Printed from


Friday, 29 June, 2018 - 12:16 pm

In the jungle, a marriage procession of lions was moving forward, when a mouse joined them and started dancing. The lions were amazed and said to the mouse, "You are not one of us. Why have you joined us?"

The mouse replied, "I was a lion too before my marriage. This is me now…."

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, relates the fascinating story of how the prophet and sorcerer Balaam, an archenemy of the people of Israel, was summoned by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites. But when Balaam opened his mouth to curse, blessings came out instead. He tried three times, each with the same result. He ended with a prophecy describing the triumph of Israel in the "end of days." The verses uttered by Balaam are amongst the most delicious poetry in the Bible. Balaam's blessings include the Mah Tovu ("How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel...")—a verse we love so much that, three hundred sixty-five days a year we start our morning prayers with it. They also include the most explicit reference in the Torah to Moshiach, the Jewish leader who will bring about the full and ultimate redemption. There is also an enigmatic verse in which Balaam proclaims: "He crouches and lies like a lion, like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you are blessed, and those who curse you are cursed."

What was Balaam referring to? What is the symbolism of Jews as crouching lions and lionesses? If Balaam simply wished to convey the power and fear some may have of the Jewish people, similar to the lion, why the description of them as "crouching lions and lionesses?"

We are a generation obsessed with pets. Take America as an example. As a whole, American families have more pets than children!

But there are pets, and there are pets. There is the dog, "man’s best friend." But other pets are not our best friends. One such example reached a painful conclusion.

In 2009, unconditional love of pets turned into tragedy for Travis, a 14-year-old Chimpanzee, his adoring guardian, Sandra Herold, and her dear friend Carla Nash.

Sandra and Jerome Herold, a Connecticut couple, adopted Travis as their beloved pet when he was just three days old. The baby chimpanzee quickly became their constant companion, even accompanying them to work at their towing company. Travis often posed for photographs dressed up in a baseball uniform and greeted the town’s police officers from towing cars. He was featured on American televisions shows and commercials and was a guest on the Maury Povich Show.

But no matter how much exposure to human handling Travis was subjected to, he was never "tame."  The "lovable" chimpanzee only became socialized and obeyed his owners carefully. He dressed, used keys to open doors, ate at the table with the family, looked at his pictures on the computer, watched baseball on TV with a remote, and occasionally drove a car. He even fed hay to his guardians' horses.

After her husband's death from cancer in 2004 and her son's death in an auto accident, Travis the Chimpanzee became Sandra's "only child,” whom she pampered and let sleep with her in her bed.

While he was a tad mischievous, as a young chimpanzee Travis was considered a docile and well behaved "pet." But after puberty, adult male chimpanzees often become extremely aggressive and behave violently. Travis began exhibiting episodes of fractious and frightening behavior which may have troubled Sandra.

Perhaps Sandra was nervous about putting Travis in his cage. Perhaps that’s why Carla Nash went to Sandra’s home to help return the 200-pound, 14-year-old chimpanzee to his cage. But when she approached, he attacked her so ferociously that she was blinded and lost both hands. Sandra tried desperately to stop the attack with a knife and shovel using lethal force, then finally called 9-1-1 for help. Travis was shot and killed by a police officer after escaping from the house.

Nash’s injuries were so extensive they required a series of costly surgeries to repair her disfigured face. She won a $4 million settlement from the estate after Sandra’s death in 2010.

Indeed, the tragic story of the Chimpanzee repeats itself not infrequently. Every so often an item appears in the news. The details differ somewhat (a chimpanzee in Connecticut, a tiger in Brooklyn, a trained circus lion "losing it" in the ring), but the basic story is the same: a large animal, the sort that belongs in Kruger’s or the savannah, raised and supposedly "trained" as a pet or performer, "suddenly" sheds its domesticated persona and… you don't want to be there when it happens. While lions, tigers and other large exotic mammals may be cute as babies, these powerful, wild animals are potentially dangerous and should never be considered pets. They belong running unencumbered in their native habitats.

A lion is free by nature, and never accepts the yoke of ownership or "domestication"—no matter how long these may have been imposed upon it.

Some animals, like the wolf, lion, bear, leopard, cheetah, and snake are always expected to attack and cause damage, even if raised by a human in their home.

Now we can appreciate the depth in Balaam’s metaphor of the crouching lion applied to the people of Israel, as per an insight presented by the Rebbe. For much of our history, we have been in a state of exile from our homeland, enslaved by other nations, subjected to alien cultures, and "trained" to perform in accordance with the dictates of what the world expects and desires from us. They may say, "We have at last domesticated the Jews; they have finally fully assimilated and merged with the large family of nations." But it is never real. The lion may crouch or lie in seeming docility, but it is not conquered. It remains free. If it is docile, it is so by choice, not by nature. It is never more than an instant removed from the seemingly "sudden" assertion of its innate freedom.

This is true collectively but also individually in every Jewish soul.

