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)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Dark Side, Part II

A reader shares an insight:

Characters are rather one dimensional in Star Wars, particularly the prequel trilogy. The Emperor is more a source of pure evil than a person, but to the extent that a name can be put to the evil it is the pursuit of power. The beguilement of power is treated more comprehensively in the Lord of the Rings where again the greatest power is associated with complete corruption. The ultimate victory over evil in both is ultimately achieved by the hero within himself. Another way to see Jacob and Esau is an internal battle within each of us. But the story here is more complex and includes much more than just a quest for power.
Regarding the inner struggle: there's a beautiful commentary by the [previous] Slonimer rebbe that discusses the idea that the twins represent the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer ha ra, our good and evil inclinations, respectively. When Rebecca cries out during her pregnancy, distraught that the twins are struggling within her womb, "Lamah Zeh Anochi," either "why is this happening to me?" or "Why do I exist?" she is articulating the agony of this ancient struggle.

The Slonimer says that the Torah tells us that the prophecy that The older [brother] will serve the younger actually refers to this struggle.

Esau, representing our evil inclination, is 'older' because people have this inclination dominant within them first, as children. We have a moral instinct but not great moral strength as children. Around adolescence, he says, this 'older brother' serves the younger - that is, more recently powerful - good inclination by being subservient to it.

True, the one dimensional characters (Han Solo is maybe the only multi-dimensional character) don't allow for exploration of this development and wrestling.

Use the yetzer....

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Dark Side

Channah and I introduced our almost four year old to Star Wars. He was blown away, literally from the first frame (the enormous ship that flies across the screen).

It's a strange mix: a great film with really bad writing, some questionable acting ("Uncle Owen, this R2 unit has a bad motivator!") But the mythological foundations of the movie, constructed with the help of Joseph Campbell, are worth exploring.

How do you explain The Force to a little boy (maybe you don't). There is a force in the universe that is unbelievably powerful but can be used for good or evil.

You can't see it, but you can "use" it!

As Jacob and Esau come together again the Torah, two brothers separated by years of pain an animosity, I'm reminded of the key relationship in the Star Wars saga. Like Luke and Darth, Jacob and Esau are of the same flesh yet have taken completely different paths. Our Sages associated Esau with great wickedness (dark side) and Jacob with saintly goodness. What I'm interested in is how the different aspects of the Force are mediated by human relationships. The Dark Side is limited by the power of human goodness - Darth's "I am your father" moment has a deep tenderness as he "unmasks" himself of his wickedness. When Jacob and Esau embrace and weep, it is hard not be to moved by this same undoing. Rashi tells us that Esau is only embracing Jacob so he can get close enough to do him harm. But I'd rather see that essential human element, that part of us that is constantly bubbling up with possibility and goodness, at work here, overcoming the years of resentment.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thank Jew Very Much

OK, ok, the obligatory Thanksgiving post.

Some curiosities: The word for Jew in Hebrew, Yehudi, can mean "grateful one." (Because Judah is one of the sons of Jacob and one of the tribes, it 'really' means 'A Descendent of the Tribe of Judah.') The other curiosity is that the word Hodu in Hebrew means both "Give thanks" (plural, imperative) and "turkey." Hmmmm.....

Thanksgiving is an American holiday - I guess the American holiday - but giving thanks is the Jewish activity. The Talmud tells us to say one hundred blessings per day. One hundred! There is a blessing that we say giving thanks for being able to wake up, to stand, to relieve ourselves, a blessing for having ground to stand upon. There is nothing too insignificant or banal to warrant giving thanks.

Try this out for a week. Pause for a moment to give thanks in this coming week, not just for the grand miracles - having healthy family, the blessings of loved ones, freedom - but the very smallest things in life, those things we take for granted.

Giving thanks can change our very thinking, taking self out of the center of everything, so we stop measuring the world by what we want it to do for us, and start noticing how much it already has. The next challenge is to start to be a blessing - to become something that others are thankful for.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Paragraph Break Broke

I have done everything I could think of and everything recommended to me to get paragraph breaks to show up on the blog, and no luck.

