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Monday, January 14, 2013

MOSES IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Dvar Torah For Parshat Shmot 5773.

I did my favorite New Year’s Eve thing by watching multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s 1960’s classic about the paranormal. As campy and antiquated as the show and its special effects are to our jaded 21st century eyes, it always manages to suck me in with its themes of uncanny mystery: the bizarre and unexplained phenomena we encounter, the possibility of extraterrestrials, and the folks like you and me caught, well, in the twilight zone, what Bruce Springsteen refers to as the death waltz between flesh and fantasy, between reality and the mind’s dream state. I am particularly drawn to ironic episodes like the one about the bookworm who is the lone survivor of a hydrogen bomb attack, who can now read undisturbed for the rest of his life, yet who then smashes his reading glasses accidentally; to chilling, moralistic episodes like the one about the woman in a brave-new-world autocratic society who is sentenced to total quarantine with others like who her who are hideously ugly. The only problem is that, in fact, she and her fellow lepers are actually beautiful, while the rest of that society looks like ducks who have survived gamma radiation; or my all-time favorite episode about beings from another planet who convince the earth that they wish only to serve Man. In the last scene, as the hero of the episode is getting on a space ship to their world, his assistant desperately tries to stop him, shouting, “Professor, don’t go with them! That book they gave us about serving Man? I finally translated it. It’s a cook book!”

I laugh at what Serling considered to be serious drama but I get chills from Serling’s razor sharp insightfulness about the twilight zones of the human mind and life’s mysteries. I also appreciate one other important feature of this great American TV show: most of Serling’s characters are completely alone. They may intermittently interact with other minor characters, but they are mostly caught in a vast wasteland of human loneliness and alienation in which they are the last people alive, or the only people to see what no one else sees, or even people who have died who think they are still alive. Madness, loneliness, alienation and death are the main staples of the Twilight Zone, and I feel almost like I’m watching a Franz Kafka novel remade as sci-fi when I watch the show. This perhaps is what continues to make it so popular. Serling tapped into some of our deepest terror about loneliness with fantastic tales and morality plays that take the sting out of our fear by entertaining us.

Of late, I have been thinking about Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, as a Twilight Zone character, one who at every turn is never quite sure who, where or how he is. Look at the details of his early life. After his birth, his mother has to hide him for three months from the Egyptian authorities who want him, and all the Israelite males, dead. She casts him off in a basket, where he floats down the Nile only to be saved by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who then adopts him, ironically enough with the help of his own mother who serves as his nurse maid. Moses is raised as Egyptian royalty, but is chased out of Egypt after he kills an Egyptian slave driver in defense of an Israelite and is threatened with exposure by another Israelite. He saves his future wife and her sisters from rough necks at a well in Midian, then they promptly forget to show him hospitality, something almost unthinkable in Middle Eastern culture. He meets a God he has presumably never known, Who self identifies as his ancestors’ God, and Who draws him in with an unconsumed burning bush, a special effect that Rod Serling would have loved. Best of all, as Moses sets out to save the Israelites, God seeks to kill him out of anger that either he or his son has not been circumcised. This is a bizarre scene that dabbles in the demonic and fuzzy worlds of magic and blood rituals. Moses himself tells us the readers that he is living in his own Twilight Zone: he names his first son Gershom, “For I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

What are we to make of our ancient Twilight Zone character? What do we learn from him? Bible scholars tell us that Moses’ life follows a literary theme commonly known as the abandoned hero motif. Generally, the hero is abandoned by his royal father or mother for some less than savory reason, with one or both parents ordering a simple peasant to destroy him. The peasant refuses to do so, or in another version, the abandoned hero is found in infancy by a kind peasant who raises him as his or her own. Often, the abandoned hero find his way back and reveals himself to the parent in a showdown between good and evil. Yet, Professor Nahum Sarna reminds us in his commentary on Exodus that we should not take the parallels too far. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, is no powerful queen seeking to get rid of her son, she is an oppressed Israelite who seeks to save him from genocide by sending him off. Even her abandonment of Moses is done in a way to insure that someone will find him and save him: she hides him in the reeds on the shore of the Nile River. In a keen reversal of the conventional abandoned hero motif, the one who saves Moses is herself royalty, Pharaoh’s daughter who uses her position yet also risks her life to courageously defy her father’s decree.

