Sermon: Eizehu Gibbor – who is strong?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 November 2021

Ava finished her reading at a cliff-hanger moment.  Jacob was about to meet Rachel, the love of his life, for the first time. He has encountered some shepherds and their flocks meeting around a well; a well which is covered by a large stone.
Only when the flocks have all gathered will the shepherds – together – be able to move the stone and water their animals.

But, in a moment of high drama, spurred on by seeing Rachel, Jacob moves the stone single-handedly.

The midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer states “k’gibbor – like a ‘hero’ (a ‘warrior’, a ‘strongman’ maybe) he rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well… and, according to the midrash “the shepherds saw and were all amazed, for all of them were unable to roll away the stone.”

It is a moment in our foundational narrative which reflects a particular understanding of what it means to be strong.
It feels as if, for our story to establish Jacob as worthy in the eyes of Rachel, it demands this moment of physical strength – why else would she be attracted to someone who thus far we have only met as a mild man who stays in camp, in contrast with his manly hunter brother. In the 1950s film version of the story, beautiful Rachel would swoon at the sight of this feat of strength – female beauty and male strength as models of human perfection.

This ideal of the male strength of heroes is found elsewhere in our stories, too.
Moses – limited in speech but certainly not in physical ability – stands up to the Egyptian taskmaster, and, in another well scene, single-handedly chases away shepherds who are harassing the daughters of the priest of Midian. Samson is, of course, the archetypal figure of Israelite physical power, though his power comes with a catch and he meets a horrible end. We are just a couple of weeks from Chanukah, in which we will celebrate warrior heroes – the Maccabees in their revolt against the religious persecution of the Jews of Judea.

These stories present a particular model of strength, specifically Jewish strength. It is one which gained an especial resonance for many Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth century as they themselves faced persecution, and the beginnings of modern Zionism. At the turn of that century, German Zionist Max Nordau coined a term for it – muskeljudentum – muscular Judaism. “Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men”, he argued, rejecting what he saw as the physical weakness of the Jew of the ghetto. Twenty years earlier, the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus, most famous for the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, had expressed a similar sentiment in response to the pogroms of Eastern Europe: “Let our first care today be the reestablishment of our physical strength… so that, in future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced”. Muscular Judaism was to have – and continues to have – an essential place in the self-understanding of the modern State of Israel.

There is no doubt that this idea of Jewish physical prowess, particularly a version of Jewish male strength, has played, and continues to play, an important role in our history. But the Jewish ideal of strength is more nuanced than this overview, and the little episode in our portion this morning, might suggest.

In his essay ‘Catharsis’, the Orthodox rabbi and philosopher Joseph Solovetchik observes that the morning blessings, as we chanted this morning, contain two different words for strength. We chanted both Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam ozer Yisrael big’vurah – Blessed are You Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who fortifies Israel with strength and Baruch attah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam ha-notein l‘ya’eif koach, praising the God who ‘gives strength to the weary’.

But why the need for two different blessings? The implication is that the liturgy understands Koach and Gevurah as different things, different types of strength, both needed to face the day ahead. Soloveitchik’s explanation is that Koach is simple physical strength. “Koach,” he states “Is not an exclusively human category… the category of Koach is applicable to man and beast alike.” But gevurah – human strength – is more than just physical capability, it is a marker of man ‘who confronts nature in a reflective, inquisitive mood” as Soloveitchik puts it.

That is, heroic strength, which is distinctively human is not just how strong we are, but that we choose to use it in appropriate ways, how we bring this into the world. It is not only that we win the fight, move the rock, but is centred around other concepts too – bravery, service, restraint. It is with this understanding that the heroism that we honour on this Shabbat before Remembrance Day is best understood. The tens of thousands of Jews who served in the British armed forces during the two world wars exhibited not koach but true gevurah in their willingness to risk their lives on behalf of others.

Central to this strength is human choice.
In a famous text found in a number of places in rabbinic literature, we find the question asked Eizehu gibbor – who is strong? The answer, given first in the name of the sage Ben Zoma: ‘ha-koveish et yitzro” – the one who controls their inclinations. The proof text for the rabbis is a verse from the Book of Proverbs – tov erech-apayim mi-gibbor – better to be slow to anger than to be strong (that word gibbor again – we might translate it ‘better to be patient than to be a warrior’); and – the verse continues [better] ‘to have self-control than to conquer a city’.
That is, mere physical ability – koach in Soloveitchik’s understanding – is not true human strength – we must have the self-control not to do that which we might have the power to do. The marker of strength is also in the struggle that we do not undertake.

Elsewhere, the rabbis explore this idea – that strength is less about capability than how our capabilities are directed – specifically in relation to God. The rabbis observe that when, in the bible, reference is made to God as powerful or mighty, it is often brought with reference to God’s concern for those who are vulnerable. That is, divine strength is relevant in as much as it is directed to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the humble of spirit. As imitators of the divine, that is how our strength should be directed too.

This deeper understanding of strength, of power, as more than the physical feels important as we face some of the challenges of our times. As we continue to face the reality of a Covid endemic in our society, strength is not expressed in our physical ability as individuals to fight it off, but in how we care about each other – the choice to limit ourselves for the benefit of others. As we face the reality of climate change, the strength of nations will be reflected in their willingness to engage – to ‘confront nature in a reflective, inquisitive mood” as Soloveitchik puts it, not to show their brute strength by indifference. As we reflect on standards in the public domain, true strength is to do what is right, not to allow or be complicit in corruption simply because one can.  It may be possible to hold hundreds of refugees, many of them children, on the Belurussian/Polish border by physical strength – that power tells us nothing of what is the right thing to do.

K’gibbor gallal ha-even mei’al pi ha’be’er
Like a hero, Jacob rolled the stone from the mouth of the well, the midrash tells us.
In this moment, the Torah is concerned only with the most superficial of strength.

But the real marker of strength is how we choose to use it.

We are defined not by our ability to move a rock but by our willingness to encounter the difficult;
Not by the size of our muscles but by the way in which we direct our hearts;
Not, as Soloveitchik would have it, by koach – mere capability – but by gevurah – the seriousness and intent with which we approach the world.