My apologies. If I can't find a solution soon I will move the blog to another site.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom

Hmmm....now it seems to be working. Onward...

Occupy Judaism

The Occupy Wall Street movement is forcing us to face some difficult questions about ourselves as a society. The underlying theme that unites the movements in different cities is the vast economic inequality in our country. What does Judaism have to say about this movement? To understand that, we have to understand two major modes of viewing spiritual life in the Jewish world.

One mode is what we might call the inner or mystical mode, in which we seek to understand an interior spiritual challenge that we face. My previous post on Parshat Lech Lecha is an example of this kind of spiritual meditation and truth-seeking. Chasidism has had a massive influence on modern Jewish culture because it speaks to a need we have for a depth understanding of our individual experience in the world and how to imbue our experience on the planet with meaning.

There is also the Prophetic mode (to be clear, these are not absolute, or imporous, categories - nor are they the only two ways of understanding Jewish life). The Prophets were concerned with the Jewish people as a whole and its collective failure to live out the responsibilities imposed upon it in its relationship with God. The Prophet examined his society and held up a mirror to it. Abr We can't view these two modes - the inner and Prophetic - as unrelated or totally separate. They are resonant with one another.

Isaiah's inspiration comes from the fact that he senses the world teeming with the Divine Presence, so much so that he is in pain when the People stray from the Divine Path. There is a deep and beautiful interiority to his words because he is so deeply connected to and touched by God. And, going in the other direction, an authentic mystical experience inevitably takes us beyond the interior realm to see the deepest unity of Creation, a unity that shows us that we are never alone, and never from from responsibility for others. The movements across the country are expressions of outrage. Certainly these are political.

But I think we should try to see them as having their roots in a prophetic intuition that we all have. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement, while using very distinct vocabularies and seeking very different solutions, have at their core a sense that the moral order of the universe has been violated. That there is a concept of "right" and "good" that human societies can attain that has been ignored or violated by the powerful and wealthy.

At moments like this that prophetic point within each of us, that part of us that has an intuition about the need for goodness and compassion and fairness to be more than just concepts, and to be made real in the world, begins to burn brightly. Our society views religion as a private, interior experience. In the world of Torah it certainly is that. But Jewish teaching has of course always seen it as imperative that values be brought in to the world. We do not "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" because there is no area of existence that is beyond Divine concern.

A test of our own connection to our tradition, to our success in living a Jewish life, is how we respond to this moment. Of course Torah does not call on us to find solutions in the Republican or Democratic party. But we must hear in the stirrings of our country the cry of the Prophet calling for justice. Infographic of Wealth Distribution found on andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish Photo of Oakland protest taken from motherjones.com

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Get Outta Here - Parshat Lech Lecha