However, what I find most enlightening about Moses as the abandoned hero is that however absurd and liminal his experiences may be, he is never truly alone. His mother sends him off on the Nile, but then sends his sister to watch out and intervene for him. Pharoah’s daughter saves his life in defiance of her father, then brings him to the royal household right under her father’s nose. The Torah tells us that when he grows up, Moses goes out to consider the plight of his enslaved people, a hint that even as adopted royalty he already knows that he belongs with them and to them. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, makes him part of his household, God calls him to lead his people out of slavery, and even his brother Aaron makes an appearance in the story to become Moses’ partner in the work of liberation. Moses lives through strange and frightening encounters that likely make him feel alone, but a whole cast of actors, human and divine, are either behind the scenes or out front, helping him to make his way in his complex life.

It is callous and simplistic to assert that no one is ever truly alone, for we know that this is not the case for some people. Their lives are painfully solitary due to homelessness, the deaths of loved ones, a horrible family situation, mental illness or other circumstances. Perhaps Moses the abandoned hero is not a tale about what is but what ought to be, from the perspective of the Torah. Individualism is not a Jewish ideal, and I can think of no one in Jewish legend who fares well living outside the matrix of community and mutual obligation. For Judaism there is nothing heroic about going it alone, so that even after we die, the community remains fully involved in bringing us respectfully to our final resting places and in helping our grieving loved ones. The Torah and Jewish tradition challenge us to receive community from others by recognizing that we do not have to be alone at the margins of life, and to create community for others by recognizing that we are not alone at the center of life. Yes, a person may feel utterly abandoned by life and by God when dealing with loss, illness, death, grief and loneliness: how could anyone not in such times? Moses’ story hands us our mandate to walk compassionately with that person and all who feel alone and keep them connected so that they do not fall into the twilight zone.

THE GOOD THAT MEN DO

Dvar Torah For Parshat VaYehi, 5773.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum of Modern Art, something I have not had the chance to do for quite some time. My visit felt to me almost like a pilgrimage to these paintings that have had a tremendous impact on me and the world, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Munch’s The Scream, and Wyeth’s Christina’s World. The huge vacation week crowd at the museum came from all over the world to view these iconic pieces, and given the manner in which everyone crowded around them with their ipads and iphones clicking away, one would have thought that we were paparazzi in Hollywood. I got caught up in the excitement as I clicked away on my iphone and furiously texted to my wife tongue-in-cheek messages like, “OMG, I’m like standing three feet away from Christina’s World!!!!!!!!,” complete with numerous exclamation points, as if I were a teenage girl meeting a celebrity.

As I always do when I look at it in photos, I was overwhelmed by the emotional power of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Its unnaturally oversized, swirling stars stand in direct contrast to the peaceful village sleeping below, conveying a deep sense of turbulence and energy. I had to pause to consider what that turbulence and energy are all about. Are they a reflection of Van Gogh’s inner emotional turbulence that was a well known feature of his tormented life? Are they Van Gogh’s way of expressing nature’s energetic movement underlying what appears to be a calm and ordered world? Are they both? Are they neither? The beauty of great art such as Van Gogh’s is that it lends itself to robust debate about and multiple interpretations of what that art is doing or saying.

In like fashion, great writing, particularly the spare prose of biblical stories, lends itself to many readings that encourage energetic debate and disagreement about what the stories are saying and what they are teaching us. When we Jews talk about midrash, creative rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, we refer not only to the multiplicity of possible meanings in a sacred text, but to the engaged, passionate debate of faithful Jews that teases out those meanings. The opening of Jacob’s death bed speech to his sons in chapter 48 of Genesis provides us with an excellent example of this process.

