The Kabbalah of Basra
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
Twelve years ago, about a month after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, as the U.S. began building a coalition of nations against Saddam Hussein, one of the foremost religious voices of our generation began quoting an ancient passage of the Midrash, foretelling the events of the day.
It was Sabbath afternoon, Aug. 18, 1990, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, addressed thousands of disciples at his headquarters in Brooklyn (1). The mood in the Jewish world was stern, as Saddam pledged war against Israel if he were attacked. The Rebbe quoted words of the Sages dating back some 1,500 years.
"The leader of Persia," states the Midrash, "will attack an Arab nation and the Arab king will go to Aram for advice. The leader of Persia will bring destruction to the entire world, and all of the nations will be struck by panic and fear ... Israel will also be overtaken by panic and fear, and they will cry, 'Where shall we go? Where shall we go'?
"Moshiach will then tell them: 'My children, fear not. Everything I have done, I have done for you. Why are you afraid? Do not fear! The time of your liberation has arrived (2).'"
Who is Persia? Who is Aram?
A few weeks later, during the holiday of Sukkos (3) in October 1990, the Rebbe went on to explain that the Midrashic words "the leader of Persia" may be understood as "the leader of Iraq," since ancient Persia included the territory of present-day Iraq. "Aram," which in Hebrew means "exalted," or "powerful," refers to the world's superpower. Thus, "the Arab king going to Aram for advice" may represent an Arab country, Kuwait, coming to the U.S. for help (4).
"Despite the ominous situation," the Rebbe declared, "there was no reason to become confounded or fearful." On the contrary, this confrontation was heralding the time of our redemption, that moment in history when the authentic spiritual and moral core of humanity will emerge in its full splendor and heaven will become one with earth.
During the next months, the Lubavitcher Rebbe reiterated these Midrashic words numerous times, as he called on the Jewish people and the world to replace fear with courage and confusion with determination. We ought to prepare ourselves and the world at large, the Rebbe said, for the great spiritual revolution that will engulf the globe, by increasing in the study of Torah, the observance of mitzvos, and acts of goodness and kindness. Each and every one of us, the Rebbe suggested, should be teaching himself and the surrounding world about a higher way of living -- a life of ethics, honesty, goodness and peace. A life of Moshiach.
The war begins
The war began on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1991. A tremendous part of the fighting was concentrated in Basra, that ancient port city off the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq, home to the Republican Guard and, according to many, the location of the dictator himself.
Three days later, on Sabbath, Jan. 19 (4 Shevat 5750), the Lubavitcher Rebbe devoted a large part of his public address to the war against Saddam Hussein. The Rebbe viewed Saddam - a person who chopped off the ears and noses of dissidents, tortured children in front of their parents, gassed thousands to death and craved the death of Israel - as a truly evil person.
The Rebbe saw him as a scion of the great anti-Semites of old, professing the legendary brutality and Jew-hatred of Nebuchadnezzar (ancient king of Iraq and Babylonia, arch-hero of Saddam), Amalek, Haman and Pharaoh.
The Rebbe knew very well of the ulterior motives accompanying so many American foreign-policy decisions. Yet he felt America and its values of freedom and individual liberty were a blessing for mankind, and that its war against a monstrous tyrant was a moral act, one that would save and liberate countless innocent lives.
I recall vividly how during his address on that Sabbath, the Rebbe encouraged the American armed forces to finish the job they had successfully begun. "Seventy or 80 percent of the work has been accomplished already," the Rebbe stated. "The job should be concluded 100 percent."
In a fascinating discussion about fear and courage, the Rebbe discussed the opening verse of that week's Torah portion (the portion of Bo), where "G-d said to Moses: 'Come to Pharaoh (5).'"
The Zohar, one of the foundational texts of Kabbalah, writes on this passage (6):
"Now it is time to reveal secrets that are bound above and below. Why does it say, 'Come to Pharaoh'? It should have said, 'Go to Pharaoh!' But G-d brought Moses into a chamber within a chamber, to the supernal and mighty serpent from which many levels of evil evolve... Moses feared the great serpent. Moses was ready to confront the manifestations of this serpent, but not to its core. Moses was afraid to come close to its essence, because he saw that it was grounded in supernal roots."
In other words, Moses was ready to confront Pharaoh in his many forms and manifestations, but when the moment came and Moses was called to face that ruler's core-evil in his innermost chamber, even the great Moses was overtaken by fear. Thus, G-d needed to reassure Moses and say to him, "Come to Pharaoh." You are not going alone, I am coming with you.
G-d in Basra
As the address continued, the Rebbe went on to discuss the tremendous significance of the fact that the center of the fighting took place in southern Iraq, in the city of Basra. He quoted a verse form the Prophet Isaiah, foretelling the events of the ultimate redemption (7):
"Who is this coming from Edom, with sullied garments from Basra?" is the question an anonymous onlooker asks G-d when he sees G-d returning as a warrior from the battlefield of Basra.
"I soiled my garments [in My war against evil in Basra]," G-d responds, "for a day of vengeance is in My heart and the year of my redemption has come."
According to many Talmudic sources, the city discussed by Isaiah in this prophecy is located in Babylonia, or present-day Iraq (8). This means G-d was saying that He Himself will be confronting the evil in Basra, just as G-d promised Moses that He Himself would join Him in confronting the evil of Pharaoh (9).
The Rebbe, apparently comparing Saddam to Pharaoh, was speaking of the courage required to confront the tyrant of Iraq face-to-face and subdue him.
The Rebbe concluded by assuring the Jews living in Israel that they would be safe and secure. "There will be no war in Israel," the Rebbe stated. "Israel is the safest place in the world."
Indeed, despite Iraq launching 39 Scud missiles at Israel, not one death could be contributed directly to those attacks.
A strange instruction
During that time, I had the privilege of working as one of the oral scribes of the Rebbe, reviewing and transcribing his public talks for publication. That night, I received a telephone call from one of the Rebbe's secretaries, Rabbi Laibel Groner, who instructed me, in the name of the Rebbe, not to publish the segment of the talk that dealt with the U.S. war against Iraq.
The Rebbe had told his secretary at the time, that "these words will be applicable at a future time (10)."
As we all remember, the first Persian Gulf war ended only a few weeks after it began. On Thursday, Feb. 28, 1991, Saddam withdrew completely from Kuwait and a cease-fire was declared. The end of the war coincided with Purim, the day in which we celebrate the victory of the Jewish people against another tyrant and mass killer by the name of Haman who lived in that region some 2,400 years ago.
Two days later, on Sabbath, the 16th day of Adar 5751 (March 2, 1991) the Rebbe blessed the American government and its armed forces. He spoke of the U.S. as "a nation of generosity," allowing and encouraging Jews to live Jewishly in full freedom and prosperity. The Rebbe expressed a heartfelt prayer "that the American troops succeed in their mission in Basra (11)."
This last statement at the time was extremely perplexing. Did the Rebbe not know that the war had ended? Was the Rebbe unaware of the fact that the troops had withdrawn from Basra and from the rest of Iraq? After all, the Rebbe himself had predicted that the war would be over by Purim! Why, two days later, was the Rebbe praying for the success of an American campaign in Basra?
12 years later...
The answer to this question I received this week.
Twelve years later to the day the Rebbe delivered that prayer on the 16th of Adar 5763, the U.S. and its allies declared war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. By the end of the day, our troops were at the outskirts of Basra.
hours earlier, on the eve of Purim, the same night in which the
"Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers."
"The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of your liberation is near."
The day of our liberation, too, is near.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance in both essays.
The author can be reached at YYjacobson@aol.com