I cannot make the blog accept "return" commands...so there are no paragraph breaks. This renders the text graphically unreadable (it may be textually so, but that's for you to decide). Good luck.... This week's parshah [torah portion] is one of the most over-analyzed yet oversimplified parshiyot in the entire Torah. Seriously, can it really just be about God saying to Avram [soon to be Avraham], "Hey, get outta here. Make your own place in the world."? What is this, some cheap airport novel? I don't know where that grumpiness came from, but I want to share some deep Torah from the slonimer rebbe (thanks, Rabbi Marc, for turning me on to the rebbe's work Netivot Shalom, the work that inspired the thoughts here]. The Slonimer Rebbe begins with the question, 'Why is the command to Avram written in this particular order: Lech l'cha [Go out] mei'artzecha [from your land], umimoladatecha [and your place of birth] umibeit avicha [and from your fathers household] el ha-aretz asher arecha [to the land that I will show you] (Genesis 12:1). If God were just giving geographical instructions, the order would be reversed - the father's house being the first thing Abvram would leave behind in departing, then the 'place of birth' (presumably the Slonimer thinks this means 'town' or the equivelant, and then 'the land.' But the instructions, the Slonimer Rebbe finds, unsurprisingly, are spiritual. God begins with the easiest challenge and ends with the immensely difficult. As we fashion ourselves, and purify ourselves of the masks and falsehoods that we've inherited - as we come to a level of self-awareness that enables us to see that we are not, at some point in life, being who we are perhaps supposed to be, we begin a journey away from those forces that impinge upon us, those things that we feel falsely define us. When we do this, we find that it is easiest to loosen the grip of the broadest, or most distant influence: that of our land, our country, or culture. It is in fact an enormous achievement to break free of the conditions of one's culture [and, in fact, some would say it cannot be done - that it runs the deepest]. We may then find that we cannot find ourselves for the pervasive influence of the values and assumptions that are slightly closer to home. The extended family and social circles of our local community, with all of its powerful relationships, its egos, social pressures and expectations. At this level, the influence is personal - we can feel the social pressures bearing down When we are young we may be too weak to know whether those feelings of dislocation and resentment at such pressure emerge because of the falsity, arbitrariness, and superficiality of such pressure, or our own incapacity to push back against it for lack of spiritual imagination and courage. Many of us never escape the powerful hold that these social expectations have on us and we live our lives attempting to live in a house that is not our own. But the deepest and most profound hold is that exerted by our parents. This relationship does not have to be adversarial or troubled to create spiritual challenges. The challenge is existential - it cannot be avoided. To be sure, a painful relationship may aggravate the challenge of finding oneself within that relationship. But even when a child has been raised without a great deal of pain, the attempt to locate one's own vision of the world, to determine one's own gifts, and one's own purpose within the context of that cloud of parent-child relation can seem impossible. Can we know whether the self we find there is really our own? Everywhere we turn is a thought, a desire, a dream that belongs to those who brought us into the world. But there is a singular purpose, a unique soul, to be found within all of that. Our life's task is to find that, and to be honest about it - because the influences of our land, our birthplace and our parents might lead us to deny or run from that purpose! Abraham is not a young man when he hears God's call to leave behind everything he has known. It is deep, hard, work with no guarantee of success. The spiritual challenge lay not in escaping the particulars of our own experience to find some untouched core within. Any search for the soul within you that remains pure of all the complicated social and familial relations will come to nothing, because that soul doesn't exist. It is precisely those particular conditions of our own lives that give shape to our particular spiritual journey. Abraham will declare the unity of God and forego the idolatry of the middle east. And yet this was the person whose father, the mid rash tells us, was the chief idol maker for the King. The mid rash is not mentioning this fact of his father's occupation as an incidental fact. It is precisely because of this particular reality of Abraham's life that he discover's his unique role. The challenges of our own lives that so often seem to be the roadblock are, in fact, the path. Those conditions of your past and your present experience that seem to be holding you back are in fact the very challenges that you have to face to fulfill your particular purpose, the reason for which you were created. So, lech l'cha - often translated as "go" or "go forth" but literally "go to yourself" or "go into yourself" is precisely the point. We can't just walk away from the particular influences of our lives. We have to go through those conditions of our experience that shape - and even seem to limit - us if we are to walk the path of the deepest self discover and the fulfillment of the purpose with which the creator invested our lives.

A Jewish Apartheid State?

Richard Goldstone, the author of the famous Goldstone Report who eventually conceded that it was written with insufficient information, has written a nice op-ed on Israel and the accusation by its severest critics that is an "apartheid state."
In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.
The whole NYTimes article (behind the paywall) is here. There is something of "damning with faint praise" in saying that Israel is no South Africa. But that's what false and hyperbolic accusations do: they force you to weaken your moral standing by having to defend yourself from charges of moral failure. I've ranted about this before, but, oh, well: Israel is a vibrant (and teeming) democracy. Troubled, to be sure. The coalition style government has created all kinds of deep and real problems. But it is a democracy where the rule of law prevails and holds those in power accountable. On the other hand, it's neighbors in the region are dictators openly contemptuous of democracy. We can certainly celebrate the fact that Western liberals (and I am one, by the way) have reacted to the "Arab Spring" by finally recognizing this fact. Confronted with Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and video evidence of state brutality, it was hard not to. But what took them so long? Long before the recent social movements for democracy burst open, it was quite clear that these goons represented the antithesis of everything Western liberals are supposed to hold dear. But for years, silence - and the only democracy in the region was criticized with hyperbole and vitriol. What's up with that?