Is History Repeating Itself?

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me"? — Rabbi Hillel

Can we learn from history? Is the past a succession of meaningless, unrelated events? Does the rise and fall of nations in the past have

anything to do with today’s world? Are people that much different than they were then? Do they strive after different things, have different desires?

These questions came to mind recently as the similarities between Israel’s geopolitical situation increasingly resembled that of the Jews during the first Roman War. (Some would argue that it more closely resembles 20th-century Czechoslovakia, but that’s another article.)

Huge armies were assembled in ancient Judea. Pitched battles were fought throughout. Great plunder and destruction followed, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people brutally murdered or sold into slavery. The dispersion of the Jews among their enemies began.

There were those who counseled moderation in those days: These were collaborators, wealthy men and nobles who benefited from the Roman occupation and wanted it to continue. They preferred expansion and trade to a foolish rebellion that could only end in disaster.

The war began in spite of their efforts. Menahem the Galilean conquered the Roman fortress at Masada and then entered Jerusalem in triumph.

Other nationalist movements began to stir throughout the Roman Empire, and Jews in the Diaspora were also moved to send material aid.

But the resources of these Jewish rebels were infinitely smaller than their oppressors, and they were tragically disunited. Their greatest energies were used in fighting one another, further weakening them against the powerful Roman army that had conquered Galilee and stood poised to attack Jerusalem.

The city was now the center of the rebellion, with Jews from all over the country rallying there. Zealots, an extremist organization adamantly opposed to Roman rule and the high priesthood, occupied the Temple precinct and forced the priests to withdraw into the sanctuary.

Things were made more confused by the arrival of many Idumaeans in the city. These men were great fighters, but they were not accepted as Jews, because they were converts. The three principal factions — Zealots, Idumaeans and the elitist collaborationists — now used their time to terrorize one another, creating the contagion of civil war.

Vespasian, the Roman general, twice prepared to attack Jerusalem but hesitated when the Emperor Nero died suddenly. Besides, it was evident by then that the Jews were destroying themselves by their extraordinary disunity. And indeed, the three basic factions in the capital were reduced to two by their fierce internal struggles that persisted, even though a Roman army was just north of the city and poised to attack.

Significantly, the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem had a misplaced confidence in their military capabilities. Partly, this was due to religious beliefs; partly it was because of Vespasian’s failure to attack the holy city for three years, even though its gates had been wide open and defenseless. As a result, when the long siege of Jerusalem began, there was no real hope for the defenders.

Ancient Judea lost its bid for freedom when it divided itself into factions and fought one another, instead of the common enemy. Its forces were caught up in their visions of the world, its fighters too certain the real enemy was within.

The result was the fall of the city, followed by a massacre and burning of the Temple and the city. The numbers of Jews killed or taken prisoner was astounding. Thirty-thousand prisoners of war were sold at auction, while many others perished in gladiatorial games.

Writing of those times, Josephus spoke thus: "…. Weary of slaughter, Titus issued orders to kill only those who were found in arms and offered resistance … troops slew the old and feeble, while those in the prime of life and serviceable they drove together into the Temple and shut them up in the court of the women."

Israel today stands imperiled much as she did in Roman times, surrounded by enemies that again threaten her existence. Jews everywhere have formed themselves into factions, unable to see any good in the policies of their political opponents.

There is little uproar over the left’s blindness, no outcry about the right’s dreams of a greater Israel. None of these factions sees anything good about the other, and some would rather demonize or talk down the elected government of Israel than present a united front against the nation’s enemies.

Should we be concerned that history is tragically repeating itself today? Should these happenings frighten those who value liberty and the survival of the Jewish state most?

That is the most important question for Jews to think about in these perilous times.

Stanley William Rothstein is professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton.

