Tag Archives: spirituality

Parashat K’doshim: Individual and Societal Holiness

“Holiness,” says Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879, Russia), “is separating ourselves from materiality,and elevating ourselves to spiritual and divine concerns that transcend matters of the flesh.” By that standard, this week’s commandment to “be holy” seems an impossible task. So Malbim modifies his stand: “There are various degrees of the holy,” he concludes, ranging from curbing our appetite for forbidden pleasures to becoming immune to sensory pleasures altogether. But even so, one wonders: is total asceticism the ideal?

Jewish tradition does know isolated instances of ascetic behavior, but total self-abnegation seems foreign to Jews. So Malbim has a much grander message in mind, as we see from his following comment, an analogy between individuals and the world they inhabit.

He calls the individual and society, respectively, the “small world” and the “large world” of God’s creation (what we would call “microcosm” and “macrocosm”). They mirror each other, he maintains, in that they are both composed of body, mind, and soul. The purpose of controlling one’s individual urges is not to become an ascetic, but to effect a parallel change in the “large world,” the social order in which we dwell.

The three domains of body, mind, and soul, he thinks, constitute a sort of zero-sum game – diminish one, and the other two expand to fill the vacuum. So when individuals shrink their material appetites, the realms of mind and spirit automatically get bigger. Since microcosm and macrocosm are interdependent, contracting our personal appetite for physical pleasures produces a parallel contraction throughout society as a whole. As individuals become more mind and soul centered, so too does society.

From a scientific point of view, there is much wrong with this analysis. In Malbim’s understanding, the connection between individual and society is automatic – a kind of metaphysical law built into the universal order of things. But take away the metaphysics, and Malbim is on to something. As every social psychologist knows, individual and society are indeed mutually interdependent; if cultures are materialistic, their citizens are equally so, and vice versa. We take our individual cues from the culture in which we are raised.

But individuals are not, on that account, mere lemmings destined to follow their cultural ideals into the sea, if need be. We hold people morally responsible for resisting cultural norms that go astray: we believe in the individual’s right to protest; we think cultures should be called to account by individuals who believe their society has taken them too far.

Malbim is not arguing for selfless asceticism, therefore. His target is materialism so rampant that it crushes the other two realms of mind and spirit. What makes us distinctively human, he contends, is not our bodily appetites, after all – since other species share them with us; it is our mental and spiritual capacities that give us the right to the label “human.” When the “large world” of society becomes overly materialistic, only “the small world” of individuals can right the balance.

The commandment to be holy is thus no call for otherworldly monasticism. It is the commitment to cultivate mind and spirit. By mind, we mean a life of learning and of thoughtfulness. By spirit, we mean the values we associate with God, who is, after all, the ultimate standard of holiness: such things as compassion and kindness; justice and nobility.

Although he wrote well over a century ago, Malbim’s analysis could well have been an op ed column in today’s newspaper. Our American culture is indeed materially driven to the point of eclipsing the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or goodness as an end in itself. The command “to be holy” is not a call to renounce all sensual pleasure. It is a request to balance it with the higher virtues of mind and spirit – starting with the “small world” of each and every person, the only way for the “large world,” the social order itself, to change.

 

Advertisements

Parashat Tzav: Middle Age

Israeli writer Amos Oz was taken with the famous introductory sentence to Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the straight road ….” Oz loved the first four words, “Midway in life’s journey,” because, he says, that is when so many stories actually begin: in the middle years of life, that is, what we call “middle-age,” a time for building families and careers, independence at its finest.

It is also, however, a time of life we dread. Partly, we fear the loss of dying youth, with old age increasingly coming into view. Partly too, our middle-age years are not all tales of vigor, self-indulgence, and success. They are equally the need to care for others, while no one cares for us. Our parents begin to age and need us more and more; simultaneously, the dependency period of our children seems to stretch out longer and longer, so that we constantly care for them. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

The sandwich generation brings to mind the middle, or “sandwich,” book of Torah, Leviticus. Map the Torah cycle onto the life cycle, and Leviticus becomes our middle-age, the afternoon of our lives, no longer the morning of our youth, but not yet the evening of old age.

