Fox Byte 5775 #51: Nitzavim (You Are Standing)

נִצָּבִים

Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus Rex (Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods), Beauty’s Beast (illustration by Walter Crane), The Frog Prince (illustration by Paul Meyerheim), Rapunzel’s prince (illustration by Johnny Gruelle). Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel (illustration by Arthur Rackham), Sleeping Beauty (illustration from Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories), Snow White (illustration by Alexander Zick), Cinderella (illustration by Anne Anderson).
Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus RexBeauty’s BeastThe Frog Prince, Rapunzel’s prince. Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella.

The worst fate a person can endure?  That would be loss of self.  It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors.  Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person.  We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia.  Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them.  It is a tragedy as old as humanity. 

Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity.  Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail.  Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity.  Eventually he fulfills the prophecy.  When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.

This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form.  It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity.  Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness.  Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts.  Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.

The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort.  One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition.  We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past.  This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.  Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest.  Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.  (Hosea 4:6 NASB)

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst.  (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #50: Ki Tavo (When You Enter In)

כִּי־תָבִוֹא

Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkens) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in "A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’", by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)
Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in “A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’”, by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)

When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences.  It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith.  The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark.  It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale.  The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously.  Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man:  Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action.  Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.

The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea.  His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy.  After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes.  On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful.  Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:

Now listen to me, all of you.  You are all condemned men.  We keep you alive to serve this ship.  So row well, and live.

Judah finds opportunity to do more than that.  In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius.  Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero.  He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life.  Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions.  In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow:  adoption as his son and heir. 

Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house.  Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace.  Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers.  The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:

The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #49: Ki Tetze (When You Go Out)

כִּי־תֵצֵא

Ernest Borgnine as Boris Vaslov, the Russian double agent in the Cold War espionage drama Ice Station Zebra. (Photo: The Movie Scene)
Ernest Borgnine as Boris Vaslov, the Russian double agent in the Cold War espionage drama Ice Station Zebra. (Photo: The Movie Scene)

As with all good spy stories, the 1968 movie adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra does not reveal the full truth until near the end.  All we know at the beginning is that a US Navy submarine is on a mission to rescue British scientists trapped at a weather station on the Arctic ice pack.  We realize something unusual is afoot since the boat’s captain, James Ferraday (played by Rock Hudson), has been ordered to take aboard not only a platoon of Marines, but also a British Intelligence officer who goes by the name Jones (Patrick McGoohan).  At sea they are joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a Russian defector.  After an act of sabotage nearly destroys the submarine, Captain Ferraday confronts Vaslov, asking why he should not believe him to be the saboteur.  Vaslov responds, “That should be obvious, Captain.  I was born a Russian, but I chose my side out of conviction, not by accident of birth.”  Jones vouches for him, and the mission continues.

In time the submarine reaches the destination and breaks through the Arctic ice near Ice Station Zebra.  As the Navy crewmen rescue the surviving scientists, Jones and Vaslov go about the real business of the mission.  Ferraday finds opportunity to speak with Jones alone as the British agent searches for what we learn is a canister of highly sensitive photographic film created in the United States for use in a British camera of extraordinary technical capabilities.  Soviet agents had stolen the film and the camera, and the Soviet Union adapted both for use in a spy satellite.  Jones explains this in one of the movie’s most famous lines:

The Russians put our camera made by “our” German scientists and your film made by “your” German scientists into their satellite made by “their” German scientists, and up it went, round and round, whizzing by the United States of America seven times a day.

Just as the film canister is discovered, a force of Soviet paratroopers lands near the ice station.  Their mission, of course, is also to recover the film canister.  It is at that point that we learn Vaslov’s convictions are not as strong as he would have others believe.  He assaults Jones and reveals himself as a double agent whose real intent is to assist the Soviets in recovering the film.  As the American and Soviet forces engage in a firefight, Jones kills Vaslov.  The fighting ends when the hopelessly outnumbered Americans agree to surrender the canister, but then succeed in destroying it by a final act of intrigue.  Having no further reason to remain in conflict, both sides withdraw, leaving the body of the treacherous Vaslov on the ice.

