Wednesday, October 18, 2017
THE FORGOTTEN MAN
Rabbi David Walk
My title became famous in a radio address by Franklin Roosevelt on April 7, 1932, and it described the honest, hard-working people who were crushed by the Great Depression. A recent study of the depression borrowed the phrase for its title. An artistic rendition of the theme was movingly executed by Maynard Dixon in 1934, as the subject slumps forlornly on a city curb ignored by numerous passersby. That work resides in the art collection of Brigham Young University. Not surprisingly, therefore, a modern painter, Jon McNaughton, who graduated from BYU, has cribbed the title for a now controversial painting, which attacks President Obama, and, ironically, in his wake, a robust and athletic looking FDR. My point is that since 1876 (when Yale professor William Graham Sumner coined the phrase) this expression has been used in speech, film (for me, most famously in the 1936 comedy, My Man Godfrey, with William Powell), TV (a 1971 made for TV movie about Viet Nam vets), literature, and art to describe that member of society who is getting passed over for deserved attention. When I look at the pantheon of Biblical heroes, my nominee for The Forgotten Man Award is Noach.
I've written before about the raw deal Noach gets from many traditional commentaries. A large group of rabbis disparage Noach for not being Avraham. Any comparison between the two will always be bad for Noach. Others attack him for getting drunk. Who are we to criticize? None of us went through what he experienced, literally the end of his world. I hope modern commentaries have more compassion, since we now understand Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome. But that's not my focus this week. In this effort, I want to discuss instead the fact that Noach is totally ignored in many discussions of Biblical history. A case in point, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote a book called The Emergence of Ethical Man. In this fascinating work, The Rav discusses the development of moral society. The basis for the ethical community is the concept of brit or covenant. The first human to ever consummate a brit with God is Noach, but a quick perusal of the index, reveals no mention of Noach, even though his name does appear in a verse quoted in the text. How's that for forgotten? I'm not blaming the Rav because the book was published posthumously, but it does support my thesis. We overlook Noach.
How many platitudes must the Torah heap upon Noach for him to get his due? He was a righteous individual, who functioned effectively under extremely difficult circumstances. He repopulated the world and restarted agriculture. Not to mention established oenology (the art of wine making). We are all his descendants. I know we use the expression b'nei Noach for non-Jews, but honestly, aren't we all? And I haven't even mentioned his contributions to carpentry and ship building. However, the real innovation I want to trumpet is the cutting of the initial covenant apparently in history, and if we want to give credit for the art of the deal, this was a doozy. Basically, for eschewing incest and eating live animals, he elicited a Divine promise to never destroy humanity again. Not bad for someone who never even heard of Wall Street.
Let's take a closer look at this deal. Here is God's promise: I will establish My brit with you, and never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters, and there will never again be a cataclysm to destroy the earth. This is the sign of the brit, which I am placing between Me and between you, and between every living soul that is with you, for everlasting generations. My rainbow I have placed in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a brit between Myself and the earth (Genesis 9:11-13). Notice the triple repetition of the word brit, and it appears three more times in the next four verses. What is a brit? Of course, we usually translate it as 'covenant', which means a formal and binding agreement. It comes to us through French, from a Latin word meaning 'fitting'. In Hebrew the connotation is different. The authoritative translation of Onkelos renders it kayam or 'existing' or, perhaps. 'lasting'. In any case the word itself means to be in effect in perpetuity.
Noach did what all his forebears failed to do: make an everlasting agreement with God for the eternal benefit of humanity. A quick perusal of today's headlines makes this promise even more exciting. We read of threats of nuclear exchanges between the United States and various rogue nations, which threaten the continuity of our species. Just days ago, I saw a science article about the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park. It was once thought that this vast caldera couldn't blow for many thousands of years, but recently studies reveal that we could be decades from such an event which would destroy not only Yogi and Booboo, but all of humanity in an ash induced ice age. How can we sleep at night with these headlines screaming 'Doom!' at us? Well, by thinking of Noach and the deal he worked with the Creator of our world. Our species is assured of continued existence through the perseverance and righteousness of one man. Let's not forget him.