And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.”

This appears to be a straightforward verse introducing Jacob’s address to his children. However, looking at the verse closely in context raises some important questions. Throughout Genesis, we have never known Jacob to possess any kind of prophetic power that would lead him to offer his children or anyone visions concerning the future. Further, as should be evident from reading his addresses to his sons, many of Jacob’s supposed prophesies are either descriptions or harsh criticisms of past behaviors. Is Jacob perhaps explaining to his sons what he expects them to become based upon what he knows about them now? Finally, we would expect Jacob to preface his addresses with far more intimate and familiar language than he does. Why bid his sons farewell by forcing them to listen to impersonal speeches that can only leave some of them scratching their heads in confusion or deeply resentful of him?

The view of modern Bible scholarship is that Jacob’s entire speech is actually a retrojection, a reading back into earlier history of what the Bible’s authors already knew about the Israelite tribes in their own day. However historically accurate that reading may be, it fails to capture the poetry and imaginative potential inherent in this poignant scene. For that, we turn to the sages of the midrashic tradition who offer us three intriguing, imaginative views about what is happening here.
The first view is that, indeed, Jacob began to tell his sons not only about their futures but about the future of the Jewish people and the future of the world as well. He promised them that the holy Temple would be built in Jerusalem and that the great apocalyptic battle foretold in the book of Ezekiel would in fact take place, thus ushering in an era of lasting world peace. The second view is very different. Jacob promised his sons a prophecy of what would befall them in days to come, but at that moment just before death, his powers of prophecy utterly failed him, and he was unable to tell them anything. Thus, he switched to critical analyses of each son, both good and bad. The third view is that from the very beginning of the end Jacob had lost all power of prophetic vision, so much so that he openly expressed fear that his children would not carry on the spiritual legacy that he had built. At that moment that he expressed his fear, his sons, referring to him by his new name, Israel, reassured him with the words that we call the Shma: “Hear, O Israel our father, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Reassured, Jacob spoke to each son and then passed from this world.

Think of that poignant, fragile moment when Jacob is about to speak to his sons for the last time in his life as if it were a brilliant, suggestive painting eliciting from our sages these three different readings of its meaning: each one is reflective of a unique perspective on life and death. None of these readings need to be taken as literally true, though each one presents one piece of a greater truth about the human journey that is expressed with artistic and emotional sensitivity. Jacob is first seen idealistically as possessing great prophetic powers extending well beyond intimacy with his family: we could imagine that as an old man who has experienced life he could impart wisdom and insight that no younger man could. However, the wisdom and insight of old age soon enough give way to the terrible reality of the shutting down of one’s mental and emotional capacities. Jacob wants to tell his sons the future, but impending death shuts out his ability to do so. Left with unresolved emotional wounds and resentments for which he and his children are responsible, Jacob is reduced to this almost pathetic admission: “I am about to leave this life, and I cannot even feel secure that the good things I have imparted to you will be carried on by you. Even this much of our future I cannot predict.” At that moment, his sons reassure him that the future of his hopes, his dreams, his legacy, his mission, his God, are in their good hands. He needs no power of prophecy, for they are his power.

The desire to see into the future – to know how things will turn out for us, our descendants, our community, the world - is a human impulse that lingers just below the surface of daily human awareness. I suspect it emerges most poignantly when we realize that our lives are nearing an end and we will no longer have a say in the destinies of those who remain after we are gone. These teachings of our sages remind us that we are limited in our power to control the future when we are alive, and even more limited as we prepare for death. Yet we have one power that, while not perfect, can last well into the future beyond our time on earth. It is the power to raise children, build relationships with students, and influence neighbors, colleagues, and loved ones with our own exemplary, if howbeit imperfect lives and actions. In a twist on Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar, I refer to that power as the good that we do that lives on after us. It is this good which is our finest work of art, to which those whom we leave behind can respond: “You have helped us understand how to live in the present. Rest assured that we will be your future.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

