The Eliezer Prize

Last week, Jews around the world read about Eliezer, but I am not through with him yet. I have a fondness for this sacred servant, whose single task of finding Rebekah secures the Jewish future. As Sforno remarks, “When one generation dies, another has already been set in place to succeed it.” To “succeed” means both “to achieve or to accomplish” and “to take the place of those who came before us.” The proper measure of both, succession and success, is transgenerational, and Eliezer stands for continuity.

The midrash couples Eliezer with Sarah too, not just Abraham, because Rebekah is Sarah’s successor as much as she is Isaac’s wife. Sarah introduced the ideal of opening her tent doors to strangers, for instance. When she died, says the midrash, the doors swung shut, until Rebekah opened them again, making hospitality a lasting family tradition. The point is, even the greatest life can be eclipsed overnight, if all that was great about it is not lavishly extended in the next generation. Success dies without succession.

Eliezer is described as ne’eman, “faithful,” a quality the Rabbis link with God, ha’el hane’eman, as we say in the blessing over the Haftarah, “the faithful God”; or, El melekh ne’eman (“God, faithful ruler”), in the phrase that introduces the private recitation of the Sh’ma. Ne’emanut, “faithfulness” is God’s quality of remaining true to a promise or task through time. Eliezer too knows that his service transcends just this single charge from his master Abraham; it reverberates over the long haul, serving the larger Jewish project that Abraham has begun.

God too works across the generations, directing human destiny along a road that no single generation can traverse all by itself. Sarah is gone, but history provides Rebekah; and Eliezer, a hero of no particular proportion, is charged with the small but vital mission of helping history happen.

Ne’emanut (“faithfulness” over time) describes the implicit Jewish insistence that we count in the long run, because we are part of a long run in which to count. Despair is the fear that we are random cogs in a purposeless machine of eternity, rather than incognito Eliezers whose tiny acts of faithfulness are the hand of God in history.

We need, then, to overcome the self-centered pretense that it is a single person’s life span alone that counts. We are all links in a divine chain of being, without even knowing the identity of all the other links. They may be our parents or children, but they may equally be people we have never met or heard of, but who occupy our tent the way Rebekah occupied Sarah’s.

Every year about now, the names of Nobel Prize recipients are announced: for chemistry, literature, and so forth. And I wonder…

What if we could add a Jewish Nobel Prize? What would it be? Prizes for peace or medicine are obvious candidates, but they already exist. How about prizes for justice and compassion? Yes, they would be proper Jewish categories: one for each of God’s primary attributes, celebrating the achievements of men and women who best emulate God.

But the story of Eliezer suggests another one: a prize for ne’emanut, for faithfulness in the larger scheme we call history. My Jewish prize for ne’emanut would go to people who best epitomize God’s faithful commitment to a future that transcends individual lives.

I might even call it the Eliezer Prize and award it to us all. For we may not all be Abrahams, Sarahs, Rebekahs and Isaacs. But we are all Eliezers, charged with tiny chores that matter in a longer run than we will ever know. We can be faithful as God is faithful, day in and day out, but precisely on that account, we can guarantee succession for all that matters, and success in the end for the causes we hold dearest.

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

The story of Noah reminds us of how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water; and how easy it is to slip back once again to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Subhuman-like, it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its own primeval origins.

Critics who demand that the narrative of the flood be literally true miss the point. The Bible captures eternal truths less through history than through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme (still a whole book away) there is Sinai, the symbolic pinnacle of our moral climb upward. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster; and in between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman: mostly moral, but hardly a saint; and precariously afloat in an ark, just a fraction short of going under.

Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb from mud to mountain peak, and millions of years of steady evolution count for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (in Hebrew, a yonah) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down; they herald hope beyond the visible horizon; they remind us, the ordinary Noahs of the world, that we need not sink back into the sea.

The same symbolism recurs later in a human being, the prophet Yonah — Jonah, in English.

Jonah is Noah revisited. He too inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfil his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea whence humankind first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting that he fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category, not just an anthropological one. If we lose our moral center we lose being human.

Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man are metaphors also, the Rabbis say, for Israel, who is charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. The case of the prophet is explicit: when the sailors ask after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anokhi, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). As for Noah’s dove, the Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in Song of Songs, they say, is Israel, waiting in the rocks of the mountains to hear God’s voice: mountains, mind you, the metaphoric moral peak that humans who have evolved from the slime must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel in metaphoric form, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and that life persists beyond it.

Jews divide the Bible into three constituent sections: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). All three units remind us of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and the Song of Songs comes from the Writings. Once upon a time, the Jewish People left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched high in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah the prophet) we evade our charge, and relapse into the primal waters where we began. But sometimes too, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day.

