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Parshat Ha’azinu/Sukkot 5780

The end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 was a pretty good time for most of the world. For four years, the Great War had ravaged the European continent, leading to the death of close to twenty million people, and the injury of many more. On top of that, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 swept around the world, killing about fifty million people, all over the globe, from the Americas to Europe, Asia, Africa, and even remote Pacific Islands and the Arctic. By November 11, the armistice had been signed to end the Great War, and the Spanish Flu was almost entirely gone. The world was ready for some relief, and for the most part, they would get it.

For the Kurds, a century of struggle was about to begin. The Kurds are an indigenous group that today numbers between 25-35 million people, that live in the mountainous highlands of Mesopotamia (where Avraham Avinu, our great Patriarch was born). Although the majority are Sunni Muslims, they have their own distinct culture, language, garb, and race, and have for centuries longed to have their own country.

World War I did not end with one treaty, but with many. First, there were eight separate armistices that ended the fighting; between the Central Powers and Romania (Dec 9, 1917), the Central Powers and Russia (Dec 15, 1917), Russia and the Ottoman Empire (Dec 18, 1917), the Allies and Bulgaria (Sep 29, 1918), the Allies and the Ottoman Empire (Oct 30, 1918), the Allies and Italy and Austria-Hungary (Nov 3, 1918), the Allies and Germany (Nov 11, 1918), and the Allies and the First Hungarian Republic (Nov 13, 1918). And that was just the armistices that declared a cessation of fighting, there was a whole slew of treaties still waiting to be written.

The main treaty ending WWI was the treaty of Versailles, which was signed on June 28, 1919, but there were many more, a short list of them includes: the Treaty of Trianon, Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Treaty of Sevres, Treaty of Neuilly-Sur-Seine, Treaty of Paris, Polish Minority Treaty, and the final treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which didn’t get signed until 1923! The Great War was fought for four years, the treaty signing process took five.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed on August 10, 1920 carved up the Ottoman Empire like a butcher carves up a side of beef. Without much thought to ethnic realities on the ground, the Allied powers stripped the Ottoman Empire of any non-Turkish lands, and distributed them among the various allies, both as mandates that were supposed to be controlled by the Allied countries until they were ready for self-rule, and as Zones of Influence. The British were given mandates in Palestine and Iraq, the French were given mandates in Syria and Lebanon, Greece was given a large swath of land on the Mediterranean coast, and Italy was given a handful of islands.

The Treaty of Sevres was significant to both Jews and Kurds, as it took both ethnic groups into account, and had provisions for the creation of a future Jewish state in Palestine, and a Kurdish state known as Kurdistan. There were plenty of flaws in the Treaty of Sevres, because it sliced up the Kurdish homeland and left the Kurds scattered over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but the Kurds were hopeful that they would get their long dreamed of homeland and celebrated the treaty’s adoption.

The Turks were unhappy with the Treaty of Sevres, because they felt it sliced off too much of their empire. And even though they signed it, they went back and rejected it, and created a storm that lasted years until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, which finally resettled the Middle East controversy. One small detail of the Treaty of Lausanne? No more Kurdistan. And thus began the century long struggle of the Kurds to gain their own country. They have been systemically discriminated against in all four countries in which they live, most of all in Turkey, and they want their own country.

To be sure, the Kurds have not always played nice, the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, is a Marxist paramilitary group that has engaged in armed struggle with Turkey since 1984, killing tens of thousands in their war for independence. They have been labeled a terrorist group by NATO and the US. They first fought for an independent country of Kurdistan, but then changed their demands to simply request autonomous rule and equal rights for Kurds.

The world has not been very interested in the Kurdish struggle for most of the last century, but after the eruption of the Middle East into a hotbed of war and violence, starting with the First Gulf War, and continuing to today, the Kurds have become prominent on the world stage. During the First Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George HW Bush called upon the Kurds to rise up and fight the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, which was the enemy we both shared. The Kurds did as requested, but when the US left the region with Saddam still in power, they left their Kurdish allies to the mercy of Saddam’s wrath, and he viciously and violently came after them.

When the US came back to the region in 2003 after 9/11, they invited the Kurds to join their coalition to take down Saddam, and the Kurds readily joined. They were especially helpful allies, because they knew the region, spoke the language and understood the mentality. But when the US forces pulled back from Iraq leading to a growth in ISIS, the Kurds found themselves again in the crosshairs as ISIS attacked their lands to build the Caliphate that would stretch from Iraq into Syria.

The US began arming the Kurds once again, and asked them to fight ISIS, an entity that proved dangerous not just to the region but to the whole world. During the height of ISIS power, dozens of terror attacks conducted all over the world, including many in the US, were attributed to ISIS. The Kurds faithfully complied, and at great risk of life and limb attacked ISIS, pushing them back and eventually spearheading the successful attack on Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS Caliphate. The Kurds won that battle and captured over twelve thousand ISIS fighters, whom they held in their prisons.