In the musaf service of Rosh Hashana every year we recite that 'God remembered Noach in love, and recalled him in words of salvation and mercy'. There was 'mercy' for future generations, deserving or not, but there was 'salvation' for him because he personally deserved to be saved. Noach earned mankind a reprieve, and eternal stay of punishment. Yet, he is never listed in the pantheon of spiritual giants. None of our customs commemorate his deeds and virtue. It's for this reason that I refer to him as 'The Forgotten Man'. Maybe periodically it behooves us to give him his due. Especially, in times of crisis.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Monday, October 9, 2017
ON BEING HUMAN
Rabbi David Walk
Breishit is probably the most controversial Torah reading of the year. And that's saying a lot. The debates about the age of the universe and God's authorship of it are endless, and, in my opinion, fruitless. Just like I wouldn't go to Arno Penzias (Look him up! I met him and he's very nice.) to find out about mitzvoth or morality; I wouldn't go to Reb Chaim Kanievsky to ask about cosmology. They're just different realms, with different experts. But there is a provocative issue in this week's parsha, and that is the status of humanity. Who are we? What is special about Homo Sapiens? The wise and witty have been asking these questions since the dawn of time. Being human is to be: 'imperfect' (George Orwell), 'challenged' (Victor Frankl), 'productive' (Malcom Gladwell), 'kind' (Ashwin Sandhi), 'good' (Aristotle), 'ambivalent' (Erica Jong), 'curious' (Sally Ride). But my favorite quote of this type was, 'Obviously, the idea of being human is a very human idea,' by Dominic Monaghan (Merry from Lord of the Rings). In other words, we are introspective. Per Star Trek, we are self-aware. I could go on, thanks to Google, but I'd like to present the Torah's answer, as I believe it appears in this week's parsha.
There are a few verses which appear to define our humanity, like 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky (Genesis 1:26)' or 'God took and placed the human in the Garden of Eden to work and guard it (2:15).' Both of those verses would suggest that we're in charge down here. But for my money the critical verse is: God formed the human of dust from the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the soul of life, and the human became a living soul (2:7). There are some very famous comments to describe what's unique about humanity in this verse. Onkelos, that authoritative translator into Aramaic, claims that the spirit breathed into humanity is ruach m'malila, the ability to speak. James Earl Jones, a pretty good speaker in his own right, claims that speech is the most important aspect of being human, and added, 'A whisper doesn't cut it.'
Rashi is intrigued by the doubling of the letter yod in the word for 'formed', and comments: Humanity has two formations, one for this world and one for the world to come. In other words, what makes us special is our potential for immortality. Others have added that the double formation means that we have both a good and bad yetzer. Unlike any other creation we have the ability to choose evil. And Rashi also brings a well-known Midrash (Genesis Raba 14:8) that the dust that was gathered to make mankind was taken from the four corners of the globe, and then actually formed on the Temple Mount. We are special because we are of the entire planet; we can live anywhere and have dominion everywhere. Rashi then adds the alternative explanation that the dust came from under the Altar, because only we can truly worship God. Our special nature comes from our building material.
So, what is the big deal? The answer that I subscribe to can be stated quite simply, but its ramifications are enormous and the ways of understanding it are complex. Here's the skinny: Humans, and only humans, exist on two planes. We are both of this physical realm and separate from it. Humans are both afar min ha'adama (dust of the earth) and nishmat chayim (soul of life) from God. There's an argument between the rationalists (the Maimonides team) and the mystics (the Nachmanides team) whether this 'soul' was created at that point or was a chelek mei Eloka (a piece of the Divine), but that's a topic for another time. Bottom line, we live a dual existence. We are both a natural part of this world, and, simultaneously, a world apart.
