A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Torah Portion B'Ha'alotcha - Watch Out!

Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago was likely a signal of things to come – both Senators Obama and McCain will need to have themselves baptized in the unholy waters of the American Electorate’s stamp of religious approval in order to be able to sit in the Oval Office. McCain will genuflect before religious conservatives (i.e. evangelicals) to show that he is holy enough for their vote, and no doubt Obama’s speech today was one of several to come reminding us that, in spite of his middle name, he is part of Christendom.

Some have argued that we are witnessing the waning of power of the “religious” right in American public life. If this is so, it is far more convincing proof of the existence of God than is the banana (see the video below if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

One of the consequences of the (now loosened) evangelical choke hold on the throat of democracy has been the electoral ritual of otherwise dignified public servants abjectly demonstrating the strength of their faith before delighted fundamentalist king-makers. Forgive them, Father, they [knew] not what they [did]. Oops, wrong religious tradition.

Perhaps in response to this sorry situation, a counter trend has emerged over the last generation as Americans been turning inward for religious meaning. Inside and outside of established religious movements, seekers have looked to traditional and untraditional rituals and belief systems fundamentally rooted in the private sphere: the individual, closed-off, personal world of spirituality. Here, meaning is not determined or even mediated by a community or tradition. Just the seeker, seeking alone, free to pursue the pleasures of the search.

Good for the Jews?

I’ve been doing some reading that brushes up against this which-way-did-he-go-boss back and forth. In Midrash Rabbah on this week's portion, God is compared to the white part of the eye – which does not see - and we are compared to the black – which does. The analogy works on the simple level because God is compared to fire, which burns brightly (white), and we, being material and inclined to all kinds of hijinx, are impure and so cannot achieve this pure whiteness. Beyond this, though, the analogy suggests that God is blind without humanity – God has no capacity, according to this midrashic analogy, to see into the material world without us, to see what needs to be done, perhaps, and to manipulate that world with our good deeds and create some kind of tikkun (correction).

This is not the Third Eye of some traditions – a perception of higher consciousness, an intuitive capacity to perceive a world of inner meaning. This is an outward looking, real, actual eye – the kind that we cut into little pieces in high school. An eye that sees, enabling the perceiver to react to and make judgments about the environment within which he or she moves. Here’s the fancy part of the midrash. The perceiver is not us – we are the iris. The perceiver is the Perceiver, who relies on the pupil of humanity to see.

In fact, though, the Perceiver – this is getting weird – relies on humanity as a Pupil, i.e. a student. The iris, which appears black, is not actually black. It appears so because the light that it lets in is absorbed by the inner part of the eye. Our darkness, it turns out, is directly related to our capacity to correctly transmit visual information. That is, our placement in the material world, and therefore our imperfection, is fundamental to our capacity to serve as part of the divine mechanism to bring goodness into the world. Without our imperfections, we would not be placed here, in this world, and God would be left blind.

All of this is to say that our role is fundamentally social. While we look inward for self-understanding and are of course encouraged to contemplate the meaning of our private reality, our essential task is to look outward, into the world. Our role is one of responsibility, which implies an engagement with the social world.

How do we avoid becoming arrogant Theocrats? That’s our challenge, and mine to write about….later.

1 comment:

  1. Comment on Rabbi Josh’s web blog Torah Portion: B’Ha’alotcha-Watch Out!
    Rabbi Josh so insightfully points out that the wane of the “religious” right in American public life is fare more convincing proof of the existence of the Lord than that of his explanation of the banana as only created by God. Rabbi Josh points out these people are “evil” (my words) king makers in America.
    When Rabbi Josh pointed out in Torah studies this week that a certain sage stated that God is compared to the white part of the eye-which does not see- and we are compared to the black-which does. Rabbi Josh says we cannot achieve the pure white of God vision and that the Lord is blind without Him using humanity to see through its own black impure pupil.
    I was sure that Rabbi Josh was loosing his faith and understanding of the Lord God Almighty. Then I realized that he was deep in questioning. How can a Perfectly Good and Merciful Lord know any evil or look upon darkness by which some men see the world through their eyes? I think he and other scholars believe that the Lord can only look on the darkness of the world to provide the Lord God Almighty of Israel with the vision of what to do without corrupting His pure, clean, good spirit by seeing it through evil men’s eyes. This is just wrong. The Lord God Almighty of Israel sees all things, both the good and the evil; clean and unclean, but it does not corrupt His pure clean spirit. He knew of evil and uncleanness before creation and the reality of good and evil and clean and unclean came into existence.
    Rabbi Josh’s role as a social conscience and provider of light and justice at his young age is near perfect. But he must realize that our righteousness and understanding are not ours, but come only from the Lord God Almighty of Israel. If we fail to realize this, or diminish the Lord God Almighty of Israel in any way we are on the slow path to decay.