Practicing Unilateral Virtue in the Face of Evil

If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

– Gordon A. Eadie

Blaming the Jews

My husband was shaking his head as he was scrolling down the text on his cellphone. “Who do you think Greece blames for the collapse of its economy?” “I dunno…” I replied offhandedly, “must be the Jews.” I thought I was being sarcastic. My husband then read out loud the vilest invectives spewed by political and “religious” Greek leaders, laying the blame not just for Greece’s financial woes, but pretty much all of the problems of the world – since time immemorial – at our Jewish feet. “Who do you think is getting the blame for the shooting of police officers in Dallas,” I shot back. Israel, of course. In twisted minds, dots connect in bizarre and irrational ways.

These days, the news, in general, seems pretty bad; the news related to Jews, however, is once again reaching unimaginable lows. For example, a new adventure is being advertised, entitled, “Auschwitz Tag,” which allows “fun-seeking” participants to play tag – while frolicking in the nude – at Auschwitz. Seriously? Playing tag in the buff at a concentration camp – as a summer outing? What kind of mind conceives of this? What kinds of people attend? And what kind of world allows this?

The previous Torah portion, “Balak,” is named after one of the most paranoid and mentally disordered anti-Semites recorded in the Torah. This week’s Torah portion, “Pinchas,” is named after the Jewish hero who foiled Balak’s attempt to destroy the Jews in the dessert. Pinchas was not originally included in the priestly class, but as a result of his zealous courage, he was elevated into the priesthood and bestowed with an eternal covenant of peace, kinda like the Nobel Peace prize, but much better.

Is it a “coincidence”, that Pinchas follows Balak? I never noticed this before, and now I am wondering whether these two Torah portions are best understood as being a pair and that somehow “evil” and “peace” are package deals. Like “growth” through “adversity,” Balak’s plot to destroy the Jewish people gave Pinchas the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and in so doing, Pinchas changed the fate of the Jewish people as well as his own destiny.

 Practicing Unilateral Virtue

When the news brings us daily reports of implacable hatred and inhuman brutality, how do we react with a response that is nevertheless rooted in humanity? And is there a way not just to retain our humanity in the face of an evil that wants to seduce us away from it, but can we use that very evil to bring out our personal best?

Says Rick Hanson, a psychologist famous for using neuroplasticity to create positivity in people’s lives, “One of the hardest things to do is to remain reasonable, responsible, and ethical ourselves when others don’t.” In a challenging situation, how do you want to be? Can you live by your personal code even when it’s hard? What is your own code? What is your integrity system? What kind of honorable person are you moved to be from the inside out?

Personal Power

When we blame someone or something else for our perceived problems, then we are out-sourcing the solution as well. For example, if it were Balak’s fault that the Jews in the desert were suffering, then only Balak could change the situation. This belief creates the dis-empowerment of the victim mentality. Pinchas, on the other hand, didn’t waste any time on the “blame game.” Instead, he took action where he could and focused on remedying the negative behavior he was witnessing in the Jewish people.  

What is perhaps even more amazing is that he went against his nature to do what he did. It would be easy to think, “Well, I am no Pinchas. I’m not bold like that, daring and courageous.” But neither was he! The text explains that he took after his grandfather, Aaron, whose temperament was compassionate and peace loving.

And yet Pinchas killed, acting in complete opposition to his nature. And in so doing, he did what needed to be done. As explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “he transcended his inborn instincts to bring peace between God and Israel.” Pinchas fought an external enemy by correcting an internal fault in the Jewish people.

The very purpose of negativity is for us to change it. We change “it,” however, when we change ourselves. Just like the slogan, “Think globally – act locally”, when you work on yourself you are affecting the world. If you stop feeding negativity anywhere, it will starve everywhere. 

For example, when Jacob was preparing for his famous encounter with his brother, Esau, whom Jacob feared could still want to kill him, Jacob prepared in three ways: he brought gifts, he prayed and he equipped himself for war. And so dealing with evil is never a “one solution fits all” kind of approach.

While politics and military operations may be necessary, at the same time, we must also regard the spiritual realm as every bit as real and powerful – if not more so. Realistically, isn’t that the realm that most of us can access anyway? The daily dose of bad news can depress you, enervate you, or leave you trembling with fear waiting for horror to strike.  That is, however, precisely when we need to bring our A-Game. 

May we use these times when we are surrounded by the evil of modern-day Balaks to rise to the occasion and actualize our potential of unilateral virtue, integrity and courage. We can all be winners of the peace prize, and thereby, we may change not only our own fate, but also the destiny of the whole world.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think about a situation in your life where you began with a “Balak” situation and ended with a “Pinchas” one (something that started negative and ended positive). Looking back, do you think you appreciated the outcome even more because of the hard start?
  1. When have you gone against your nature and done what was needed in the moment, when you probably would not have if you had the time to really think about it. What did you learn from the situation? Have you tapped into this part of yourself more often because you now know it is within you? 
  1. We all deal with situations we are convinced are the fault of another. What is something that you blame someone (or something) else for? What will change if you can take responsibility for it? Even if you can’t control what is happening or has happened, you can control how you respond and react to it. Write down three things you can do differently in this situation.