The entirety of Leviticus is about life’s middle-aged afternoons, a theme that arises when we combine its first two readings, Vayikra and Tzav . Vayikra began last week with the words, “God called Moses and said….” From the apparent redundancy of the word “called,” the Rabbis deduced that God first addressed Moses by name, the way we speak personally to someone we love before getting to the business at hand. Middle-age, they concluded, is saturated with God’s very special love.

The Rabbis extended that lesson to this week’s reading too, by insisting that God’s act of commanding comes with parallel love. This week’s instruction, Tzav (“command” the priests), they say, represents “special urging,” because what they are commanded to do is to sacrifice, and sacrificing is hard.

There you have it, middle age in a nutshell: the time of life when, at last, we achieve personal, financial, and psychological independence; but the time also when we are asked to sacrifice that independence for aging parents, on one hand, and not-yet fully-grown children, on the other; and to do so at God’s special urging, and a sign of God’s great love.

We are like Moses, who is, himself, entering life’s afternoon as Leviticus begins: no more heady stuff like a burning bush, confrontations with Pharaoh, and Sinai. The middle-aged Moses hears only God’s commanding voice to sacrifice; and the rabbinic point is that God’s love continues even then.

Life’s middle-aged afternoons are like that: no more annual birthday parties, trips to the zoo, parents who cuddle us, and surprise presents from grandparents. Instead, we get the daily commands of Tzav , “special urging,” to go about the unflashy business of sacrificing for the growing numbers of people who depend on us.

Yet that too is a gift. We may even be awestruck by life’s chain of giving and receiving. In the childhood of life, we receive; in the nighttime of old age, we receive again; and in life’s afternoon, we get the gift of giving.

We appreciate the gift especially, if it is taken from us, as it is with many, whose middle-age years are prematurely marred with the lasting trauma of being hit by a car or felled by chronic illness. Such unfortunates may still have some afternoon left in them – it is not as if they have absolutely nothing left to give. But giving is hard when early dusk settles over an afternoon that ought to have lasted longer than it did. For others, of course, it lasts a long time. Who knows?

Life’s afternoon may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but being asked to sacrifice and being able to do it is indeed a gift of love. Enjoy it as long as you have it.

 

There Really Are Miracles: Hanukah, Parashat Miketz

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukah supplies a crash course in beholding. We do it through light.

Yes, light: an entity so ordinary that we take it for granted, yet a miracle in and of itself. In a universe of relativity, it is the only constant, moving at 186,287.49 miles per second. It is somehow both a wave and a particle; able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We humans see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.

Light runs deep in cultural consciousness. Lord Byron gives us “the light of love, the purity of grace.” Oliver Goldsmith likens light to hope, which “like the gleaming taper’s light,/ Adorns and cheers our way.” Milton called it the “offspring of heav’n first-born.”

It resonates equally through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels, a gift reserved for the righteous from the moment of creation, and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.

I love Hanukah, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The Rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; a single paragraph about it was added to the Amidah, but only as a footnote to the main story: the miracle of light. To the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukah,” the Rabbis speak only of light – the wonderful cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate. Josephus recalls Hanukah in his day as a torchlight parade to light up the darkness.

Why, then, do we keep Hanukah? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any other of the petty tyrannies that characterized antiquity. Hanukah is one thing only: a celebration of light – the light of freedom, the light of wisdom, the light of hope, the light of promise, and the light of joy. Our candles are lit at night, not daytime – so people can see them; and on our window sills, so the light invades the darkened streets and alleys l’farsomei nissa (in the words of the Talmud), “to publicize the miracle.”

How desperately we need reminders of miracles! We just had an election for a government that has increasingly stopped working. The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.

Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukkah candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest, and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.

Parashat Vayera

Ask any artist: it’s all about seeing.

We don’t, that is, just see the world raw. Seeing requires the intentional act of focusing our eyes on one particular part of a larger visual field. At times, something new comes suddenly into view – a rainbow, perhaps. But we frequently see things anew even if they have been there all along – we just never noticed them.

That’s the way it was with the ram that Abraham finally saw and substituted for Isaac. God created it, say the rabbis, at the very dawn of creation, and positioned it just so, for Abraham to see. Why, then, didn’t he see it before tying up Isaac and coming within an inch of killing him?