 

 

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

Blame it on Coffee

 

Serious coffee drinkers know that coffee preceded Starbucks. Arthur Godfrey sold it on black-and-white TV in the 1950s, and they say that it was first discovered in 9th-century Ethiopia. By the 16th century, it had reached Jews in Israel, where it helped revolutionize Judaism.

Prior to coffee, people went to bed early. Once they became wired on coffee, however, they stayed up late, a challenge that led kabbalists to invent nighttime rituals, like midnight prayers. To this day, Jews gather on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah for S’lichot. Traditionally, the service is held at midnight. And yes, I kid you not: it is the result of coffee!

At least the midnight placement of that service is. The idea of such a preparatory penitential service came earlier, but it was held at sunup Sunday morning. Under the impact of coffee, it was moved to midnight the night before.

Looking back, we can see what happened: once nighttime hours were discovered as something to enjoy – not just something to sleep through — Jews learned to outfit them with spiritual potential.

Such spiritual and moral lessons mark other cultural breakthroughs as well. Martin Buber popularizes the account of the Hasidic rebbe who learned from the telegraph that every word is counted and charged; and from the telephone, that what is said here can be heard there.

So I wonder: what might we learn from technology today? Here’s my short list to take into S’lichot this Saturday night.

From e-communication advances like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, I learn that we human being are all connected, one to another. Way back in the 6th century BCE, (Babylonian exile) our biblical ancestors concluded that all human beings are children of one God. “Why does the Torah provide the story of Adam and Eve?” the Rabbis asked. Answer: to teach us that all humanity is descended from a single set of parents.

From Twitter, I learn that in hardly any words at all, it is possible to bring great joy, but also enormous hurt. I love the way our most central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, opens with, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise”; and the way it concludes: “My God, keep my mouth from speaking evil and my lips from spouting deceit.” Like God at the moment of creation, we too bring whole worlds into being by what we say. Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty, harmony and promise; or pollute us all in a haze of violence, filth and despair.

From the icloud, by which I save pretty much everything I ever write, think or record, I conclude that what we say and how we act do not so quickly disappear into oblivion. Generations after us will draw on the moral foundation that we leave behind. When Marc Antony eulogized Julius Caesar, he thought, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Rabbis, by contrast, believed it is the good that naturally remains behind. The very name of those we memorialize can be a blessing — according to the Yerushalmi, because, “The words of the wise are an everlasting memorial.”  Long before computers, Judaism directed us to preserve our people’s wisdom as a legacy for tomorrow.

These are not new lessons to Judaism, actually.

  • Rosh Hashanah was already the most universalist of holy days: a time to celebrate God’s rule over a marvelously diverse yet interconnected human family.
  • We human beings are uniquely “creatures of speech,” the Rabbis say, who can use our gift of speaking to fashion a world rich with promise.
  • Throughout the days of awe, especially, we are urged to leave our own personal legacy of lessons that will be a blessing.

From S’lichot  warmup to the end of the Yom Kippur, we get time to marvel at the way old lessons become truer over time; and how they call us to make life matter.

 

 

The Inevitability of “Alone”

“Do you have what it takes to survive by yourself in the wild?” So goes the come-on for the hit reality show, Alone, where “hard core survivalists” spend a year in the wilderness – all alone.

Judaism’s spiritual parallel is Yom Kippur. Not exactly “the wild” or “wilderness,” and only for a day, but despite the Kol Nidre crowd, it’s all about being alone with just yourself; and even (to trust the liturgy) surviving. Are you capable of spending even a day alone confronting everything you’d rather not admit: how fast you’re aging, what you have amounted to so far; and whether you have it in you to change. Preparation for Yom Kippur began this week with the reading that introduces the penitential month of Elul: “See,” it proclaims, “I set before you blessing and curse.” Though addressed to all of Israel, the verb “See” is in the singular, leading commentators to explain, “Spoken to each and every person, singly”– as if alone.

The shofar is blown daily during Elul, just a single lonely blast, quick and piercing to the individual soul – because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone: No one else can hear it for us.

And no one can confess for us on Yom Kippur. Though our confession sounds communal (“For the sin which we have sinned…”) the Rabbis instruct us to confess in our own words as well.

Jews are not good at being alone. We like talk, not quiet. Even the so-called “silent” prayer (the Amidah) is noisy. We like to hear each other, to know we’re not alone.

But we are.

Daily moments of aloneness arrive with choices of conscience, decisions no one knows about except ourselves. They wink at us each morning from the bathroom mirror, reminding us of who we really are, before we dress up to look our best. They hammer on our consciousness when we are sick, depressed, or weary – when people say, “I know how you feel,” but we know they don’t.

