Category Archives: parashat hashavua

The Shape of Time

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars – things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days – and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because
“Time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible – funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: a changeable time of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading) and a plethora of days that come colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. the others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward to lead to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred; and reminds us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day, that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with a Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar. New moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. And all Jews there thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh Hashanah, but Rosh Hashanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh Hashanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh Hashanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the awful month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

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.

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

Having and Getting: They’re Not the Same

 

Once again, we reach the familiar story of the spies (or scouts) dispatched to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. Ten of its twelve members return with the devastating news that it is unconquerable; it is fruitless to go on. The two holdouts, Joshua and Caleb, demur. The land can be ours, they insist; don’t give up.

This is more than a case of a glass half full or half empty, the pessimists seeing problems and the optimists opportunity. Our commentators say it touches the heart of being human: the difference between a scout and a spy.

Elsewhere (Deut. 1:24), the reconnaissance party is recalled as “spying out” the land (vay’raglu); but as we see here, they were sent just latur – to “scout” it. Scouting and spying, says the Malbim, are dispositions of character, akin to “having” and “getting.”

When faced with something we might want, he says, we become “scouts,” simply checking out whether we really want to have it. If we decide we want it, we convert “scouting” into “spying,” the attitude of figuring out how to get it. Scouts look for positives: the reasons we might want it.  Spies ferret out negatives: the contextual flaws that may suggest a strategy by which to get it. As scouts, the biblical explorers saw a land flowing with milk and honey. As spies, they sought out Canaanite weaknesses – and finding none, they gave up hope of success. They were good scouts but bad spies. They properly saw the land as good “to have,” but could find no way “to get” it.

They weren’t supposed to be spies, however. How to “get” the land was God’s problem, not theirs. Their mission was simply to be scouts, to ramp up excitement at having a land of their own rather than being slaves in someone else’s land or wandering endlessly through the no-man’s land that is the desert. The Torah values scouting over spying. Politically or militarily speaking, the tactics of “getting” something do matter; but what counts is whether we want to “have” it in the first place.

American society today has forgotten that distinction. We are so enamored with “getting” that we spend our time figuring out how to get what we do not even want to “have.”

Take our obsession with shopping, for example — not shopping as a means of finding the best thing to have but shopping just to get what we do not need and will never use even if we get it.

Or, better, consider the difference between getting a job and having it. We equate success with constantly climbing the corporate ladder. Managers should aspire to become vice presidents, who, in turn, should dream of being president. But getting the job of president isn’t the same as having it. In 1969, author Laurence J. Peter gave us “The Peter Principle,” according to which, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence until every post is occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” The actual work is accomplished by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

That is bad for organizations, and worse for the people in them, those who get the jobs they wanted to get, but never really wanted to have. The Israelites wanted to have the land but mistakenly thought they couldn’t get it. Our society encourages us to get whatever job we can, even if we will not want to have it after we get it.

Life should be about having, not getting. At some point we ought to appreciate what we have, and, maybe, want to have even more, but our obsession with getting beyond what we can appreciate having is a sickness. Scouting out life’s opportunities is natural and healthy. Spying out the way to get everything in sight is a derangement well worth avoiding.

 

Having Children – Or Not

“I don’t know much about Judaism, Rabbi, but I know it shouldn’t needlessly hurt people.” So says a man to me many years ago. His words still haunt me.

He and his wife had been together for twenty years, but never had children. People treated them like Jewish failures.

Not having children is a personal matter — not something lightly launched as lunchtime conversation. So people attacked for childlessness just grin and bear it.

Some want children but cannot conceive or give birth, no matter what they do. Initial sadness becomes outright depression and despair, but social niceties prohibit frank disclosure, so they suffer silently lest the grief of infertility be aggravated by the stigma of infelicity.

Adoption is an option but not for the fainthearted. It is hard to conquer the fear that there is something wrong with you, and the adoption process is complicated, lengthy, uncertain, and expensive.

Then there are increasing numbers of people who decide not to have children — for many reasons which, again, are not the kind of thing you talk about when people give you glances suggesting you are not fully Jewish on that account.

Yes, having children is a mitzvah — usually. The Talmud argues that God created the world “to be inhabited,” so Jews should do their part to fill the world with inhabitants. But life is more complicated than any single rule about it. Especially when it comes to having children, individuals have to apply Talmudic calculus personally and, sometimes, painfully.

Case: a woman suffers from chronic depression. She wonders about becoming a mother.

Case: a man is sure he will make a bad parent. His wife concedes he is right, fears taking on sole parental responsibility herself, and suspects that having a child will destroy the marriage and the child as well.

Case: a couple decides that children are not right for them. They are good people who make a point of serving the world in other ways.

The judgmentalism encountered by childlessness can be devastating. “I put on armor, says one Jewish woman, “just to steel myself against what people are thinking.” Another says, “I was relieved to pass my childbearing years, so that I would no longer have to go through the agonizing feeling every day that I ought to ‘rectify’ what I knew was the right decision.”

Exacerbating this latent judgmentalism are the subtle institutional announcements that children are the only ones who matter. Synagogue budgets go overwhelmingly for religious schools and “tot-shabbats.” We send teenagers to Israel, but not ourselves. We favor kiddie-holidays like Chanukah; and dilute Seders to the Four Questions. Official programs and grants support Jewish parents; but not Jewish adults with no children to be Jewish for. Are Jewish homes just for Jewish kids, who grow up just to make Jewish homes for their own kids, and so on, and so on, and so on?

Fortunately, the synagogue reading this week offers a corrective. It announces, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses,” but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say (San 19b), “Aaron’s sons are reckoned as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah. From this we learn that if you teach other people’s children Torah, it is as if you had borne them yourself.” Maimonides writes, “If you teach people a single thing that raises their level of understanding, it is as if you bore them. That is why Scripture calls the disciples of prophets `sons of prophets.'”

People who want children should have them if they can and if it is the right thing to do. But many can’t; many shouldn’t; many don’t. People who can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t are not on that account second-class Jews.

Going childless is hard enough in a society where everyone is “supposed” to have them. We should be careful not to make it harder still, because Judaism shouldn’t needlessly hurt people, should it?

 

 

In Praise of “Ordinary”

Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why even bother with Isaac?

Teacher: Maybe just because he existed. As the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.

Student: But the Torah frequently leaves things out. Last week’s sedra, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that this week’s reading begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.

Teacher: Come now, who could forget Isaac? What about the akedah [the binding of Isaac]? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?

Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the akedah.

Teacher: Maybe recollecting the akedah was just too painful. Why dwell overly much on trauma? Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.

Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashanah remembering the akedah. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashanah reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” I want to know why.

Teacher: The Rabbis asked that very question – so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.

Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.

Teacher: Nothing?

Student: No. Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant”; and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today whose business prospers and who moves to a fancy uptown address.

Teacher: You call that nothing?

Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob? Of course that’s nothing. Abraham and Jacob are monumentally heroic characters. Abraham intercedes to save a whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business or moving to a new neighborhood?

Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The akedah teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.

Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he himself could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing Sarah laugh in desperation at the unlikelihood of giving birth in old age, Abraham is of no help at all. He laughs too; and he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf, or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.

Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.

Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.