However, there's a fascinating argument about this duality. Rabbi Soloveitchik observed that the Torah views 'human beings as a unified harmonious being, body and soul, and the body becomes as sacred as the soul, and the human, Jewish, bold thrust to our hallowing and sanctifying the body...has precipitated our optimistic philosophy of man, not only as a spiritual personality, but as a natural being (The Rav Thinking Aloud-Breishit, page 39). For the Rav, the two parts of the human being are totally compatible. The Torah and mitzvot are designed to enhance the symbiosis between the two components.
That other great twentieth century luminary of Torah, Rav Kook, sees things differently. He wrote: physicality in its influence contradicts the spreading out of spirituality—and so, 'it is fitting that the righteous break their bones for the sake of the honor of God...the essence of the disturbance of how physicality disturbs spirituality does not come from the strength of the body...but the essence of the matter depends on the conceptual connection with the physicality; so spirituality will not harm the essence of practical knowledge of the world and life and all paths of utilizing them (Orot Hakodesh I, p. 65-66).' Even though, Rav Kook was very concerned for one's physical well-being, he believed that there is a conflict between the body and the soul.
Who's right? I don't know. Every morning I say the blessing Elokai neshama (O God, Who granted me a pure soul), and in it we beseech God to 'guard this soul which resides within me'. Some days I believe that God should guard this alien entity, my soul, from the attacks of the physical realm all around me. Other times, I think that God should guard the fragile balance and synthesis between my complementary parts. I'd like to feel my body is an ally, like the Rav, but often I sense a sinister presence emanating from my body's desires, like Rav Kook. Perhaps, it's best to alternate positions to both feed the beast and nourish the soul. Maybe discerning both is what makes us human.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Monday, October 2, 2017
TIME FOR THANKSGIVING
Rabbi David Walk
At last I get to really enjoy Yom Tov in Israel. I haven't been in Israel for Chag in over 16 years. But that wasn't my point. I meant that my first holidays since returning home were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and those aren't much different from the Old Country. Rosh Hashanah is two long days here, too. And, even though one could sleep on most roadways in Israel on Yom Kippur (Please, don't try it.), we still spend most of our day in shul. But here comes Sukkot, with perfect weather, trips everywhere, a whole country on holiday and loads of grandchildren. I have so much to be thankful for, and that's only appropriate, because this is our season of thanksgiving. I know that in our prayers we refer to Sukkot as Z'man Simchateinu (Season of Joy), but I'll discuss how it's really about thanksgiving. There's an idea in Kabala that one day all of Israel will sit in the same Sukkah, and here in Israel, as everyone is celebrating, it just seems possible. But what is the underlying principle of the joy and thanksgiving? Don Quixote said, 'Come, enter my imagination'; I'll say, 'Come, enter my Sukkah, to find out.'
Sukkot is the culmination of the year. I know we're used to thinking of Tishre as the beginning of the year, because of the Jewish calendars on our walls. However, the Torah numbers the months from what we have called Nisan for the last 2500 years. Moreover, our ancestors were all farmers, and their year went from spring planting (Pesach) until harvest (Sukkot). There is also a thematic climax achieved at Sukkot as the concluding festival of the three Tishre festivals, therefore the Torah always lists Sukkot last. Our holidays have a dual nature. There is, of course, the aforementioned agricultural significance. But there are historical themes as well. Pesach recounts the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot retells the epiphany at Mt. Sinai, while Sukkot, somehow, continues the story, with ancestors crossing the trackless wilderness and preparing to enter the Promised Land. Doesn't it seem that the two themes of Sukkot contradict each other? Agriculturally, we celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle; historically we commemorate the preparation for a new beginning. Can they be reconciled? Duh, if not would I be writing this?
