Thoughts to Ponder Number 36
17 Adar Rishon, 5760; February 23 2000
Asterix and Obelix, a Serious Rabbinic View

One of the great advantages which many of us enjoy is that we often do not know what we have missed out on. Ignoti nulla cupido, "There is no desire for what is not known," said Ovid in his Ars Amatoria. (111, i.397) This may sound rather strange, but when we look into our lives we realize that many people are able to be satisfied with their material lives because they do not fully realize or refuse to realize that they could have had more.

The Jewel that we find we stoop and take't
Because we see it, but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.

Shakespeare, Measure for measure Act 11, Scene i.

Today we are convinced that we are unable to survive without a refrigerator, electricity, a car and perhaps even the airplane. We are therefore astonished when we realize that our forefathers lived their lives without any of these "necessities," although they may have belonged to the "upper class." We are even more surprised to learn that they were often more happy than we. They neither possessed nor did they miss these things for the simple reason that they were not available.

The famous R. Goscinny and A. Underzo in their highly hilarious and sophisticated cartoons called "Asterix and Obelix," a parody on our modern society (no doubt well known to our (European) readers!) tell us in one of their editions called "Obelix and Co" about a time when the great emperor, Julius Caesar, was looking for ways to defeat the undefeatable Gauls, who lived in a small town in the north of what later was called France. This small but totally independent village is the home town of the heroes of the story known as Asterix and Obelix, who frequently make fun of the Romans. The Roman army is constantly defeated by them due to the fact that the Gauls possess a miraculous potion invented and brewed by the wise druid, Getafix, which gives the drinker super-human strength. This is obviously a thorn in the side of Caesar. In a meeting of Caesar's inner cabinet one most unsympathetic figure suggests that they should try to make the Gauls completely addicted to money so that their interest in warfare and independence will be destroyed. Following this advice, Caesar starts buying thousands of "menhirs," massive, useless stones, from a company belonging to the Gauls, his arch enemy. This company called "Obelix and Co" is, as understood, run by the Gaul, Obelix. Hopefully, Obelix will fall for all the money he receives and will be forced to employ all his fellow citizens to meet the demands of filling Caesar's order. In that way, their attention will be shifted away from warfare, and Caesar will have his way and finally defeat them. After having bought an enormous amount of these stones, Caesar's treasury is completed emptied, and he is forced to sell these menhirs to his own people before his empire will become bankrupt. To get his citizens to buy these menhirs is, however, major headache.

How to convince them of the importance of possessing these meaningless stones?

The strategy employed to make the Romans buy these stones is to convince them that it will be impossible to survive without them.

A major advertisement campaign is set up, and in a matter of time an ugly, meaningless stone industry turns into a major market in which the prices rise to absurd heights. Now that the need has been created everybody is convinced that no human being can live without them, and those who are not in possession of this meaningless and ugly item will contemplate suicide. A whole country is now funded and driven by pieces of stone which have no other function but to be obstacles.

While the story is highly hilarious, its message is most serious. Nearly nothing will be missed unless it has been tasted. Man feels deprived of anything once he is aware of its existence or when he has experienced its existence even for a very short period of time.

Cartoons have been a remarkably effective means of communicating profound ideas. While we do not wish to equate cartoons with Torah, our sages did teach us that God created the world in such a way that spiritual circumstances are represented in the secular. In that way, the profane holds a spark of that what takes place in the world of holiness.

When appointing Aaron and his sons to the priesthood in the Mishkan (tabernacle) Moshe is told, "And you let Aaron your brother and his sons with him come near to you from among the children of Israel that they minister unto Me as priests…" (Shemoth: 28.1)

Most unusual is the expression "come near to you" (hakrev). We would have expected that the text would read "and you shall appoint Aaron and his sons." Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chayim Ibn Attar,1696-1743, Morocco) one of the greatest commentators on the Torah reminds us of the fact that originally Moshe himself should have been the High Priest. But, since he refused to respond to God's request at the Burning Bush (see Shemoth, chapter 3) to take his full responsibility as leader and redeemer of the people of Israel, the task to become the High Priest (in addition to being the leader) was denied to him and given to his brother Aaron. (See Shemoth Rabba 3:17)

Most surprising, however, is the fact that Moshe did become the High Priest, albeit for a short time. The Torah informs us, in the above mentioned chapter, that for seven days Moshe functioned as the high priest in the newly built Mishkan. Only then was Moshe asked to pass the priesthood on to Aaron, his brother. This requires an explanation. Why was the priesthood not immediately given to Aaron as was already decided at the time of the Burning Bush? Ohr Hachaim provides us with a powerful answer. He claims that God decided on this procedure to remind Moshe of what he had lost when he refused to comply with His request at the Burning Bush. By making Moshe into a High Priest for only a few days, God caused him to taste the greatness, the dignity and the merit of this office. Moshe would not have known what it meant to be a high priest and what he had lost because of his earlier refusal. It is for this reason that he was asked to make sure that Aaron and his sons "come near" ("hakrev") to him to become the new priests. The word "hakrev" has a double meaning, says Ohr Hachaim. It means "to bring near" but it is also related to the word, "korban," sacrifice. Moshe was asked by God to bring a sacrifice as a kapara, atonement (for his earlier refusal) by giving the priesthood over to his brother after one week of office. He would not have known what he had lost had he not first tasted what it meant to be a High Priest. This, says Ohr HaChaim, is the greatest sacrifice one could bring.

Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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