‘Fight or Flight’

Friday, 1 December, 2023 - 5:26 am

‘Fight or Flight’?

When you meet up unexpectedly with an adversary who poses a threat to your life, you have one of two immediate choices.


Or stand your ground and fight off the enemy.

It’s an instinctive reaction that our brain comes to. Not before subconsciously considering vast amounts of pre-acquired experiential knowledge.

Some people are hardwired to be more prone to standing their ground and fighting. Others are far more comfortable to run away from confrontation.

Those are instinctive reactions.

I want to touch on conscious decision-making when facing challenges. For that we need to consider the theological question that arises when one faces an unanticipated challenge.

Let us talk about a not uncommon scenario. You are on the path to doing what you think G-d has instructed you to do. And then you hit a snag and you don’t see a way forward.  

What should be your next move?

Does the insurmountable barrier tell you STOP. G-d is the creator of that barrier. And obviously G-d doesn’t want you to go forward.

Or is it that G-d wants you to find a way to scale or breach the seemingly impenetrable wall. The impediment is intended by G-d to cause you to dig deeper and try harder.

How does one know whether to accept defeat or to soldier on?

It’s a theologically strengthened question, as G-d can do anything even if it seems impossible.

For example, after the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel found themselves trapped between the Egyptians and the deep waters of the sea. The sea was not traversable without ships that they didn’t have.

There were at least four opinions among the Jews as they stood by the sea as to what they should do. G-d communicated to Moshe that He didn’t side with any of the opinions.

G-d said do the unthinkable.

Travel forward!

Once G-d said to travel forward on foot, Nachshon led the way into the sea. Just before he drowned, the sea split.

So, if G-d can do anything, how do you and I know when to call quits and when to keep digging deeper and trying harder even when things look highly improbable to the point of impossible.

Chanuka is the classic story of doing the impossible. The Maccabees fought against an army that was stronger and mightier.

In their case there was no dilemma about what they needed to do. The Greeks and Hellenists were introducing a form of idolatry into the Jewish nation. When it comes to idolatry, we are instructed to resist even at the cost of our lives.

The Maccabees didn’t know that they would win. But they knew what they needed to do. They did it heroically and unhesitatingly.

Countless Jews have given their lives in sanctification of G-d’s name when they were given the choice between the ‘sword or the cross’. They chose G-d over life. This is the default feeling of every Jewish soul. A life lived in idolatrous denial of G-d, is a life not worth living.

The Maccabees won the war miraculously. We have Chanukah to celebrate it and to remind us that there are certain immutable laws that require self-sacrifice. There are not two choices.

If you face a dilemma that puts you in a position of choosing a difficult moral path over an easier immoral path, you know what you need to do. Choose the moral path even though it is more cumbersome and difficult.

Morality is light. Immorality is darkness. Chanukah is all about choosing to add light to overcome and dispel the darkness.

Chanuka reassuringly teaches us that G-d blesses the efforts of those valiantly struggling and fighting to stay true to His wishes. G-d has not limitations and makes miracles when needed, to have the ‘good guys’ win.

Let me now move onward to discuss a different kind of scenario. Very often we face situations where there is no clear moral imperative for one choice over the other. It may be quite confusing as both choices are not immoral and unG-dly. In this instance, how do we view possible barriers in the path we have set out on?

This weekend we commemorate and celebrate the founding of Chabad Chasidism.

What may be less known, is that the Chabad movement that has become the familiar face of Judaism in large as well as remote Jewish communities, almost ‘aborted’ before being born so to speak.

The first Rebbe, R’ Shneur Zalman, was imprisoned shortly after laying forth his systematic approach to Chassidut in the Tanya as the spiritual heir to the Baal Shemtov and his disciple known as ‘The Maggid’.

It was clear to the Rebbe that this imprisonment based although it was on false libelous charges leveled against him, was Heavenly sanctioned.

Why would there be a Divine plan to imprison him? The way the Rebbe understood it, it was Divinely intended to stop the development and dissemination of his teachings. The teachings of Chabad Chasidism comprise a revelation of the Kabalistic secrets of Torah to the broader community.

At the time this was revolutionary. Kabala and Chasidism were kept more discreet. One had to first gain entry via pre-acquired broad scholarship to the circles that taught these kabalistic traditions.

The Rebbe saw his imprisonment as being a protest from Heaven to his new path. His revered teachers who had already passed away, visited him via a spiritual vision he had in prison. They confirmed to him that he was being challenged in Heaven for his public teachings and that he would ultimately be released.

‘When I get out shall I desist or continue’? the Rebbe asked his holy predecessors.

To which they replied, ‘continue and with added vigor’.