GOD WRITES TO JAMES DOBSON

Dear Dr. Dobson:

I briefly interrupted my grieving over the deaths of the children and teachers murdered in Newtown, Connecticut to consider your recent comments concerning the massacre. This is part of what you said on your international radio program:

“Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I'm not talking politically, I'm not talking about the result of the November sixth election. I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God. I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn't exist, or he's irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too. And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God almighty, and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that's what's going on. We’re seeing things happen that didn’t happen just a few years ago, and there’s a reason for it. Something has gone wrong in this country.”

I created those innocents who were murdered by Adam Lanza. I created Adam Lanza. I mourn deeply that My defenseless creations could be mercilessly destroyed by another of My creations whose brain went utterly out of control, as his soul plunged into pure evil. I also created you, and like every other human being, I gave you moral and behavioral freedom. You claim that in Newtown I wreaked judgment upon America. Please stop speaking in My name and engaging in dangerous perversions of faith.

We are not going to argue about abortion and gay marriage right now, but you dare not forget that the people whose lives you condemn are made in My image no less than you are. Enough said. Let me instead argue against your dark insinuation that I would use a mass murderer as an instrument of judgment, punishment and warning to Americans. This assertion ultimately robs humans of moral freedom and responsibility by asserting that our most horrible behaviors are really just a part of My great plan for sinful humanity. Further, it’s true that Western religion developed early on the belief that I punish communities and individuals for their sins through nature and human violence. However, early in the Bible, Abraham took Me to task for even contemplating destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without first sparing the innocent people living there. He challenged Me, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” The ideas and values of communities of faith developed along with their sacred texts. The prophet Ezekiel repudiated an earlier belief that children will die for the sins of their parents. The book of Job utterly rejected the earlier biblical idea that if good people suffer evil, they are being punished by Me for their hidden sins. People’s perspectives about Me have developed and grown. Why haven’t yours?

I’ll assume that your beliefs about Me are sincere and that you are genuinely concerned for the health of America’s children, as you explained on your show. However, have you not forgotten other teachings of Mine that should be of equal or greater concern to you? What about your obligation as a person of faith to help those who suffer, or at least not to make them suffer more because of your words? What about the book of Psalms’ warning that you guard your tongue from speaking evil? What about your sacred obligation to support those who mourn? Some people take perverse comfort from your words because, as obscene as they are, they offer simple explanations and solutions for the most baffling tragedies: evil would no longer plague humanity if everyone just returned to basic biblical principles and averted My wrath. Trust Me, as a God of mystery, I assure you that with respect to human evil, even I am often mystified.

There are those who dismiss you as a bigoted crackpot who should be ignored. However, you are much more than that: you are a high profile psychologist and powerful evangelical leader whose daily Family Talk radio show is estimated to reach two hundred million listeners worldwide. Use your unprecedented influence to foster inclusive national dialogue about what ails America and to teach the best values of religion without distorting My image. Otherwise, My name and the memories of those who died will have been desecrated.

FOR THE MIRACLES

Dvar Tefillah For Shabbat Mikketz/Hanukkah 5773.

The American philosopher, George Santayana, is famous for his dire warning that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. However, Santayana who was a confirmed atheist, also had much to say about religion and the true nature of the world. One of his statements that is most interesting to me, if not particularly deep, is this one about miracles: “Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.” What I find so strange about this statement is Santayana’s extraordinarily narrow definition of a miracle as something that is assumed to be outside of the natural order, thus setting up a philosophical strawman which can be easily knocked down. Since science has proven to us the ironclad laws of nature, it is a scientific fact that the laws of nature cannot be altered. Anything amazing that you and I call a miracle in the religious sense is nothing more than a lucky, blessed accident that is based in nature as well, even if you and I don’t understand it. To argue anything else is to brand oneself an ignoramus who replaces science with silly superstition.

