turns away.
And his wife silently waits for his time – the time of resistance – to pass.
In the Torah reading of Eikev, Moshe’s retells the Sin of the Calf. The Sin of the Calf was a sin of collective self-worship. At its core, the golden idol was formed of the earrings of the community. It represents the power formed by the community members hearing each other, forming a community. It represents the community, but it excludes G-d. We know this because the people worship the calf by playing.
They make it clear, then, that they are worshiping themselves.
With the Sin of the Calf, the people imagined, just as the General in the story does, that they are responsible for their own freedom.
They erase the role of their greatest ally: G-d Himself.
But the Sin of the Calf is not the end of the story. In this Torah reading, the Sin of the Calf is wrapped in a challenge: the challenge of recognizing G-d’s role. Here, the 40 years in the desert aren’t just a punishment for the sin of the spies, they are a part of this challenge. As the Torah says: “He afflicted you… so you might know that man does not live by bread alone, but from everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dev 8:3).
In the story of the General, as in Moshe’s speech, the people are burdened for decades because they will not admit the importance of their allies.
But there is a path to blessing. We are commanded to circumcise our hearts (Dev 10:16). To understand this we need to understand the function of blood in the Torah. Blood enables our bodies, it is defined as the physical soul of meat. It gives us our potential, unifying our cells in life. Our hearts, in turn, power that potential. With circumcision, we open our hearts to divine guidance. We remove our resistance to G-d’s commandments. We allow G-d’s will to be expressed through us. We give up something of our freedom, just as the General’s allies insist that he do.
But we must do what the General can not. We, like his wife, must come to understand that the result will not be a lack of individuality or freedom. G-d is not seeking to rob us. Instead, the result will be an opportunity for true fulfillment.
Moshe, like the General’s wife, understands what must happen to bring us to that reality. We only need to turn towards our ally to initiate the relationship we so badly need. We see this in the aftermath of the Sin of the Calf. In this telling, Moshe replaces the divine Ten Commandments, written by the finger of G-d, with very human Ten Commandments crafted by him. These commandments are housed in a wooden box. The gold of the Aron Kodesh (holy ark) is not mentioned. Instead, Shittim trees, literally ‘grudge trees’, are used to contain the core of our divine relationship.
Moshe recasts our human limitations and uses them to form a relationship with G-d. He gets past our human anger to form something more valuable and rewarding. He gives us the beginnings of a path towards our ultimate redemption.
The reading ends as it begins, with the promise of blessings. But these blessings contain a warning. The land we are entering is not like Egypt, which is irrigated by the foot. The foot represents a man’s will. Our new land, our new reality, is not one in which our needs are fulfilled through our effort. No, this land is a land which drinks the waters of heaven (Dev 11:10-11). Something more than dedication is required.
It is not enough for us to struggle, just as it is not enough for the General’s people to struggle. We find our redemption in our greatest ally. Only then can we emerge from our suffering.
It is only by following G-d’s commandments and loving Him with all of our heart and all of our soul that we can be blessed. (Dev 11:13)
The story above borrows from a group of historical models. It most closely models the Haitian slave revolt: the first successful, human-driven, slave rebellion. It was, for a critical period, led by a slave who had been an administrator. The Haitian rebellion was driven by anger. Every European on the island was killed and for forty years after the French were driven from the island, the Haitian government dedicated all of its resources to war. But that is not the only model. The story also borrows from North Korea, with its policy of complete self-sufficiency. And it borrows from Eritrea, a country which broke off from Ethiopia and has been locked in a war of total resistance ever since that time.
It is my hope that such troubled nations find their allies and find their blessings – emerging from their darkness and overcoming the angers that forged them.
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