There are times in our lives when we feel strong, empowered and mighty. We stand firm, on top of our game, as kings in the jungle of the world. In a word, we are vertical. But other times, we are horizontal… We crouch, ducking and laying low. We feel depleted, empty, and weak.

When my neighbor told me he is a methodical and excellent planner, I asked how.

He replied, "Every morning when I get up, the first thing I do is check the obituaries in the morning paper and see if my name and photo are there. If not, I have a sigh of relief and start planning my day."

Balaam made one of the most moving declarations about the power of the soul:

He crouches and lies like a lion, like a lioness; who will dare rouse him?

Crouching he is, but a lion he is. And the lion and lioness, even when crouching, ducking, seemingly docile, confined in a cage, has not lost its ferocious nature. It may seem like it has, but that is not the case. It remains a free spirit; no one can ultimately impose their expectations on the lioness or lion.

In 1927, Josef Stalin, the new leader of the Soviet Union, embarked on a ruthless campaign to root out all religion from the USSR and to mercilessly cut down even the slightest opposition to his Communist regime, with a brutality unparalleled among preceding tyrants. During the 30 years of his reign-of-horror, he murdered 50 million of his own people.

One man, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880-1950), spearheaded the underground Jewish resistance to Stalin's ideological Final Solution. With the assistance of his loyal army of Chassidim, the Rebbe created an extraordinary underground network of bustling Jewish activity, which included the creation of Jewish schools, synagogues, Mikva's, adult Torah education, Yeshivot, Jewish textbooks, providing rabbis and spiritual leaders for communities and teachers for schools, and more. Over the 1920's and 1930's, the Rebbe built 600 (!) Jewish underground schools throughout the USSR.

Finally, in 1927, the Rebbe paid the ultimate price for his work. He was brutally taken from his home one midnight in June, incarcerated in one of the most horrendous prisons in Soviet Hell, and given a capital sentence. The death sentence was then converted to a 10-year exile. It was then further converted to a three-year exile. Finally, it was changed to a 10-day exile sentence in the city of Kostroma. On the 12th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, exactly 91 years ago from this past Monday, (July 12, 1927,) the Rebbe was set free.

This was literally a miracle. Far less significant activists in the Soviet Union were murdered for far smaller "crimes." That the Rebbe stood up as a lone figure to this brutal and ruthless mighty power, and survived, sowing the seeds of Jewish life in the Soviet Union for the following 70 years, was an outstanding occurrence.

Even today, the world is intimidated by Russia. Mr. Putin runs a tight ship, to put it mildly. But then? No one could even dream of resistance. Yet, wonder of wonders, one lone Chassidic Rebbe stood up to the most evil and cruel super-power in human history, and… he won! They set him free. Chabad activities in the Soviet Union continued for seven decades until communism fell and went amuck!

The miracle of the Rebbe’s liberation guaranteed the future of Judaism in Russia, and obviously, the continued existence of Chabad. If not for the 12th of Tammuz, 1927, Chabad would not be here today.

But there is one scene I specifically want to describe.

The Rebbe was taken to prison on Sunday, 3 Tammuz, July 3, 1927, where he was beaten badly. That day he was forced to board a train in Leningrad (St Petersburg) which would take him to his remote exile in Kostroma for years. Many people came to see him off as he boarded the train, knowing they may not see him for years.

What happened next is beyond astounding. Most people in such a state would embrace their loved ones with broken hearts, knowing what future awaits them. The Rebbe stood on the platform of the Leningrad train station on a summer day in 1927, in the presence of Soviet police and officials, and he said these words:

We did not depart from the Land of Israel of our own free will, nor will we return there by virtue of our own capabilities. G-d, our Father, and King, sent us into exile, and it is He who will redeem us and gather the dispersed of Israel from the four corners of the earth, and cause us to be led back firmly and proudly by Moshiach, our righteous redeemer—may this occur speedily, in our times.

This, however, all the nations of the world must know: Only our bodies were sent into exile and subjugated to alien rule; our souls, however, were not given over into captivity and foreign rule.

With all the power of Jewish stubbornness and with our three thousand-years heritage of complete dedication, we must declare, "Do not touch My anointed ones, and do not harm My prophets…."

We must always bear in mind that prisons and hard-labor camps are transient, whereas the Torah, its mitzvot, and the Jewish people, are eternal.

May you all be strong and healthy, both materially and spiritually. I hope to G-d that the pain which I must temporarily suffer will, with G-d's help, inject fresh vigor in our eternal mission of strengthening Jewish life, and that we will merit the fulfillment of [the promise that] "the Lord our G-d will be with us as He was with our fathers," and that all of the Children of Israel will have light in their dwellings, in both a spiritual and material sense.

With this, the Rebbe boarded the train to his three-year-long harsh sentence.

Ten days later he was free.

As he was crouching, he remained the undefeated lion protecting all that is true, just, and good in our world. Because he never forgot—and we must never forget—the words of Balaam: The Jewish people are "a crouching lion."

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

Comments on: ARE YOU A LION?
There are no comments.