Rav Yoel bin Nun on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon web site (http://etzion.org.il/en/%E2%80%9Cfestival-sukkot%E2%80%9D-and-%E2%80%9Cfestival-ingathering) makes an interesting observation that there are really two holidays beginning on the fifteenth of Tishre. One is called Chag Ha'Sukkot and the other is called Chag Ha'asif (Festival of the Ingathering). This duality could help us demystify our problem. Agriculturally, we are commemorating a conclusion, but historically we can't because the Jews of the exodus didn't enter Israel and finish the job. So, the job is very much still in progress. Mystically, it's said that if that generation had gone into Israel, they would have achieved the geula shleima (the complete redemption). Perhaps, that's why we read the haftorah from Zechariah which describes the final redemption, which it appears will happen on Sukkot. We 're sort of celebrating a future event. But I believe that there's something else going on, and Hallel is the place to find the clues to what it is.
When we look at Hallel, we notice that it neatly divides into two parts. The first section (Psalms 113-117) are really about hallel or praise. This word in various forms gets repeated more times than I had the patience to count. While the second section (Psalm 118) switches to hodu or thanks. No more hallel. This repetitive theme of 'thanks' must be referring to Sukkot. And, if we look closer at the first section, I believe, that we discover it also has two parts. Psalms 113 and 114 clearly are talking about leaving Egypt on Pesach, but Psalms 115-117 are discussing our rejection of idolatry and our permanent relationship with God. I think that's about Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai. Even the verses in the first half of Psalm 116 (which are skipped when we recite the shortened Hallel), may refer to a mystical idea about Shavuot. They talk about rescue from death. Many esoteric sources describe how the Jews died and were resuscitated during the revelation, and the verses themselves relate how afraid of dying the Jews were during the event. So, now we must analyze Psalm 118, and see what it can teach us about Sukkot.
Initially, King David is telling us how we emerged from our fear of human enemies, because of God's protection, as the Jews of the desert did. But then we encounter a new theme. God gives us strength. Our hands are mighty because of God's support. Human logic saw defeat, but with God's support the rejected building stone became the keystone for a magnificent edifice. Unlike the Psalms 113-117, God isn't acting alone on our behalf. We sense that our successes are through God's blessing for our actions. We come to the House of God as partners in history. A more complete joy is discovered when our efforts are crowned with success. Sort of like a farmer, when his hard work pays off in a bounteous harvest. We're aware of the danger in saying, 'My strength and power of my hands accomplished all this (Deuteronomy 8:17)', but at this moment, we bask in the partnership with God. And that's the profound simcha which combines with thanksgiving on Sukkot.
Again, enter the fragile world of the sukka, representing the frailty of this world. Now, we see how the joy and the process mesh. And the critical word is hoshana. When Hevel son of Adam brought a sacrifice, God sha'a (turned) to it (Genesis 4:4). God accepted Hevel's attempt at intimacy, because it was sincere. That's the yeshua we celebrate on Sukkot, and we long for the true yeshua (Salvation, redemption), a synthesis of human effort and Divine blessing, and that's the prayer of Sukot: Ana Hashem Hoshia Na, Please, God bring that partnership salvation, please. Chag Sameach!!
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
TWO ROADS DIVERGED
Rabbi David Walk
Okay, gentle reader, you know that I'm stealing from Robert Frost. I could have plagiarized Yogi and began with, 'If you come to a fork in the road, pick it up!' But I thought I'd display a bit more class. In any case, the metaphor of a crossroads is a powerful one. And I think that it is especially poignant on Yom Kippur. We all want a successful Yom Kippur, but what exactly does an effective Yom Kippur look like? I could give some obvious answers, like spiritual prayer, tearful confession or saying every word (fat chance of that one). However, this year, I'd like to emphasize another approach. Let's make Yom Kippur less about the past and more about the future. All those confessions, let's view them as rejected possibilities for next year. We should challenge ourselves to view any point in time as a potential crucial turning point in my life. I'd like to make my motto for this year a quote from Avraham Joshua Heschel: In every moment something sacred is at stake.
