An intriguing midrash in this week’s Torah portion (Bereishis) relates a small but profoundly meaningful episode that transpired during the genesis of the universe, one with timeless relevance five millenia later.
On the first Tuesday of creation, the Bible reports, the earth -- and all that it contains -- emerged. “And the earth brought forth vegetation, herbage yielding seed after its kind, and trees yielding fruit” (1).
Yet, relates the midrash (2), when the tress observed iron, one of the most common elements on earth, making up about 5 percent of the earth's crust, the hitherto invulnerable trees began to shudder at the prospect of being felled by metal ax blades. The trees understood that against the mighty iron ax they had little chance to survive.
Upon hearing their laments, the midrash relates, the iron retorted: "Why are you trembling? As long as you don't provide the wood for the axes' handles, you will remain immune from harm."
In other words, the iron was telling the trees that it would be incapable of destroying them without their assistance. If the trees failed to contribute their wood for the ax handle, the iron's efforts to destroy them would be futile.
This exchange between the iron and the trees is, obviously, to be understood metaphorically. What is the symbolism the rabbis are attempting to convey to us?
No one -- that is no one -- can cut you down in life without your own consent. That is the message behind this Genesis vignette.
Sure, people can be obnoxious, selfish and insulting; they can be tough, rude and difficult. But their attempt -- consciously or subconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally -- to cut you down, is their business. It is you who decides whether to grant them the permission to actually fulfill their intent. It is you who must, each and every time, empower them to destroy your mood, demolish your self-worth and paralyze your soul. How can you own something -- in this example, a negative self-image -- if you don't buy it in the first place?
Many of us have negative echoes of the past, the unkind words said and the insults hurled when we were small and defenseless. Those elements stored in our psyche give their consent to someone even years later putting us down. Abusers know it all too well. They try to make their victims believe that they are worthless and deserve the treatment meted out to them. When victims buy that, they are virtually trapped. They stop even trying to get out of the abusive situation.
If you want to really feel empowered to live a noble and deep life, you have to do two things: One, stop criticizing others, and second, stop criticizing yourself.
Assisting the Enemy
Just as this message is true concerning one's individual self-perception, it is equally true collectively. We must often bear the responsibility for contributing to our own ruin. How ludicrous it is when a people gives its foe the means of destroying it.
This, it must tragically be said, has been the fate of the Jewish state over the past 10 years. Bret Stephens put it well in "A History of Violence" (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2005):
“Many explanations have been given to account for the almost matchless barbarism into which Palestinian society has descended in recent years. One is the effect of Israeli occupation and all that has, in recent years, gone with it: the checkpoints, the closures, the petty harassments, the targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. I witnessed much of this personally when I lived in Israel, and there can be no discounting the embittering effect that a weeks-long, 18-hour daily military curfew has on the ordinary Palestinians living under it.
“Yet the checkpoints and curfews are not gratuitous acts of unkindness by Israel, nor are they artifacts of occupation. On the contrary, in the years when Israel was in full control of the territories there were no checkpoints or curfews, and Palestinians could move freely (and find employment) throughout the country.
“It was only with the start of the peace process in 1993 and the creation of autonomous Palestinian areas under the control of the late Yasser Arafat that terrorism became a commonplace fact of Israeli life. And it was only then that the checkpoints went up and the clampdowns began in earnest.”
Mr. Stephens is on target. The grotesque suicide bombings are often attributed to the profound frustration harbored by Palestinians due to Israeli occupation. Yet is it merely a coincidence that until the onset of the “peace-process” and the granting of autonomy to Palestinians, life in Israel was relatively safe and terror attacks almost non-existent?
Ought we not to wonder why the many peace initiatives that Israel embarked upon over the past 12 years have helped to create nothing but rivers of human blood flowing throughout the Jewish land? Terror in Israel has become so common that it does not even stir conversation anymore as it used to. How many of us have over the holiday discussed the barbaric murder of three beautiful Israeli youngsters, just two days before the holiday of Sukkot -- Oz Ben Meir, 14, Kineret Mindel, 23, and Matat Odler, 21, who just got married three months ago?
The moral fabric of Palestinian society has decayed enormously. But have the “trees” not assisted the iron in implementing its lethal goals?
1) Genesis 1:12.
2) Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 5:9.
3) The Talmud (Sanhedrin. 39b) employed the story of the ax handle in order to illustrate a Jewish tradition that the biblical prophet Obadiah, whose brief book contains oracles about the impending fall of Edom, was identical with Obadiah the Edomite, a convert to Judaism who is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as the supervisor of King Ahab's household. Ephraim Maksha'ah, a disciple of Rabbi Meir, noted the irony of this situation, of a former Edomite being instrumental in the destruction of his former nation. To exemplify his point, he cited a popular maxim: "As the saying goes: From the forest itself comes the axe."
E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.com
My thanks to Shmuel Levin for his editorial assistance.