Which makes the events of the past week all the stranger. President Trump had a phone call with the brutal Islamic dictator of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Erdogan expressed his interest to attack the Kurds in neighboring Syria, to create a “buffer zone” of about twenty miles between Turkey and the Kurdish forces. The problem was that there were about 50 US soldiers stationed in that area, and Turkey didn’t want to kill US soldiers. So to repeat, Turkey wants to attack Kurds who fought alongside the US, in another country, and was asking the US to move out of the way.

A few days later, President Trump announced that he was withdrawing the US forces, which almost everyone saw as a green light by the US president for the Turkish forces to attack the allies who fought at our side for over a decade. The condemnation of this decision was on both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats were stunned and vocal in their anger at this decision, and what it says to the world about how we stand by our allies. It is also incredibly foolish because the Kurds are going to abandon all the prisons to go fight at the front, essentially letting over twelve thousand ISIS fighters on the loose! The military, which generally is tight lipped about criticizing its Commander in Chief was very vocal about how they felt this was a terrible move. But they have no choice but to comply.

President Donald Trump has some bizarre things to explain his decision. The first was that the Kurds didn’t help us at Gettysburg, so why should we help them now? Um… sorry, it was Normandy. The Kurds didn’t help us at Normandy? There was no organized military Kurdish force in existence during WWII! But they have helped us for the last decade and a half! They did drive our enemy ISIS out of Raqqa! We did supply them with the weapons and asked them to do our dirty work!

He also tweeted out: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over…” This move has stunned the whole world, and it’s one of the few times where most commentators are throwing up their hands in disbelief, unable to come up with a rationale for this action. Granted, President Trump has been talking about making the Europeans pay more for NATO, or that we spend too much on foreign wars, but all we’re talking about here is 50 US troops that were preventing a war from breaking out and the slaughter of many innocents!

The US troops have now pulled back and Turkey has begun bombing villages inside Syria. The death count, civilian and military is rising, and 75,000 have already fled their homes. Cities are covered in smoke from bombed out buildings. I’m not sure when this will hit the radar of President Donald Trump’s great and unmatched wisdom, but so far all he’s done is talk about the money we’re saving staying out of this Turkish bloodbath.

There is a great phrase in Psalms (118:8-9), “It is better to take shelter in the Lord than to trust in man, it is better to take shelter in the Lord that to trust in princes.” This is followed by another verse a few chapters later (Psalms 146:3), “Do not trust in princes, in the son of man, who has no salvation…”

The Kurds may have felt that they finally had the gratitude of a nation whom they fought alongside for over a decade. The US Military kept assuring the Kurds that they would stand by them and not leave them to the slaughter as they had done with Saddam and ISIS. And in the end, one man came along, against the advice of his military advisors, political allies, the wishes of the people, and overturned all the safety the Kurds thought they had. There is no security with man, there is no security even with princes.

Which brings us to Succos. This coming Sunday night we start Succos, where we leave our big, safe, strong homes, and move into little flimsy shelters made of rickety boards and plant-based roofing. It reminds us of a time that we lived in even more flimsy shelters, the Clouds of Glory, which is where we lived for forty years in the desert. Generally clouds are not known to be of the most protective material. I don’t know anyone who builds a house out of clouds. They don’t insulate well, they don’t shield inhabitants from projectiles thrown by angry opponents, they don’t retain heat or keep out the cold, and they leave you exposed to dangerous UV rays. The material isn’t tough enough. But miraculously, for 40 years our ancestors wandered the desert protected by nothing other than the Clouds of Glory that G-d provided for them.

When we surround ourselves with the Succah walls, we recognize that our security doesn’t come from the material, our security doesn’t even come from the nations in which we reside. Nations can turn their back on us (and throughout Jewish history countless nations have!), the material safety of our home can’t protect us, the protection and security of G-d is where it’s at. And Succos, the time we gather in our harvest and count our blessings, we recognize that the greatest blessing of all is G-d’s protection, the ability to sit in His protective walls, and under His protective cover. The succah is the Jewish people’s security blanket, and when we know that we are in Ha-shems protective embrace, all of our fears and anxieties wash away, allowing our true joy to emerge, which is why Succos is called Zman Simchaseinu, the Time of Our Joy! May we all have a beautiful Succos, basking in Ha-shems protective embrace together!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s Parsha is mostly comprised of a song, which Moshe related to the Jewish people. Melding past, present, and future the beautiful, and at times haunting, song is about the Jewish people and their relationship with G-d. In the beginning of the song Moshe proclaims, “Let my instructions flow like rainfall, let my sayings drip like dew; like storm winds upon vegetation, and like raindrops on grass.” (Deut. 32:2) The Vilna Gaon asks, why did Moshe describe his teachings, the Torah, as being like rainfall?

While falling on a field, rain will water the whole field equally. However, what the rain will cause to grow is dependent on what was put into that earth. If the person toiled and planted fruit or grain seeds, he will soon have an orchard or field of grain growing beautifully. If he planted nothing, having chosen to spend the planting season chatting online or catching up on all the soap operas and celebrity poker shows, he will find his field to be quite empty despite the prodigious rain. Worse yet, if he planted the deadly foxglove plant in this field, he will find that the rain helped him get a full crop of a venomous poison.