He just never looked. He was too intent on the sacrifice to notice. Only after the angel stayed his hand, did he look up and see. But even so, it was only secondarily that he saw the ram, say the Tosafot. What he saw first was God, hovering behind the angel’s staying hand.

This idea emerges from a close reading of vayisa avraham et einav, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” The first three Hebrew words end in letters that spell emet, “truth,” and Truth, say the Tosafot, is another name for God. No less than the ram, God too was there all the time. Only when Abraham looked could he see “the truth,” which is to say, God.

When we speak of “seeing a truth,” however, we mean it metaphorically. Nobody “sees” truth itself; we see it in something else: an algebraic equation, perhaps, or a work of art that reaches profundity. What, then, did Abraham literally see, that so strikingly gave him the truth?

Picture the scene. Abraham leans over his son, about to drive the knife home, when the angel diverts his attention, and he “lifts his eyes and sees.” Follow the image. Where does a father look at such a time, if not into the eyes of the son he is about to lose? Abraham’s truth was revealed in the eyes of Isaac.

So the angel jolts Abraham into realizing that it is his son whom he is about to sacrifice; he thereupon looks into the eyes of Isaac, who stares back at him. Until now, they have treated each other merely as a mutual means to an end – the way to fulfill God’s command. But now, with the sacrifice suspended, they actually see each other for who they really are. The moment of truth arrives at the miracle of meeting which the Hebrew perfectly describes as panim el panim, “face to face.”

Only humans communicate face to face, says philosopher Roger Scruton. Animals look at each other, but not into each other. It is in each other’s eyes that we humans find the frightening vacancy of evasion, the meaningful glance of understanding, or the certain sign of love. If we try to dissemble, it is our faces that give us away: the way we blush, for example, or tear up against our will.

“To this day,” says the biblical author, the place where Abraham and Isaac finally see each other is called Adonai Yeira’eh,God is seen.” And lest we think that the revelatory moment of true relationship comes only once in human history, the Torah provides it again when Jacob and Esau reconcile: “Seeing your face,” says Jacob, “is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

It’s all about seeing: stopping the task at hand and seeing into each other’s eyes. It’s easy to hate collectivities of people, hold prejudices against whole groups, ignore the poverty of faceless nameless others, or even sacrifice individual people whose eyes we carefully avoid. But look into the eyes of a single person who is temporarily at our mercy, and we cannot fail to see the truth: the presence of God right there in the other person’s face.

Parashat Ekev

The good news is our parashah’s promise, “If you obey these rules… God will love and bless you.” The bad news is that “these rules” include the commandment to destroy the Canaanites “showing them no pity.” Does God really revel in the wholesale destruction of others?

“Yes,” say biblical literalists, “If the Bible says it, it must be so; the Bible is inerrant.” But the Bible is quite “errant,” since as much as it is God talking, it is also us hearing, and the people who wrote it down many centuries ago couldn’t hear more than their age allowed. The point of ongoing Jewish commentary is to help later ages hear better – and our commentators disassociate “these rules” from their original military context, insisting, that what God really wants is love.

The Malbim quotes Maimonides (Rambam) who differentiates two kinds of love. Love of God, as commanded in the Sh’ma (“You shall love Adonai your God”) is exemplified with mitzvot that have no earthly use, like putting a m’zuzah on our door. True, a m’zuzah may benefit us – reminding us, perhaps, of the sanctity of home — but we affix it just because God commands it: as when a loving parent says, “Do me a favor,” and we just do it. This love, says Rambam, gains us nothing here on earth. We are rewarded in the world to come.

The second kind of love is what human beings owe each other. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for people in power to enslave or even slaughter others without compunction. Maimonides reminds us that God rejected that behavior, by expressly prohibiting murder, rape, and even just ripping off an anonymous customer who wanders into our store. God rewards this love also in the world to come, but unlike the m’zuzah kind of mitzvah, showing love to human beings benefits us in the here and now, with a just and safe society.