Can the miraculous be defined in only one way? What about all of those phenomena within the natural world that imbue us with a sense of wonder and awe precisely because they are too complicated and mysterious to be understood? What about the things that human beings do as a natural part of being human that nevertheless are so extraordinary they overwhelm us with a sense of their miraculous power? A holiday like Hanukkah pushes the envelope of our definitions of miracles precisely by refusing to make them either/or propositions about reality and faith.

An excellent example of this is the prayer, Al Hanissim, which thanks God for the miracle of saving us from King Antiochus and his Syrian-Greek army many thousands of years ago. My translation, which is taken from the new Siddur Sim Shalom, is somewhat more literal than that of the Siddur’s editors:

We thank You for the miracles, for the deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs that You performed for our ancestors from ancient days at this time of the year.

In the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot. You, in Your great mercy, stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You delivered the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Your Torah. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day. Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and chanting praises to You.


Since every text has a context, we should note that Al HaNissim is placed in the Amidah prayer immediately following Modim, the prayer that expresses gratitude to God for the daily miracles of being alive. Two early rabbinic sources are clear that this is where Al HaNissim must be placed; in fact, the Hebrew phrase Al HaNissim, which means literally, “For the miracles,” is a direct echo of the phrase in Modim that praises God for daily miracles, “Al nisekha she-b’khol yom imanu.” This placement and repetition of phrases hints at a connection between our ancestors’ victory over Greek oppression and the common nature of the miraculous: their ability to vanquish the evil king Antiochus was a miracle, but it was not something that happened outside of the normal course of nature and the world.

This idea is played out in two other ways in the prayer. It makes clear that it was God who stood up for the Jewish people and defeated our enemies who sought to destroy us. However, as we know from ancient history, the way that God did this was through the determination of the Maccabees and the people, who steadfastly refused to allow the Greek armies and government to trample our rights to live freely and securely as Jews. The miraculous salvation may have been entirely God’s doing, but none of it would have happened without the thoroughly human resistance to oppression. Finally, what about the story of Hanukkah did you notice is missing from this synoptic account of the Hasmonean revolt? The Talmud’s account of the miraculous way in which the little jug of oil burned for eight days, a miracle quite outside of nature and frankly pretty unbelievable, is nowhere to be found in this prayer. This is the case despite the fact that Al HaNissim was likely composed around the same time that the early Tannaim, the sages of the Mishnaic period, were teaching that story about the jug of oil burning brightly for eight days.

Al HaNissim is a more subtle and sophisticated response to Santayana’s rather dismissive critique of the religious perspective on miracles. It does not ask the believer to park his or her intellectual and spiritual honesty at the door. It is a prayerful expression of what the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev refers to as nissim she-b’tokh ha-teva: God’s great miracles that happen precisely within the context of nature and normal, profane human affairs. They are not miraculous because God mysteriously undoes the regular order of the universe to right wrongs and change tragedy to triumph. They are miraculous because you and I find the mysterious power of divine love and justice within that order and use it in our struggle to bring light to a darkened world.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

ALL’S “WELL” THAT ENDS “WELL.”

Dvar Torah For Parshat Toledot 5773.

When is retreating from conflict weakness and when is it wisdom? When should one fight and when should one flee? The three stories of Isaac’s retreat from the wells that he had dug in the face of opposition from his Philistine neighbors hold more than one answer to these questions. Let’s review what we read in the Torah portion this morning. Isaac echoes his father, Abraham by claiming that Rebecca is his sister in order to avoid harassment or being killed by the locals when he journeys into the territory of Avimelekh, the Philistine king of the city of Gerar. This morally problematic tale of our ancestor forfeiting his wife’s physical and emotional integrity is nonetheless an accurate description of how nomadic heads of household may well have survived the salacious advances of the populations in which they were guests during ancient times. Likely the story is meant to describe Isaac’s actions, not praise them, as we can see from Avimelekh’s far more ethical outrage at Isaac’s deceptiveness.

