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Malala at the United Nations

July 18, 2013 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Books and pens are our most powerful weapons.

Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a more moving moment.

The scene took place last week at the United Nations. In attendance were nearly 1000 young students from around the world at a specially convened Youth Assembly in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Gordon Brown, Britain’s former Prime Minister.

The guest of honor was a young girl celebrating her 16th birthday. It was a day that the Taliban, many months ago, cruelly sought to prevent her from living to see. Her name is Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani whose crime was that she wanted to go to school to get an education. So, last October, when she was on a school bus in Pakistan, a man with a gun got on and said, “Where is Malala?” He shot her in the face at point-blank range. The bullet entered near an eye and ended up near her left shoulder, but miraculously she survived.

The Taliban proudly claimed responsibility. They called her efforts pro-Western. They feared she might set an example to other women. Education is their enemy. They desperately wanted Malala dead. But Malala refused to be intimidated.

She emigrated to England, where doctors mended parts of her skull with a titanium plate. Unable to safely return to Pakistan, she started at a school in Birmingham in March. There she began a campaign against the Islamist Taliban efforts to deny women education. She succeeded in getting a petition signed by nearly 4 million people in support of 57 million children who are not able to go to school and demanding that world leaders fund new teachers, schools and books and end child labor and trafficking. And last week she presented the UN Secretary-General with that petition on a day designated as Malala day at the United Nations.

As if the facts of the story weren’t dramatic enough, Malala’s words at the occasion of the tribute paid to her were perhaps even more remarkable. From the lips of a 16 year old they carried the wisdom of the ages. But what was even more intriguing to me was the way in which they resonated with a Jewish idea so powerful that it is incorporated into the daily ritual practice of our faith.

“One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Malala spoke of how the way of violence could not succeed. “They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”

And then she concluded her plea for education for all with this message: "Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Books and pens are our most powerful weapons. Imagine those words spoken at the United Nations, meeting place of all those who deify might, who equate greatness with power.

Perhaps of all peoples on earth, the Jews, remarkably granted the title “People of the Book” by Mohammed, have throughout history been the ones most committed to the truth of this idea of the superiority of the word over the sword.

“If a drop of ink fell at the same time on your book and on your coat, clean first the book and then the garment.” “If you drop gold and books, pick up first the books and then the gold.” These are the instruction given in the classic 13th century work Sefer Hasidim, written by Yehudah HaHasid.

But the power of the pen has a more ancient biblical precedent. Every day, with the exception of the Sabbath and holidays, Jews are commanded to place tefillin, small boxes with parchments of Torah passages within them, on one of their arms and on their head. They are meant to symbolize the submission of our actions and intellect to the Almighty. But on which hand, right or left, is the tefillin box to be placed? The answer, as for so many things, is that it depends.

What the Torah chooses to emphasize is neither the right nor the left-hand specifically but rather the one which is weaker. Based on the special way the word is written in the Torah text as well as on the oral law commentary, we are taught that it all depends on whether one is right-handed or left-handed.

But what if someone is ambidextrous? The law needs to be specific. Which is the stronger and which is the weaker hand for someone who pursues his daily activities with both? The final decision of Jewish law is that the hand with which someone uses a pen to write is the stronger.

Proverbially, the idea has come down to us as “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Scholars have tried to pin down the source of this saying. Some attribute it to the 19th century Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. Others see it as a play on the line Shakespeare gave to Rosencrantz in Hamlet, "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither." There is a shade of it in a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to Thomas Paine in 1796, in which he wrote: "Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword."

The hand that writes is more powerful than the one that relies on the power of the fist.

But to my mind the proverb gains its most powerful claim to legitimacy from its role in Jewish law. The hand that writes with the pen will in the long run always be more powerful than the one that relies on the power of the fist.

Weapons can kill a man but cannot bring about a change of heart. Ideas have a much larger impact than violence. Force is incapable of changing the ideas and beliefs of the people. Ideas are propagated by writing. No clash of arms could achieve what great men through their writings have accomplished.

The written word makes a permanent impact on future generations. The pen stands for positive and constructive efforts, while the sword signifies devastation and destruction. The sword forces into submission; the written word inspires into belief and devotion. . It is the power of the pen that has through the ages shaped human history.

And that is what Malala, in her courageous fight against the Taliban and terrorism, tried to teach the world. It is a truth that explains the inexplicable miracle of Jewish survival against all odds, bereft of power and might but blessed with the book and the word. It is a truth that has, in spite of all logic, proven to be the real source of power from the perspective of history. It is a truth that we Jews put to mind every day as we put on our tefillin on our weaker hand.

How remarkable that it is a truth now given voice by a courageous Pakistani at the United Nations. If only its message might be heard by all those within the building whose inscription comes from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims that a time will come when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn the art of war anymore.”

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