So some mitzvot show love of God; others, love of neighbor. Neighborly love gets subdivided into prohibitions that entail physical pain (torture) or death (murder); and those that entail only monetary damages (cheating customers). In the evolutionary scheme of things, the first category enters our awareness sooner than the second. When word reached us recently of slave-like conditions in Chinese labor camps that make goods bound for America, we recoiled. Ongoing persecution in North Africa led this year to a reaffirmation of the1993 UN Convention Against Torture. Increasingly, that is to say, countries of conscience recognize slavery, torture, and murder as inhuman.

The evils of financial sin, by contrast, have barely dented our awareness. Now that we know how Chinese workers are being brutalized, will we protest their conditions by boycotting their goods? Hardly. Other than degree, there is no difference between an average citizen saving money by buying merchandise made by slaves, and an unscrupulous business ripping off billions from the public. Both are instances of economic evil.

How fascinating, then, to find Rashi calling economic moral prohibitions, “light commandments that we walk all over,” because compared to murder and mayhem, they seem miniscule.

The literal reading of Torah to allow mass murder and torture was put to rest with rabbinic interpretation centuries ago. But we still “walk all over” the prohibition against immoral commerce. And the two are related: if it cuts consumer prices and raises corporate earnings, even “ordinary” torture in China will start looking not so bad.

Turning a blind eye to economic moral shortcuts contaminates society until no society is left. Relaxing our fight on the moral frontier of finance threatens the moral heartland with erosion.

B’har

Advocates of modern political and economic positions often look to the Bible for religious support — as if revelation some thousands of years ago should have anticipated the dilemmas of every age to come. This week’s portion, with its compelling laws of ownership, have therefore been mined by liberals and conservatives alike to defend their views.

Ardent socialists, for example, have cheered the idea of declaring every fiftieth (or Jubilee) year a time when land devolves upon the original owners, thereby prohibiting large landed interests from owning real estate in perpetuity. Equally ardent capitalists note the high value placed on private ownership in the first place. The Bible itself measures land value against the number of harvests to be realized before the Jubilee, thus recognizing due market value to guide investors. Land purchased in the first year of a fifty-year cycle is worth more than the same land purchased, say, just ten years before that cycle’s end.

To all of this, the modern collector of commentaries, Yehudah Nachshoni, reminds us that both socialism or capitalism are “concepts derived from modernity.” Readers can find support for both throughout the Torah, which, after all, was given long before Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

Not that Torah is irrelevant to modern concerns; but what it provides is a spiritual framework, not an economic one. Maimonides rightly observes (in his Guide, 3:38) that the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee years were given “to imply sympathy with our fellow human beings and to promote the wellbeing of humanity.”

Its essential claim is that all property — land first and foremost in an agrarian economy — belongs to God. By extension, we, the owners, also belong to God. Neither land nor people can be ravaged for personal gain.

To be sure, ecological concerns are inherent in laws that prevent abuse of land; the land is God’s after all, not ours, in the long run. But overall, the Torah’s concerns here are with issues of people, who are, as it were, tenants gifted with stewardship over goods that predated our coming into the world and will be here long after we die.

In biblical times, ownership of at least some plot of land was crucial, so the Torah makes each of us a landholder. We may sell our land if absolutely necessary, but not all of it — at least some residue of property must be retained lest the owner become completely destitute and become indentured to some other person.

In reality, indentured servitude did occur, of course — Torah’s regulations here are ideals, after all, and as such, were as subject to economic conditions as we are. So rabbinic regulation turned to conditions of indenture, as a consequence of the spiritual principle that we too belong to God — no less than the land does.

If we sell ourselves, in effect, as a matter of economic survival, our masters must recognize that they now have mere stewardship over us, until such time as we can revert to our original master, God. The entire Jewish story begins with the proclamation that God redeemed us from Egyptian slavery and says, “You are my servants” — not (say the rabbis) so that you should become “servants to other servants.” We may indeed, therefore, acquire masters for ourselves in respect to any manner of work, but insofar as we are God’s servants, “we have no power to sell ourselves into absolute servitude.”

Most obviously, our new masters may not make total serfs of us, subjugating us through hard labor — farekh, in Hebrew, the same word used to describe the work that taskmasters assigned the Israelites in Egypt. But the Rabbis apply it to even the smallest details — like asking servants to do unnecessary work just to keep them busy. We also may not give our workers assignments with no end in sight, like doing field work “until I return,” since the worker has no idea when that will be.