Yom Kippur is, to a great extent, an exercise in noticing that life, indeed, is eternally presenting us with two major options. Let's call this 'The 2 Goat Scenario'. The central service of Yom Kippur in our Holy Temple was the selecting of the two identical goats, one of which was offered as a sacrifice on the altar and the other was sent out to the cruel and uncharted wilderness to be unceremoniously hurled from a cliff. Everyone's ultimate disposition is either within the confines of our consecrated people and tradition, or out there somewhere in terra incognito. We are strongly recommending the inside our national destiny option, more on why later. How do we accomplish this goal?
This question is not unique to Judaism. And I'd like to begin the discussion with a semi-outside source. One of today's major advocates for healthy choices is Gretchen Rubin. She's written a number of books, has appeared in lot of Youtubes and has an informative blog. In her book Better than Before, she wrote about her appreciation of New Year resolutions. More importantly she wrote about how to keep them. First of all, make sure that the choices outlined in the resolution are specific. Don't resolve to be 'good'. How do you check that one? She suggests instead of a resolution to 'eat healthfully' choose something concrete like 'stop eating fast food' or 'eat breakfast'. Maybe resolve to say Shema before sleep, rather than generally declaring that I want to daven more. Step two, check your progress. Keep some sort of chart to track your resolve at your resolution. This is in keeping with Benjamin Franklin and in his wake Reb Yisroel Salanter. And one more step in this process, have an outside monitor. Confide in a friend or mate, that will strengthen your resolve, or, better yet, have a partner in your resolution endeavor.
Here's another extremely important factor, don't allow slips to derail the process. This brings us to the famous aphorism made famous by Voltaire (whom we generally don't like): Perfect is the enemy of good (or, in the original, le mieux est l'ennemi du bien). It's the yetzer hara (evil inclination) telling you give up the endeavor if you mess up once. As we read last Shabbat, only God is perfect, ha'tzur tamim (Deuteronomy 32:4). For us, when the term tamim is used we translate it as 'innocent', not perfect. As psychologist Alex Lickerman said, we must learn 'how to leverage our desire for perfection to impel us toward quality without becoming trapped in a miasma of permanent dissatisfaction with everything we create.' In a slightly different area, that famous expert on beauty, Marylin Monroe, once said, 'Imperfection is beauty.'
This obsession with choosing is a major theme in the book of Deuteronomy. Starting in chapter eleven we are told, 'Pay attention to the fact that I set before you everyday a blessing and a curse (verse 26, Common English Bible translation).' And just two weeks ago this concept stood center stage when Moshe told our ancestors, Today I ask heaven and earth to be witnesses. I am offering you life or death, blessings or curses. Now, choose life! Then you and your children may live (30:26). Whoa! Here's a new ingredient. The choice that I make doesn't just affect me, but my progeny after me. In other words, when I choose a path it's ripples play out infinitely. The future of our people depends on the choices we make today.
But here's the rub. There are two dangers. One became popular during the Obama era, and is called false choices (also called black and white thinking). This phenomenon sets up choices as either/or decisions which falsely eliminates moderate options; example, I must choose between altruism and self-interest. No, you don't. The two can mesh. And, here's the other hazard: owning our choices. Often, we'll say. 'Oh, I don't have time to … (fill in the blank with learn, play with my kids, spend time with spouse).' Here's what we've done. We've claimed that the issue is out of our hands, because there aren't enough hours in the day. That's not true. We're really saying that the activity is not a priority. We always make time for the things which are important enough to us. For any progress in our effort to improve, we must acknowledge that what we, and, yes, who we are is a result of the choices we make.
When we stand before God on Yom Kippur, it's critical that we envision the crossroads. We must resolve to choose wisely between all the options laid out in our lives. Choose sincerity, commitment, life. If we don't feel the urgency on Yom Kippur, will we ever?
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