The Torah then tells us that, having settled in or near Gerar, Isaac reaps one hundred times the amount of produce that he had planted, and during a famine no less. He grows so great in livestock and agriculture that he incurs the jealous wrath of the Philistines, who stop up the wells that had belonged to his father and that had become Isaac’s possession. Avimelekh warns him to leave the area because he has grown too much, thus compromising the king’s ability to protect him, according to some commentators. Twice, Isaac’s servants dig new wells, only to have their ownership belligerently contested by the local shepherds. These wells are named by him Esek and Sitnah, “Conflict” and “Hatred.” Only on the third try, after moving out of Gerar altogether, is Isaac able to dig wells without incurring hostility, so he names those wells Rehovot, “Wide Spaces.” Avimelekh and his dignitaries then visit Isaac in his new home and conclude a pact of peace with him, for they realize that God has blessed him. He is a man of power. At the very day this happens, Isaac’s servants inform him that Abraham’s wells which Isaac had attempted to re-open are full of water.

On the surface, we can read this story of Isaac’s retreat from his rightful property in two ways: either as an example of strategic retreat by a smart man who knows that he lacks the power to overcome his opponents who are stealing from him; or as an example of a cowardly man who easily relinquishes whatever is valuable to him –his wife, his property- to save his own neck. Let me suggest a more subtle, contextual reading. The Torah makes very clear that Isaac is a good guest of, and later, a treaty partner with Avimelekh. He is also blessed BY God, so that he becomes insanely wealthy and well fed in the midst of a famine. Isaac at times may be strategic and at other times he may be a coward, but this time he is a man who loves peace and courageously pursues it. He knows full well that, though it is no fault of his own, Avimelekh’s people are hungry, restive and hostile. He has nothing to prove to himself about his power, and he certainly has no reason to hurt his friend and patron the king. So, Isaac engages in a real act of courage: he backs off for the sake of not rubbing his good fortune in the faces of those who are suffering, with whom he is a neighbor. Note however that his willingness to compromise is only so elastic. God has already told him that he may not leave the land in order to sojourn in Egypt. Isaac may be ready to give his neighbors physical and emotional breathing room by contracting his own presence among them. However, he is not prepared to let them drive him out altogether. He recognizes that good fences may make good neighbors, but only when one person’s fence doesn’t become his neighbor’s graveyard.

It is not easy to be Isaac. One needs to know how to retreat for the sake of peace with others, but to do so in a way that leaves one’s integrity and security intact. This requires a careful balance of ego and self-respect with humility and greater vision: a vision of peace and community that transcends one’s immediate needs, hurt pride, or fear. It is not easy to be Isaac, whether we are talking about a family member, an employee working with others, a neighbor, a citizen, a leader in a badly divided congress, or a sovereign state of Israel that is trying to defend herself from the attacks of people whose territory she left years ago. Nonetheless, Isaac is the role model we need to emulate at every level of relationship. Thus we will truly be able to insure that all’s well that ends well.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE END.

Dvar Torah For Kohelet/Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5773.

“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love that you make.”

Paul McCartney and the Beatles ended their iconic White Album with this seemingly irrelevant couplet of poetry that was part of a song called, appropriately, The End. What fascinates me is how memorable these two lines have become in the history of music and musical lyrics, as if their words were somehow the most important wisdom ever taught to humankind. Apart from their catchy tune, the Fab-4’s cute little harmony, and the one-finger piano work that backs them up, the words of this little poem actually pack a whole cosmos of ideas into very little verbal space.
Think about it. In sixteen words, we are taught that in the final analysis, the wisdom to end all wisdom is this: the quantity of love you, or I, or the world receives is directly related to the quantity that we give. Underlying such a grand idea is the even grander idea that all love and hate, peace and war exist in an almost karmic balance of cause and effect that is the result of free human initiative. You and I are at liberty to put out however much love we choose, and it is a firm universal law that we will get back what we gave in equal measure. The Beatles are perhaps unconsciously echoing here the classic Talmudic concept of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