After undergoing a cross examination where he was given the opportunity to answer the accusations against him at length, he was miraculously released from the Czarist prison after having spent 53 days in prison and thus his life was saved.

From that moment onward the Chabad movement began to develop and blossom. First in Russia in the shtetl of Lubavitch and from the 1940’s onwards, headquartered in New York with branches worldover.

This story of challenge, doubt and the resolution of this doubt, is one of the stories recounted every year at the celebratory gatherings ‘farbrengen’ that are held to commemorate this day. (In Bangkok we are hosting a men’s farbrengen at Bet Elisheva on Motzei Shabbat at 8pm).

This story speaks to me very personally right now.

Our family are blessed to be the Rebbe’s representatives to Thailand for three decades.

The growth has been exceptional and miraculous.

Jewish life is flourishing across Thailand.

Looking forward, there is much more to do. There are several ambitious projects in the pipeline that are in various stages of planning and implementing.

The path to achieve all of the aspirations seems challenging.

I am thinking out loud.

When I reach a challenge to implement what seems to be a Divinely mandated project, how am I to interpret it?

Is it a divine big red STOP sign. Telling me that Hashem doesn’t want me to continue down that path?

Or is it a hurdle that tells me gather your strength, pray hard, dig deep into your soul and take a leap of faith.

Is there a kind of divine ‘voice’ calling out that the plateau on the other side awaits you if you but have the right faith and march on joyously.

Does G-d want me to have faith that the proverbial ‘sea’ will ‘split’ if need be. That all I need to do is march on with optimism and faith and I will get successfully to the other side?

How did the Rebbe know whether to continue his newly forged path or change course?

He asked his spiritual masters.

This is what we must do when faced with a dilemma in which there is no clear moral imperative. It’s not like it’s a choice between doing something moral or something immoral. Those decisions are clear cut. I am referring to scenarios where both options could equally fit the description of being G-d’s intention. Both make moral sense.

The Rebbe made it very clear to our generation that we must implement what our Sages have instructed ‘make for yourself a teacher’. Every Jew, layman, scholar or even rabbi, needs to appoint someone else from whom he or she take counsel. We are all subjective and partial to ourselves and thus cannot rely only on our own judgment to come to clarity.  We need to seek advice from others who are greater, wiser, older and most importantly objective, to help make certain pivotal decisions.

Perseverance is a wonderful quality, but it is not always the right choice. As a matter of fact, it is quite wrong to keep marching down the wrong road in the name of ‘trying harder’ and persevering. If G-d is telling you STOP. You ought to listen to G-d’s instruction to ‘recalculate’.

On the other hand, changing direction spontaneously and fleeing every time you hit a bump in the road, is evading your Divine mission. It is misguided to misinterpret a hurdle that is meant to energize you, as a barrier that has come to stop you.

This is my first take away.

If you are facing a dilemma, check it out with your ‘rav’ – morally and spiritually healthy teacher/mentor/advisor. Arrive at what seems to be the right decision, be it either ‘fight or flight’ or a combination thereof. And then forge ahead joyously and faithfully.

My second and main point.

The Maccabees won their battles against all odds.

The oil lasted supernaturally, not one day but eight days.

The Rebbe exited jail and expanded his spreading of the inner Kabalistic track of Torah. He said that his redemption was a sign from Heaven that all who would follow his example in promoting inspired Jewish living would have an upper hand against their challengers.

If you are doing the right thing and you apply yourself with faith, joy and effort, these stories of light and miracles remind you that Hashem will bless you with success.

This month of Kislev is historically a season of liberation and victory and it continues to be a month of miracles to this very day.

We are reminded during this month that light overcomes and dispels darkness.

And we are empowered by Divine opportunity to tap in to the energies and spirit of liberation and light that awaits us if we but put forth the effort.

Let us utilize the powers we have access to.

On a practical note. Was there something morally good and socially kind that you wanted to do but thought you couldn’t do it?

Try it again during these fortuitous times. This time trying a bit harder than before.

May Hashem show you that the hurdle was only intended to energize you and this time you will be successful.

Does the world seem very dark?

Don’t hide away under your covers.

Take the incredible opportunity of Chanuka and run with it.

Kindle the menorah yourself and with anyone you can reach, in your home and in the public domain, and LIGHT UP THE DARKNESS both by the physical lights of the menorah and by the additional mitzvahs that you perform.

Shabbat Shalom

Chag Sameach

Rabbi Yosef Kantor

PS as I write these lines, the situation in Israel is evolving. Our prayers for safety, security and peace are with our soldiers, with our brothers and sisters living in the holy land and the world over.

Shabbat SHALOM

Comments on: ‘Fight or Flight’
There are no comments.