The Lulav, the Etrog, the Medicine Pipe

For many years, I used to have long talks with Anselmo Valencia, the Chief of the Yaqui Indian Nation, about the similarities and distinctions between the beliefs and practices of Native American cultures and Judaism. Similar discussions have taken place over the last 10 years between numerous rabbis and Grandfather Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota Elder. But the link between these cultures was all brought home to me a few years ago when my neighbors saw me blessing my Sukkah with the Four Species, and thought I was doing an “Indian” ritual. Suddenly, I realized the amazing similarities between the prayers of a chanupa, or medicine pipe (filled only with tobacco, let’s be clear on that issue early on), and the waving of the lulav and etrog. Both practices are so incredibly important to their respective cultures, and both are so beautiful. But what is amazing in some ways is how similar the understandings, intentions and practices are surrounding these ritual objects.

The Sukkot liturgy specifically tells us that our intention is to be the “unification of the name of the Holy One.” Similarly, Nicholas Black Elk (Lakota Elder of the early 20th century) spoke of how the ceremony of the chanupa unifies the “four spirits” that “are only one spirit after all.” While Rabbi Noson (Rebbe Nachman’s disciple) taught that the waving of the Four Species is to “reveal God’s kingship to all humanity,” Native peoples around the country set their intention on the chanupa as being “Mitakuye Oyasin”… “for all relations.” As Black Elk prays with his pipe, he shouts to God, “This is my prayer; hear me!” How often do we Jews hear that phrase throughout our services?

The construction of the chanupa and Four Species is nearly identical in many ways as well. There are many symbolic meanings for the lulav and etrog among Jews, and it is commonly accepted that among other things they represent the “four worlds,” the letters of God’s sacred four letter name, and the backbone, eyes, lips, and heart of a human being. Native Elders teach of the chanupa as being composed of the “four worlds” of mineral (the bowl is made of stone), plant (the wooden stem), animal (the stem is usually wrapped in animal skin) and human (it is the human’s mouth which physically touches the pipe). The chanupa is considered a symbol of all aspects of Creation.

The lulav is traditionally considered “masculine” with the etrog being “feminine,” and the Bahir teaches that the unification of them is symbolic of the unification between the male “brooks” and the female “sea.” When a pipe-carrier places his pipe together, it is with the understanding that he is unifying the feminine energies of the bowl with the masculine energies of the stem. Both “female” objects of bowl and etrog are held in the left hand, and both the lulav and the pipe stem are held in the right hand as the unification takes place. Both cultures place great value on the “integrity” of the objects, and in both spiritual traditions the items cannot be used if they are stolen from another or if they are physically damaged in any way.

Even the ways the objects are used are consonant with each other. We wave the Four Species in six directions — right, left, ahead, up, down and back. Many tribal traditions teach that the smoke of the chanupa must be blown three times to the four directions, and then above “to Grandfather Sky” and down “to Grandmother Earth.” Both the Jew and the Native American become the catalyst that combines all the elements into all the directions, and both individuals are more centered within themselves and in harmony with all of Life around them as a result of their spiritual practice with these ritual objects.

Even internal “discussions” about the practices are similar. Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai prohibits the carrying out of the lulav into the public domain, while the School of Hillel allows it (Betzah 1:5). Similarly, there are some tribal traditions that allow the use of the chanupa in large public gatherings of prayer, while others believe it is a tool only to be used privately or with the immediate family.

Does the great number of similarities between the two spiritual practices mean that they have the same historical root, and that the traditions are connected in some way? Probably not. More likely, they are both a reflection of authentic beliefs, experiences, and awareness translated into rituals that actively affect the individual user and culture. Different cultures have found similar ways of accessing the same truths and teachings about life and God, and both are incredibly powerful and awakening.

Many Native Elders teach that each individual should learn to pray with the chanupa. As Jews, it might be beneficial on every level if we all performed the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog, for our own personal benefit and for the sanctification of the Name.

Shanah Tovah.

Michael Barclay teaches ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and is a student at the Academy of Jewish Religion, Los Angeles.