Boris Vaslov teaches us an eternal truth.  Unable to choose between two identities, in the end he loses them both.  So it is with everyone who halts between allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world.  It is best to choose wisely since Scripture provides an unambiguous statement on the conclusion of this matter:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”  (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)

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Fox Byte 5775 #44: D’varim (Words)

דְּבָרִים

"The King and Queen inspecting the tarts", by Sir John Tenniel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
The King and Queen inspecting the tarts”, by Sir John Tenniel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

One wonders whether Lewis Carroll required chemical substances to help him create the absurd worlds of his literature.  Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and audiences of the screen and stage adaptations thereof often conclude that the author – whose real name was Charles Dodgson – must have been on opium or some other sort of mind-altering substance fashionable in Victorian England.  If we are to believe the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and other authoritative sources, there is no truth in such allegations.  How, then, could a rational man come up with such outrageous fiction, creating characters and situations that defy logic and even sanity?  Most likely Carroll would have explained in the same way C.S. Lewis explained how he could create the diabolical correspondence of the demon Screwtape a generation later:

Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.  They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”  (C.S. Lewis, 1961.  The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast.  New York:  MacMillan.)

What Professor Lewis tells us is that all humans have the capacity to imagine evil, and to act upon it once it is imagined.  Evil is abnormal; the opposite of good and right and true.  If our hearts are inclined toward evil, they are also inclined toward everything else that is contrary to good and right and true – things which are unsuitable, wrong, and illogical.  That is why Carroll can depict an absurd criminal trial with such success.  The King and Queen of Hearts sit as judges to determine the guilt or innocence of the Knave, who stands accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts.  As judge, the King has trouble getting beyond his instructions to the jury to consider the verdict before any evidence has been given.  As witnesses, the Mad Hatter and the Knave say nothing of substance, and throughout the trial no one seems to care that the stolen tarts are there in the courtroom, presumably having been returned by the thief.  The trial ends with a mockery of due process of law as the Queen says, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”, and then pronounces summary judgment on Alice:  “Off with her head!”

The sad thing about this trial is that it is not far removed from reality.  For much, perhaps most, of history unjust judges have made people’s lives miserable and shorter than they should be.  This is true even for judges among the people of God, which is why in promising to restore His nation of Israel, YHVH delivers this glowing promise:

“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.”  Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness.  (Isaiah 1:26-27 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #40: Balak

בָּלָק

General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America's greatest - and most flawed - military leaders.  (Photo:  US National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)
General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America’s greatest – and most flawed – military leaders. (Photo: US National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

The great military leaders of World War II include nine who attained the highest rank awarded by the United States of America.  Those five-star leaders are Generals of the Army George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley; Fleet Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William Halsey, Jr.; and General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold.  Each man accomplished great things for his nation, and all deserved the honors bestowed on them, yet some students of history would say there is a name missing from the list.  Where is George S. Patton, Jr.?

Patton died too soon, losing his life as the result of an automobile accident in December 1945.  Had he lived he might eventually have become a five-star general.  Might, that is, had he been able to refrain from the controversy that followed him throughout his very public military career.  By the time World War II erupted he had proven his worth at home and abroad, including combat operations in Mexico and France.  Less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Patton commanded the only all-American force in Operation Torch, the Allied landings on North Africa in November 1942.  His Western Task Force conducted the longest amphibious operation in history, sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the shores of French Morocco.  From there he went on to a stunning series of battlefield successes in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany.

Along with Patton’s skilled leadership came his shortcomings:  a volatile temper, and a tendency to speak indiscreetly.  Twice in Sicily he encountered soldiers suffering from battle fatigue; both times he slapped them and accused them of cowardice.  For that he was reprimanded and kept from a field command for nearly a year.  When he returned to combat in command of the Third Army, he engineered the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and raced across France at astonishing speed.  December 1944 witnessed his greatest battlefield accomplishment:  the relief of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  Patton’s troops remained on the offensive thereafter, advancing across Germany and into Czechoslovakia.  After the war, as an occupation commander, he continued to generate controversy by retaining former Nazi Party members in positions of authority in the belief that they were best qualified to restore and run Germany’s shattered infrastructure.  While he had good reason, Patton chose to defend his decision by saying that membership in the Nazi Party in Germany was no different than membership in the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States.  His remarks came at the time when the heinous crimes of the Third Reich were becoming public knowledge.  As a result, he was relieved of command of Third Army and assigned to the less prestigious post he occupied at the time of his death.

As with all people it is impossible to separate Patton’s strengths from his weaknesses.  Patton could “read” an enemy, understanding not only his opponent’s capabilities, but also his state of mind.  That ability made him one of the greatest battlefield commanders of modern warfare.  What kept him from true greatness was his inability to control himself – or, more accurately, what came out of his mouth.  In that sense George Patton was very much like Balaam, a man who aspired to greatness, but whose inability to match his words with his deeds ensured that he would never attain it.

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