Torah, the Vilna Gaon explains, has the same attributes. It is an incredible receptacle of Divine wisdom that is given to humans to interact with and explore. What we get out of it however is dependent on what we put in. If we invest ourselves in the Torah and expend the necessary time, energy, and emotion into capturing its truth, if we approach it with respect, and are honest with ourselves as we study it – even when it calls upon us to make meaningful changes in our lives, the Torah will then lead us to levels of knowledge and spiritual joy we could not have imagined possible. On the other hand, if we leave our field of Jewish knowledge fallow (i.e. we take an unhealthy approach or we don’t cultivate it), we will be left bereft of the most incredible inheritance we have as a people – the Torah.

One can also distort Torah or selectively find a Torah source to find license for distorted perspectives or to justify their preconceived, inaccurate ideas. Our approach to Torah study makes all the difference as the prophet Hoshea cautions, “For the ways of the Lord are straight, the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them.” (Hoshea 14:10)

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l (1908-2001) was one of the greatest Torah teachers in America in the latter half of the twentieth century. His many books were fascinating and interesting yet taught many of the foundations of Jewish belief and philosophy. Tapes of his weekly Torah classes made their way all across America and allowed him to inspire many more than the thousands who attended his unapologetic, direct, yet uplifting Torah lectures. He even created the Telephone Torah Program, in ways a forerunner of Partners in Torah, whereby one individual would learn portions of Chumash and then would repeat them over the telephone to a partner on a weekly basis. After beginning with Parshas Bereishis and Noach, the program was expanded to include Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) and Talmud. Where did Rabbi Avigdor Miller get his fiery love for Torah, Jews, and Judaism?

When he was in his early twenties, Rabbi Miller left the comforts of the US to go study in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania. There he dedicated himself to Torah study with an uncommon seriousness. During the first three hours of the day, he would talk with no one, wanting that time to be purely dedicated to Torah study. If people came to him to discuss something, he would motion to them to return later. He was busy planting his field with fertile seeds of Torah.

This Succos, let’s make sure to plant the coming year with a crop of love, kindness, Torah, holiness, giving, prayer, and study. We can then be assured that 5780 will be a year filled with a bumper crop of goodness!

 

Parsha Summary

As mentioned above, most of this week’s Parsha is comprised of a song. In the beginning Moshe calls out to the heavens and earth to hear his song, as they are witnesses that will exist forever, and they can be G-d’s messengers to reward the Jewish people with plentiful rain and bountiful crops, or punish them by withholding the bounty.

Moshe begins by talking about the greatness of G-d, in that He is out Creator, Father, and the Rock onto which we hold to maintain our stable existence on this shaky planet. G-d is incorruptible, hence the corruption we see on this world is the invention of His children. Just ask your elders, Moshe tells us, and they will tell of the greatness of G-d, and the miracles He performed while taking us out of Egypt. They will relate to you how G-d chose us and made us into His special portion.

There will come a time when the Jewish people will be living in a place where everything is working out for them, and they will become prosperous. They will then begin to kick out at G-d and deny His role in their success, and even desert Him entirely. When this happens G-d will become angry with the Jewish people and set enemies upon them, enemies that will scatter them all over the world. (If you read the history of our people, you will find this to be chillingly accurate. Every time the Jewish nation becomes too comfortable in their host nation, and they begin to assimilate and lose their Jewishness, a terrible calamity suddenly befalls them and forces them to recognize their identity. It comes in different forms, from expulsions, to Inquisitions, to libels, to a Holocaust, but unfortunately it is a pattern that has repeated itself many times in our challenged history.)

Then, the enemy will rejoice thinking they have great power. They will not have the wisdom to see that no one has been able to quash Judaism in the past, and it is only the G-d of the Jews that has allowed them the success they have had in persecuting us. At this point, G-d swears that He will lift up His sword (metaphorically of course) and take vengeance upon those who have wreaked havoc on His people. He will lovingly return His people to their land and once again they will bask in His presence.

Although this message has some frightening and sobering undertones, we have to understand that this is what makes it a song. A song in order to have real beauty must have both low parts and high parts, which when contrasted with each other form enchanting music. This is the song Moshe teaches us before he dies. It is the story of a nation that has lows, when we are afflicted and persecuted, but then rises from the ashes to take flight again and soar. No good song can be created in monotone, the challenges and lows are what make the highs so special and precious.

At the end of the Parsha, Moshe tells his prime student and successor, Yehoshua, to teach in front of all the Jews, so that everyone will witness Moshe giving the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, and not question his authority later. The Parsha concludes with G-d telling Moshe to climb to the top of a Mt. Nevo from where he will see the Land of Israel, the land he will be unable to enter. From this vantage point, Moshe saw not only the land, but he also saw prophetically all that would transpire to his beloved flock from the time of his death until the time of the Messiah!

Quote of the Week: Tomorrow is the only day in the year that appeals to the lazy person. ~ Jimmy Lyons

Random Fact of the Week: Michigan borders no ocean… but has more lighthouses than any other state!

Funny Line of the Week: Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the main reason that I have trust issues.

Have a Radiant Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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