These are great and powerful ideas, but their truth value is limited. The truth is that there are people who take plenty of love and a whole lot more from plenty of other people, yet who give very little love back; and there are lots of people in the world who give lovingly and unstintingly of themselves, yet who still get abused, neglected, or exploited by others. Love does not work its way magically into everyone’s heart, and relationships are often the settings for terrible heartbreak when the person who loves is repaid with selfishness and dismissiveness. Love is a fickle fellow, whether in the realm of romance, friendship, or life in community. It often needs to be balanced by other human endeavors and qualities to insure that in its absence people don’t get hurt. The end of the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that we are about to chant offers us its own final-analysis wisdom about how to achieve this balance. Look with me briefly at the very last verse of chapter 12, on page 78 of your Megillah books. There we read:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: revere God and keep His commandments. For this applies to all mankind.

This verse, which you can see repeats verse 13, ends this biblical book that for a full twelve chapters counsels the reader that all human endeavor is vanity and worthless striving, and that there is ultimately no difference between humans and beasts. In the end we all will go to the same place: our deaths. Some Bible scholars assert that this verse was placed at the end of the book as a kind of pious conceit. The author or editor of the book knew that his ideas were threatening to his audience, so he pitched the book as a story about a man named Kohelet whose ideas were depressing and cynical. At the end of the book, the narrator comes back to tell us: “Whatever Kohelet said about life, in the end what really matters is for you to be a good person who does what God wants.” In this way, the author is able to distance himself from the same ideas he is trying to teach by placing them in Kohelet’s mouth and allowing the narrator to end the book on a note of simple, traditional faith.

Let me suggest that this ending of Kohelet can be understood in another way, as more than an appeal to simple piety. Having considered all of Kohelet’s tortured ruminations about the purposelessness and injustice of life, the narrator sits back and tells us the following: in the end, all of Kohelet’s ruminating might be very enlightening, but taken to excess it is paralyzing. Yes, life often is meaningless and cruel, yes, we humans are no different in some respects from all other animals with whom we share mortality. However, dwelling on these truths for too long doesn’t bring us any resolution, it just causes us to waste time that we could be using to make the best we can of the lives that we have. Moreover, while it sure would be nice for everyone to just love one another in the manner suggested by the Beatles, this is not going to happen because love is a fickle emotion that does not always translate into good behavior. In those moments when love is absent, fear God by doing what God wants and needs us to do to be menschen, decent human beings. In those moments when you don’t feel loving or loved, you still have to treat yourself and others properly because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

This truth applies to all mankind.

BREATHING BALLOONS, BECOMING AND BEING.

Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5773.

Balloons are one of the most fun and instructive of educational tools that I like to use. To elucidate one important teaching from the Torah this morning, permit me to blow up this balloon…. Obviously, were I to tie the end of this balloon, you and I could bounce it around and marvel at its lightness and liveliness until it ran out of air. With Helium inside, our lowly balloon could soar into the air effortlessly. Now, watch as I let go of the opening…. Obviously, balloons deflate when their air or Helium is let out, and they return to being mere pieces of cheap synthetic rubber or plastic.

Now, let’s take our balloon analogy one step further. I invite you, if you would like, to close your eyes for just one moment…For the briefest moment, pay attention to your breathing, the simplest, most miraculous thing that healthy human beings do reflexively every few seconds…Inhale and feel your lungs inflating, filling with air….Exhale and feel your lungs deflating, being emptied of air…At their simplest physiological levels, we and our lungs appear to be no different from balloons… But that is where the comparison ends…The air that we breathe is energy that feeds every last atom of our intricate, miraculous bodies and minds…The carbon dioxide that we exhale is the end result of processes too complex and too numerous to even try to describe…Best of all, we don’t deflate into lifeless, cheap balloons…For the duration of our lives, we continue to breathe, to live…Our breath is energy, divine in origin, human in execution…Our breath is the breath of God.

