The Iron Cross & the Medal of Honor

Hans-Ulrich Rudelwas a ground attack fighter credited with the destruction of 519 tanks, one battleship, one cruiser, 70 landing craft and 150 artillery emplacements. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves by Hitler himself.

Not for saving people, but for destroying his 100th tank.

His was the second highest award ever granted to a German soldier. Only Hermann Goering was granted a higher award – for his role as commander of the Luftwaffe in the fall of France.

Contrast that with the first man to win the Medal of Honor in World War II. His name was Richard N. Antrim and he won the medal for intervening when a fellow POW was being brutally beaten by a Japanese guard. At great risk to himself, he saved his fellow soldier. Afterwards, he did something even more incredible – something that saved even more lives. Ask me about it if you’re curious.

I share these two examples because they so beautifully differentiate between two kinds of societies. Societies driven by hate, honor and conquest and societies – for all their failings – that aim for something greater.

The Torah readers we are reading now show us, perhaps, the very archetype followed by Richard N. Antrim. That archetype was Moshe – a man whose early life was defined by a successful attempt to stop the beating of a slave. Later, when the Egyptians are suffering under the plagues, Moshe does not gloat, encourage or cheer the suffering of Egypt. Instead, he tries to make Pharoah bend to G-d’s command – to free the people – so that the plagues may end. And then he cries out to G-d, again and again, to bring an end to the plagues that are decimating Egypt.

As much as Moshe might recognize the evils of Egypt, he does not embrace the suffering of the Egyptians.

What we have appears to be a perfect archetype. The ideal of a man who stands up for the weak and who, while willing to inflict violence, does not see it as a goal in and of itself.

Despite the temptation to see him this way, Moshe is not that ultimate archetype.

After all, everything in Egypt – especially the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart – is part of G-d’s plan and G-d’s destruction far exceeds that which is necessary to free the people.

At the Sneh (burning bush) – before a single plague is brought – Hashem says:

וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָעָם
I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go.

If G-d is the ultimate good, then what archetype are we to follow. Are we supposed to revive our prisoners so we can beat them more? Are we supposed to torture those who have already surrendered?

On the surface of it, G-d seems to be saying that might makes right.

After all, the first seven plagues rise from the river below to the heavens above. They demonstrate G-d’s power in space. The last three plagues, from a Ruach Kedima (early wind) that destroys that which was planted in the past, to the experience of death in the present to the destruction of the future with the death of the first born, demonstrate His power in time.

So, perhaps, that is the goal of the plagues – to demonstrate Hashem’s mastery of space and time. And perhaps the entire cycle must be completed to show G-d’s full power – even though Pharoah has surrendered.

So, is this the goal: simply to show the power of G-d?

If this were the answer, then G-d would never have stopped delivering his miracles and wonders. We would not have to seek G-d – or wonder whether He is there. G-d’s might would be a constant in our lives. Our chayalim (soldiers) in Gaza would demonstrate the power of G-d’s people – and none would fall.

But this is not our reality. The plagues stop and G-d withdraws.

So, what did the plagues accomplish? Why did they have to be completed?

The answer comes with the very last plague. With the very last plague, the Jewish people take the small action of offering the Pascal Lamb. Yes, they are commanded to do so – but they still take action. That action is what saves them from the plague – it is what defined their families.

With this action, the Jewish people were freed from the Egyptians.

And while, some Egyptians brought their animals in upon G-d’s command with the plague of hail, the Egyptian people remain passive, as a whole, until the last plague – when

וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל-הָעָם, לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן-הָאָרֶץ
And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste;

It is easy to forget, but Yosef enslaved the Egyptians almost as completely as Pharoah enslaved the Jews. With this action, the Egyptian people were freed from Pharaoh.

In a way, they recognize the source of their freedom:

וַיקוָק נָתַן אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם
And the LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians

When we see the plagues through this lens we recognize something fantastic. The purpose of the plagues is for humankind to take action. It is for us to take responsibility.

G-d uses his power – to make space for ours.

These are our archetypes.

We do not celebrate the suffering of our enemies. We do not celebrate their deaths. No, even when we apply violence there must be a higher purpose.

Today, if we were following in the footsteps of Moshe, our goal would simply be our security.

But we, ideally, follow in the footsteps of Hashem.

Because of this we know that we have a far, far, higher goal. Our greatest hope is that our violence, like the violence of Hashem in this Parshah, will ultimately free our enemies from the hateful shackles their own society has placed upon them. Our greatest hope is that our violence will lead them to honor men like Richard Antrim, and not men like Hans Ulrich Rudel.

And perhaps, just as with the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, our own suffering can free us from the shackles that have turned so many of us against our brethren.

This week, Dan Weidenbaum was killed in Gaza.

My wife texted his mother just before Shabbat, about a mundane matter, only to learn of her shocking loss.

In a brief obituary, Naftali Bennet wrote:

אני מאחל לכל אדם שיכיר דן משלו, אדם שאפשר לספר לו הכל ושידע לתת את המילה הנכונה בלי לשפוט, שיידע לתמרץ אותך ולדחוף אותך למצוינות עם חיוך מדהים ולב רחב שפשוט מעורר
I wish for every person to know their own Dan, a person to whom you can tell everything and who knows how to give the right word without judging, who knows how to excite you and push you towards excellence with an amazing smile and a big heart that is simply inspiring.

We do not celebrate his achievements in battle.

Instead, we celebrate how he walked in the path of G-d, seeking to uplift all those around him.

May we carry on – and build upon – his legacy.

Shabbat Shalom

Photo of Dan Weiderman – IDF Spokesman’s Office

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