These rules, moreover, apply not just to Jews. The Torah has no modern concepts as clear cut as absolute particularism versus universalism; it had no concept of social rules that might apply to people completely beyond the reach of Jewish governmental structures. But it takes a universal turn when it applies these rules of common decency to everyone within the jurisdiction of Jews: not just Jews but resident aliens as well.

The Torah even worries about the spiritual condition of the master. Modern Orthodox master Isaac Breuer lived at the height of rampant capitalism and worried about the wealthy who deny that God owns everything and even live as if they too do not own everything because what they own actually owns them!

More important than the precise examples is the principle: the earth is God’s; all creation is God’s; we are part of creation; we are God’s as well. And in God’s scheme, we are all intended to get beyond Egyptian servitude so that regardless of economic conditions, we may not be reduced to have lives of indignity.

Tazri’a-M’tsora

Medically speaking, the biblical disease that is usually translated as “leprosy” (tsara’at) has nothing to do with slander (motsi shem ra). But our pre-scientific rabbinic ancestors connected the two as if they did. Tsara’at for them was like advanced and untreatable cancer for us. They deliberately associated the gravest threat to bodily health with character damage caused by the misuse of language, as if to say they were equivalent.

That decision should take our breath away. Our culture cares relatively little about damage we do through verbal abuse. Beyond taking adequate care to avoid lawsuits, we engage rather freely in speaking loosely of others.

Jewish law, by contrast, is nothing short of obsessive on the subject. It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: 1. We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). 2. We may not even speak negatively about them regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara)! 3. And even idle gossip (r’chilut) is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.

Clear distinctions among the three categories emerge only in the Middle Ages, where, for instance, the two great legalists Maimonides and Nachmanides argue whether lashon hara is its own classification or just a particularly heinous case of r’chilut. Until then, rabbinic writing frequently lumps them all together as just plain scurrilous talk, which insidiously eats away at a person’s good name and thereby causes injury. The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.”

This, mind you, is for lashon hara — speaking evil of others, even if the charges are true! Why is even this lesser offense equivalent to, of all things, apostasy — pretty much the worst crime against God that the Jewish imagination can muster?

Our commentators are of no single opinion on the subject. One prominent example (attributed to Maimonides himself, among others) provides the slippery slope scenario. If we get used to speaking negatively about our own ordinary friends and acquaintances, it is only a matter of time until we do so even of people in authority, including those whose wisdom and way of life testify of God’s existence. We would thereby end up implicitly casting doubt on the most obvious human exemplars of God’s reality.

A better answer, I think, comes from a teaching attributed to the Chafetz Chaim, who is said to have cautioned against speaking lashon hara even of oneself. Discussion of lashon hara usually assumes that the prohibition is rooted in the damage that it causes. But what damage do we cause ourselves by owning up to our own negative character traits? Doesn’t Judaism demand we do just that? We call it t’shuvah (“repentance”)!

The Chafetz Chaim is, no doubt, thinking of people who go beyond proper <i.t'shuvah — people, that is, who habitually run themselves down. It is this constant negativity toward oneself that is forbidden — because being overly self-critical is a slight on God, the Creator who made us.

At stake is what we call religious anthropology, our doctrine of human nature. Judaism insists on seeing something divine in each and every one of us. In 1994, a singing group, “The Halo Benders,” released an album entitled, “God Don’t Make No Junk” — a title that has inspired hundreds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, web-site postings, and other forms of subtle protest against a society that teaches us that we are, overall, wanting.

We can understand the Chafetz Chaim as emphasizing the much earlier and specifically Jewish version of “God don’t make no junk.” It’s one thing to take honest stock of who we are; it’s quite another to run ourselves down all the time (even if the charges are mostly true) without simultaneously appreciating what is good, decent and even godly within us. The self-directed lashon hara of speaking overly negatively about ourselves ignores the reality of God that forms the essence of every living soul.

The implicit denial of God’s presence in any human being, even ourselves, is indeed the subtlest of apostasies. And it is a sin.