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Might Does not Make Right

Osama bin Laden famously said that When people see a strong horse and a  weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse. I think this is generally true. It is much of the reason why the LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls used to have so many fans all around the world, far outside their geographical catchment area: people like to associate with winners.

This translates into a rough form of tribalism that supports winning teams, winning countries, companies and even armies. In my youth it was popular for Jewish kids to wear T-Shirts and other paraphernalia that celebrated the Israeli Defense Forces and especially the Israeli Air Force. It was cool to like winners, to bond with winners. It sort of rubbed off on us, lending a pride by allegiance and association.

While this is a natural human instinct, and one that is probably connected to why most people like being in groups of like-minded people, I think it is inherently dangerous. After all, the villagers with torches and pitchforks are always the numerous; the hermit or alleged witch or other outsider is heavily outnumbered. Mob rule is the very reason why we have a constitution: the majority can always take care of itself; it is the minority that needs protection.

This is a key reason why the Torah and Judaism are essential building blocks within Western Civilization: The Torah is full of the Jewish people trying to be right without being powerful. Whether it was in contest with stronger men who sought to take our women, or with the mighty Egyptian empire, or even Korach’s rebellion of the many against just Moshe and Aharon, the Torah tells us that the stronger person is not better: he is just stronger. In order to exist, we may have to make adjustments and allowances for the power imbalance, but that does not mean that we concede the principle, even when the situation appears hopeless.

“Might makes right” is not only about nations and sports teams. At its most elemental, it is about the relationships between individuals as well.

Primitive societies traditionally treat slaves and women as chattel or worse – precisely because they are less powerful. Strong men in countries like Russia and the Middle East are not held accountable for the way in which they treat weaker people, and certainly not for the way in which they treat their harems. Genghis Khan was the very embodiment of this idea: he was powerful, and that meant that he could – and did – take every woman he desired.

The Torah describes a world in which men simply took the women they chose – and G-d shortened our lifespans because of it. But womens’ liberation even in the Torah did not happen overnight. Avraham took his wife Sara along with him wherever he wanted. He told her to lie – multiple times – that she was his sister. And he did it because he believed that yet more powerful men would kill him if he did not. Even though Avraham deferred to Sara’s demands from time to time, there was clearly never a conversation between them that seemed to lead to a mutually satisfactory resolution. Each used their power over the other for their own ends.

The match was blessed with only one child, Isaac.

The next forefather, Isaac, had a differently dysfunctional marriage. His wife, Rivka, seems to have been cowed by him from the moment they met. She went to great lengths to secure the blessing for one son instead of another, instead of merely speaking with her husband. The Torah only tells of her talking to her husband once, after the debacle with the blessings. We all know marriages like this, but I doubt that many people think of it as an ideal relationship. It was clearly not easy for either one of them.

The third forefather, Yaakov, breaks the mold. He works hard for his wives, and as a result, he seems to value them (it is often observed that we value the things that are most difficult to achieve). Most interestingly, Yaakov was the first person in the Torah to consult with his wives before making an important decision – whether to pack up and move his family back to Canaan (Gen. 31:14–16) He laid out a case, they gave their feedback, and he listened to it – real communication between man and woman, decisions through conversations.

I do not believe that it is coincidental that Yaakov was the most blessed of the forefathers, with twelve sons and a daughter resulting from his marriages, and the end of the “culling” of sons who did not fit in (Ishmael and Esau). I think the Torah is telling us a very simple and powerful message: might does not make right. We must always try to grow respect for other people. And marriages that involve valuing your spouse and their opinions are the marriages that G-d blesses.

Comments are welcome!

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