Service or Slavery? – Positive and Negative Lessons From the Military
Just as I was getting my feet wet with the innocence of kabolat ol – accepting the yoke of a higher authority, in the lessons I learned (in last weeks article To Serve) from military discipline at Scott Air Force Base – I get rudely awakened by a few strong comments protesting my “dangerous naive view of the military.”
“I would hope,” writes one person, “that you would have a more skeptical view of the presentation of military culture as benign and beneficial. Indoctrinating people to believe that they must trust and obey and submit to Authority is a dangerous practice. It’s all to easy for those in power to use convince groups so indoctrinated to follow foolish or even evil paths. A prime example of this was Nazi Germany where respect for authority led to the ‘I was just following orders’ defense during the Nuremberg trials.”
Emmanuel Gruss echoes the sentiment: “The ‘city within the city’ that you describe is a slave colony… To answer your question when was the last time that we unconditionally accepted and order from a superior authority is: every morning when we say reishit chochma yirat hashem. Paraphrase your sentences and you will end with a manifesto for the German SS… Kabalat ol malchut shamayim cannot be learned from a professional military organization. It has to be taught at home m’yirat Hashem and m’ahavat Hashem.”
So there you go. For years I have been railing against corrupt establishments and false authorities. Many of my articles and talks are about the damage inflicted by the abuse of power, by religious or other types of totalitarianism. A healthy system needs to be empowered to challenge blind obedience to the inevitable subjective flaws of human authority and the drive for power and control. After all this, I finally determined last week to wax eloquent about the virtues of submitting to a higher authority that we can learn from military discipline. Only to be reminded of the dangers in blindly accept authority…
Yet, despite these accurate disclaimers about the military (something I also mentioned in my original article), I will not back down from using the military as a case study and a model lesson in discipline and submission to a higher authority. Not because I am obstinate, but due to the fact that this analogy is not my own: The Torah, and its sages, use military service (and many aspects of military behavior) as an example for Divine service.
This, however, just carries over the question to the sages: How can they compare Divine authority to human authority? It seems sacrilegious – and even foolish – to use military hierarchy, with all its inherent flaws and potential abuses, as an example to learn about submission to a pure and holy G-d?
In truth, the same question can be asked of all the physical metaphors, parables and examples in Midrash and other Torah literature given to explain spiritual concepts. We even have a verse that states, “from my flesh I behold G-d.” Can raw human flesh – infinitely inferior to anything Divine – allow us the ability to behold… G-d?!
The answer to these questions provides us with a powerful glimpse into the Judaism’s fascinating and revolutionary perspective on life.
“Kingdom on Earth is similar to Kingdom in heaven,” declares the Talmud. All our earthly systems and institutions, including the logic and sciences we use to build our infrastructures, reflect in many ways the Divine structures. The mystics explain that everything in the material plane evolves from its ethereal counterpart in the spiritual plane. This includes all the properties of all existence, the laws of nature and the rules of logic – all crafted and shaped in the “image” that mirrors the “Divine mind.”
This doesn’t mean to say that our human structures are flawless and that we are incapable As the spiritual evolves into the physical many distortions take place. Add to that equation the imperfections of human choices, and clearly our systems will be sorely disparate from their Divine counterparts, and sometimes even directly conflict the Divine plan. Yet, despite the distortions, we can find glimmers (and sometimes far more than that) of the Divine within earthly phenomenon.
Indeed, when the Czarist regime fell to the Russian Revolution, some Chassidim were weeping over the fact that “now we have lost a metaphor that helped us understand the Divine Kingdom”… Despite the cruelty and persecution that the Jews suffered under the Russian Czars, they still were able to extract lessons in their Divine service from the Czar’s authority!
Nothing on Earth is completely evil. Even the worst situations have some spark of the Divine, and every predicament can teach us vital life lessons.
Similarly, military service, with all its flaws, remains a lesson that we can learn from in our Divine service – albeit, with all the appropriate qualifications and distinctions between accepting the yoke of heaven and the authority of human superiors.
In effect, we derive two Divine lessons from every earthly system and experience: What that system teaches us about the Divine it reflects. And what that all too-fragile system teaches us how different the Divine is from our human structures and innovations.
When we see how the military are subordinated to their superiors, with no room for variance, we learn the absolute dedication one has to apply to Divine service: Total acceptance of our heavenly calling (kabolos ol malchus shomayim).
On the other hand, as a human institution, military authority can be (and surely at times is) abusive. Absolute obedience can become a destructive force (as history has shown us far too often). This teaches us the critical distinctions between human authority and Divine authority, and that our ultimate submission is only to G-d, never to anything human, as Mordechai demonstrated when “he would not bow and kneel” to Haman.
This of course can raise an obvious question – which is an oft-cited critique on faith: if we are to be truly free human beings, then we should serve no one – not human beings, not man-made institutions, and not G-d. After all, according to this argument, how is serving G-d different than serving other people? It’s just replacing one form of slavery with another?
As we approach Passover this question is very timely: The Bible says that G-d instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “let My people go, and [so that] they will serve Me.” Why do we consider this an Exodus from slavery, when all it led to was another form of servitude – serving G-d?
In Leviticus G-d states, “they are My servants, who I brought out of Egypt” “not servants to my servants” (Talmud Bava Metzia, 10a). It is obviously better to be a servant to the “boss” rather than being a “servant to a servant.” But that still does not explain why being a servant to G-d is called freedom.
Questions like this can only be answered by showing how the entire question is based on a stereotypical and distorted view of G-d. If G-d is just a larger, more powerful version of ourselves, than serving Him is indeed just another form of slavery. But if G-d is a reality radically different than our own – an absolute existence that is completely unlike our relative and arbitrary existence, an omnipotent, immortal and indivisible G-d diametrically opposed to our flawed, mortal and divisible lives – then submission to the Divine is a step toward emancipation.
All man-made structures, even the most sublime, can lead us to great heights, but only to ones that we can reach with our own human tools and devices. The Divine- and the fact that we humans were created in the Divine Image – offers us the ability to reach and connect with a reality that is beyond our human parameters; to marry heaven and earth and to fuse the finite with the infinite.
However, there is one necessary condition to achieve such transcendental freedom: We humans must shed the blinding force of self-interest and respond to the call for service; we must weaken the grip that keeps us trapped and enslaved to our own temptations, and allow ourselves to be mobilized to serve – not human structures, but to serve – our higher calling.
Ok, so there you have it: The ultimate rebel is the one who rebels against all forms of human rebellion, and embraces – with kabolot ol – a higher order.
With that being said, the question arises the other way around: If serving G-d is the ultimate freedom, why then is it called service? Your thoughts are welcome.