This idea that our breath is a miraculous wonder whose source is God’s breath is found in the second version of the story of the creation of human beings, which we read in our Torah portion. According to the Torah, (Genesis 2:7), “The Lord, God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing.” In crass, popular consciousness, this verse may evoke scenes of rabbis creating Golems or scientists creating Frankenstein beings, but in classic religious writings it is a touchstone for talking about the miracle of life and the uniqueness of human consciousness. The Targumim, the two ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, interpret the words, “living thing” to refer to humankind’s unique ability to speak; Rashi explains this verse to mean that God created human beings with physical characteristics from the earth and with divine characteristics, particularly the ability to think; Nachmanides waxes eloquent and at length about the utter uniqueness of humankind in having been brought to life directly through the efforts of God, who directly breathed divine breath or life force into that first human. Later commentators on specific early morning prayers that emphasize the miracle of the body and the soul, allude to this verse when they write at length about the amazing nature of our bodies that manage to hold our spiritual essence –represented by God’s breath – inside of us through the duration of our lives; several commentators explore the complex, dual nature of humankind in that we share overt characteristics with all other animals here below on earth, while we are also heleq Eloah mi-maal: an enduring part of God above.

It is not clear if the traditional commentators on this verse of the Torah believed that God literally breathed enlivening energy into us at the beginning of time, and that each of our breaths is literally God’s breath flowing in and out of us. What is clear to me is that one need not take this verse’s claim literally at all in order to take it very seriously. This one verse and its interpreters represent the Bible’s and Judaism’s worldview and values at their best. They teach us that to be human is to be a daily miracle: we live and breath, actions that are so reflexive we do not need to think about them at all; yet not to think about them at all also puts us in the dangerous position of forgetting how miraculous being alive really is, and how critical preserving and respecting life truly is. This verse and its commentators also reflect brilliantly upon how complicated it is to be human. We are animals, not angels: we have animal needs, animal impulses, we live and die like all other animals. Yet, we are so much more than animals: we use speech, a trait that according to many anthropologists is the most important thing distinguishing us from all other species, and that has allowed to evolve in the way that we did; we possess consciousness and the capacity for moral choice that present us with challenges and glories no other animal could contemplate; we come as close to being divine as we can without actually being God;. Finally, this verse and its commentators constantly warn us that, no matter how special the human species is, we are not the center of the world, for we are not the Creators of ourselves, God is. In his comment on how God formed the first person from the earth, Rashi quotes an ancient teaching that God took earth from every part of Planet Earth because it is the medium in which we are buried after we die; but earth was also the material used to build the holy altar of the Jerusalem Temple, upon which offerings would be made to ask God’s forgiveness for human sin. Rashi is saying here that we human beings come from and return to the greatest symbol of our mortality and our humility. We will not live forever, and hopefully we learn over time that we are not the center of the universe, only the God of eternal life is.

This mortal life of ours at times looks, feels and maybe even is as fragile as the filling up and deflation of a balloon. That is worth our humble consideration when we lose perspective and allow the all-too-human capacity for arrogance to dominate us. However, this wonderful life of ours is also a precious creation of God whose own spirit resides in us, animates us, and propels us forward to do the incredible things that humans do best. Yes, we share much with all other species, but we are also profoundly different, in the most miraculous ways, from our most complex thoughts and actions, to our simplest breaths. This is why Jewish tradition teaches us to awaken each morning with simcha atzuma, literally “gigantic joy”, and express our deepest gratitude for simply being alive at that very moment. It is why we celebrate the birth and naming of baby or the wedding of two people who love one another: they are opportunities for us to stop rushing through this miraculous life relentlessly, so that we can look at and add to the rich tapestry of experience love that all began with that first breath of God which awakened our ancestors and began this great narrative we call being human.