If we are lucky, we will get time to age: another case of being alone, this time in progressive disengagement from responsibilities and schedules; from assistants and associates who once answered beeps and sent us daily emails; and eventually, as loss of memory and mental competence sets in, from friends and family too.

Final aloneness arrives with death, “the stoppage of circulation, the inadequate transport of oxygen to tissues, the flickering out of brain function, the failure of organs, the destruction of vital centers” (says medical expert Sherwin B. Nuland in How We Die). Others watch; even hold our hand; but we alone must face the awful fact of being, really, “here today” but “gone tomorrow.”      Our model for aloneness is Moses himself, as human a character as ever lived. Moses leads as we wish we could, but errs as we know we do. He loses his temper (kills the taskmaster); suffers self-doubt (needs Aaron as his spokesman); is not your ideal parent or family man.

But he knows what it is to be alone. As a solitary desert shepherd, he sees the burning bush. Alone atop the mountain, he receives the Torah. And alone again, atop another mountain, he will die.

Or Hachayyim thinks Moses himself is saying “see,” instructing us the way God instructed him: in lonely solitude. “We all inherit a spark from Moses,” says the Zohar: the spark of knowing how to be alone.

But the spark needs fanning – for which we have Elul: to try each day to disengage, at least a tiny bit, from the din of daily wear and tear; to reflect each day on who we are and who we want to be. To arrive at Yom Kippur, prepared to be alone, as if it were the day of death itself. Do that, and it won’t be so bad even on the day we really die. Like anything else, dying too needs practice. And it’s never too soon to start.

Whose Words Are These?

“These are the words” (eleh d’varim). So starts this week’s Torah reading and the entire book Deuteronomy, which it introduces. But whose words are they, God’s or Moses’s? Many of our finest commentators suspect the latter, wondering, as a consequence, whether Deuteronomy is even God-given altogether. To be sure, says Abravanel (1437-1508), “There is no book in all of holy writ that Moses wrote all by himself,” but still, he opines, it does seem that “’These words’ are the words of our master Moses” albeit intended as explanations of commandments given by God elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) goes further, however, by (famously!) pointing to passages Moses could not have written, like the verses at the end of Deuteronomy that presuppose Moses’s death, and had to have been composed by someone else (probably Joshua, Ibn Ezra concludes). We look back on Ibn Ezra as pioneering early “biblical criticism” – a scientific approach that sees Torah not as a singular revelation given word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but a brilliantly edited set of documents that evolved over the course of centuries, culminating in a final version after the return from Babylonian exile.

So whose words are they — the words of Torah, I mean: all the words, not just those of Deuteronomy? If the scientific study is correct, they are the words of human writers over time.

Jews properly differ on the matter. Abravanel devotes a lengthy discussion to the issue and concludes, “This holy book [Deuteronomy] in its entirety and all its parts came directly from God who commanded it be written down word for word just like the rest of Torah.” The Malbim (1809-1879) is even clearer: “It was all written by God. On his own accord, Moses wrote nothing, not even the tiniest dot.”

Most Jews today side with Ibn Ezra – and with science – but maintain that the text remains sacred, no matter how it came into being. Attributing it all to God, they say, is troubling theologically, not just stylistically. If God indeed wrote every word, then every word must be correct; yet God appears sometimes as vengeful, cruel, and the author of some laws that boggle the modern mind (like “an eye for an eye” [Exodus 21:24] and stoning the rebellious child [Deut. 21:18-21]).

And not just the modern mind: the Talmud itself denied the literal validity of such things, “correcting them” with the notion of an oral law that successive generations of Torah scholars are said to intuit and then use to interpret the “real” meaning of the written text.

Modern scholarship can be seen as an extension of this rabbinic principle: revelation should be reimagined as ongoing throughout time.

What unites both sides of the debate is the assumption that divine truth comes from the study of Torah, no matter how it came about. Jews gather for Torah study, the way other faiths meet to meditate or pray. We start meetings with a d’var torah (“a word of Torah”), the way others cite the tales of Jesus, a statement from the Quran, or the American Constitution. What would a Jewish newspaper be without a column on “the portion of the week”?

Christianity left Judaism not when it proclaimed its faith in Jesus as a messiah – Jews have had many “messianists” over time without their becoming separate religions. Christianity left when it stopped reading Torah as the primary source of wisdom and began instead to read the Gospel portraits of Jesus as its tale worth telling and interpreting for all time.

It really doesn’t matter whether God gave us Deuteronomy through Moses on Mt. Sinai, whether Moses made it up himself, or whether God spoke somehow through the evolution of time to our many ancestors, who, in turn, put the Torah together. What matters is that however it happened, we somehow got it, made it our own, cherished and still cherish it, as the story of who we are and the model for how God wants us still to be.

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows