Parshat Bereshit 2014 (or, “From the Peanut Gallery”)

Because of the events which unfolded this past week related to Kesher Israel, I was asked on Tuesday to give the sermon this shabbat. Below is what I said.

====

Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha, Bereshit, opens with God creating the world ex nihilo – from nothingness – and describes that primordial nothingness as tohu va’vohu – void and confused. We move through the days of creation, observing the complexity of the created world increase from inanimate objects to plants, animals, and finally the zenith of His created work – the human being. One might think this would be a story of how the perfectly created people would live in perfection.

However, it is not.

Those first human beings, in relatively quick order, manage to be disobedient, deceitful, and murderous. Hava listens to the voice of the snake, eats the forbidden fruit, and then gets Adam to do the same. For this, they are cast out of the garden with a curse. Their oldest children, Kayin and Hevel, follow suit when Kayin commits the first murder, and then lies to God upon being challenged. For this, Kayin is also cast out to wander the earth.

Our sages tell us that the reason for the sixth day being described as “very” good was that God placed in us conflicting desires: the good inclination – the yetzer ha-tov, which wants to constructively obey God’s commands, and an evil inclination – the yetzer ha-ra, which includes the impulsive, the acquisitive, the angry, and the carnal. Our task as people, and a fortiori as Jews, is to yoke the yetzer ha-ra so that our actions – regardless of their initial genesis – can serve God.

In the cases of Adam, Hava, and Kayin, it’s clear that whatever else happened in their lives, they were overcome by their yetzer ha-ra, and while God had conciliatory things to say about it – they were all punished severely for their transgressions. Their actions tore at the fabric of their (small) society, and the nature of their punishment reflected the sense in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that that which is crooked cannot be made straight (Ecc 1:15). It was a permanent punishment – Adam and Hava never made it back to the garden in their lives, because innocence lost cannot be regained. Kayin’s wanderings likewise did not cease – no earthly repentance could repay the loss of Hevel’s life, which we judge to have infinite value.

This could be viewed as the earliest example of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

These two examples have another thing in common: the transgressions and punishment completely take over the characters, so that their good qualities are all but forgotten in the stories themselves and in how they are remembered. If one were to describe Kayin, “that guy who murdered his brother” pretty much sums up the totality of how he is remembered – no attention is paid to how dutiful he was as a son, or any of the good he did his life – that one act became the defining aspect of his persona through history.

Or to put it in the words of Kohelet again, “zevuvay mavet yavish ya- biah shemen rokeah yakar mahokhmah mikavod sikhlut m’at” – “dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little stupidity.” (Ecc: 10:1)

Kohelet isn’t saying that the wisdom and honor go away, or that they do not matter, rather that the damage which can be done by a little stupidity will be what is remembered.

The last thing that these two examples have in common is that the people involved in them act in a similar way when confronted by God – they first attempt to escape blame, and then try to deny responsibility. Adam blames Hava, Hava blames the serpent, and God is angry with all of them. Kayin impudently challenges God with “am I my brother’s keeper?” when given the opportunity to admit what he has done. This, too, is an all-too-human trope – David famously asked “Shegi’ot mi yavin?” – “who can discern his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12)

We are charged with learning both positive and negative examples from the Bible, most famously expressed as “ma’aseh avot simanim l’banim” – the deeds of the ancestors are signs to their descendants.

What does that give us here?

We learn from their examples that the yetzer ha-ra is powerful enough to overcome the reluctance to sin even when one is right in front of God. And more – the three things I find in common here are that the individuals were drawn to follow their yetzer ha-ra, sinned, denied their own role in the sin, and were punished with exile, and the remembrances of their transgressions vastly outweighs the memory of the good they did in their lives.

Judaism teaches us that a corrective to the yetzer ha-ra is engaging the yetzer ha-tov – and we have an opportunity to do that here, now. We can increase our commitment to community service, to study of Torah, and to acts of loving-kindness. We can financially support our community efforts to repair our building, in addition to our other charitable acts. And we can call out to God for His assistance – as David wrote, “the LORD is close to all those who call upon Him in truth.” (ps 145:18)

May we merit to yoke our yetzer ha-ra to the service of God and His commandments.

Taking Care of Business (or “Don’t Wait”)

In 24 hours, I’ve been to a bar mitzvah, an engagement party, an unveiling (memorial service where a grave marker is displayed), and sent Roya & Sarah off to visit her family in Memphis (the picture is from the airport).

If this was any more “circle of life”, I’d have swarms of cartoon animals doing elaborate choreography around me.

But this got me thinking a bit on the ephemerality of the moment- we live in the unquantized “now”, and to do otherwise is considered a terrible curse (Deut 28:67). Or do we?

How present are we actually? There is a whole cottage industry right now in bemoaning how modern technology brings us out of the moment, and makes us disconnected from each other (“Look Up” is a good example of that) – although I’ve seen enough pictures of people ignoring each other on trains reading newspapers to know this isn’t truly a modern phenomenon.

But I think the essence of the thing is still true, that each of the moments we have is precious, and how we choose to spend them offers revealing insight into our characters.

So given my postulated superiority of temporal presence, what’s the actual takeaway, other than “be here now”? I think it would be “don’t wait.” Anything worth doing is worth doing now.

20140623-232057-84057749.jpg

Fanfare for the Common Man (Shavuot 2014)

This is (more or less) the drasha (sermon) I delivered at Kesher Israel on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) this year. It seems to have been well received.

=========

Hag Sameah (happy festival)

Everyone who knows me personally will understand what I mean when I say that I am deeply honored and gratified to be able to address you from here on Yom HaBikkurim (the holiday of the first-fruits).

Two young fish are swimming along, and an old fish swims up and says to them, “enjoy the water today, fellas.” After he leaves, one young fish turns to the other and asks “what’s water?”

It’s an old joke – but it sets the stage for something that caught my attention when I thought about what to say today. You see, there’s something deeply countercultural which is evident in the book of Ruth, and it’s something which I believe we overlook in precisely the same way that the young fish overlook the water.

What do I mean? Well, let’s consider the setting of Ruth – this is the period of the shofetim, the Judges, back before there were Jewish kings. This is the same time which was famously described – negatively – as “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased.” Perhaps this is where we get our reputation as a disorganized religion.

In the surrounding world, at about the same time- dating gets a little fuzzy back then – the Trojan war is occurring. While the Philistines and other Canaanites were direct competitors for resources and land, and the cult of Ba’al and some of the other local pagan deities were religious competitors, the ideas which actually lasted from that time period tended to come out of Hellenic culture.

Specifically, there is this idea of kleos, which can be translated variously as “fame” “glory”, or as Rebecca Goldstein has it – “Acoustic Renown”. Kleos basically was the sense that by engaging in mighty deeds – in extraordinary deeds – one would achieve fame, and this would be the key to living forever. The zenith of this is the subtitle of the Iliad, which is “the Kleos of Achilles”. Kleos was at the core of living the exceptional life, and in the Hellenic mindset, the non-exceptional, ordinary life was not worth living.

In fact, Achilles, the strongest of the Acheans, considers whether he would rather live a long and happy life, without kleos, or a short life, with it, and concludes that the short life with it is the only acceptable way to live.

So this was an important concept in Hellenic culture.

But more than that, I would argue that it’s an important element in our culture as well. We live in a time where it’s easy to get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, and yet people clamor for the 16th minute. There seems to be no type of TV program sufficiently embarrassing that people won’t do it in search of becoming famous. Or, more darkly, consider that we can far more easily bring to mind the names of those who perpetrate heinous crimes than we can their victims. Kleos, indeed.

So what does this have to do with Ruth?

Well, Ruth seems to offer several character studies in behavior – as Rabbi Freundel has mentioned, she is one of the few figures in the Tana”kh whose commentary is entirely positive. Her relationship with Naomi also is a study in love and companionship. But for now, I’d like to focus on Boaz.

When we meet Boaz, whose name is quite literally “strength”, he acts in a thoroughly different manner. He’s just living his life – he’s a landowner, but he’s someone who makes sure to observe pe’ah- leaving the corners of his fields fallow for the poor to glean in them. When thrust into the actual story by meeting Ruth, he behaves honorably and politely toward her, inviting her to come glean.

Up until now, what we have is Boaz behaving honorably and justly, and if he had stopped there – dayeinu – it would have been enough. But the remarkable bit, to me, is what happens next: he instructs his workers to specifically leave a bit more out for her: effectively, what he’s doing is figuring a way to give her an additional bit of charity without her realizing it.

Now, this is remarkable. This is both the example of how to go lifnei mishurat ha-din – beyond the letter of the law, but just as importantly to do so privately. This is the most striking case, but if you look at each example of how Boaz behaves – sending Ruth out early to prevent her from getting slandered, representing himself before the elders, etc, the absence of a concern for kleos or its like is the dog that did not bark.

We see this developed further into places like the anonymity which figures into Rambam’s hierarchy of charitable giving. That is, the most preferable way to give charity (other than giving someone a job), is for neither the giver nor the recipient to know the identity of the other.

So why is the actual difference important? Why would it matter that they’ve got kleos and we don’t?

Let me propose a rationale: in Pirkei Avot (2:1), Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi describes the right path for a person, and says “Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written.” So the deeds of people are recorded in the mind of God. Rabbi Yehudah is describing this in the context of judgement, but it also goes to the context of remembrance – God remembers small deeds, and will see even the hidden ones.

This is no less than a model of a way to live which rejects kleos as an ideal – rather than expecting that mighty deeds should live on in human memory, we should behave as Boaz and Ruth did, and as Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before the LORD your God.”

Nowadays, it would be easy to miss the kleos in the cultural water, just as it would be easy to miss the Jewish “anti-kleos” that we have – we are concerned about all people, not just the extraordinary ones. This comes out in “All Israel has a share in the world to come…”, “Whoever saves a life saves a world” and lots of other places – so to us, the ordinary life is absolutely worth living.

For Art’s Sake

Sarah and I went on our second actual date since becoming parents today – this time to see Tender Napalm at the Signature Theatre (the plus side of season tickets is the built-in date).

For the first time in my life, I actually walked out of a play while it was going on (about 1/3 of the way through). I’ve seen bad shows before – plotless, meandering craptastic shows, but this really reached a new low of “is my time worth this?”

The show is basically a man and woman trading obscene fantastic hate-filled stories at each other, while trying to maintain affected (lower class) British accents. I knew it was going to be bad when the opening phrase was “I could put a bullet between your lips”, but when it descended into abject (unfunny) farce was when the man said he’s shove a grenade up the woman’s c***. Lovely. And old news.

Seriously, go to 1:02 in Da Ali G show here. Yes, Sascha Baron Cohen wrote about “the terrorist who stuck a grenade up the queen’s poo***, and he’s got 48 hours to get it out.” Now, THAT was funny, and original, back when he did it. Now? Not funny, not original, not shocking.

Worse, the whole sex-as-violence metaphor is sooooooo tired. Haven’t we seen enough of this from actually good writers, say, JG Ballard, or James Tiptree Jr? This was old hat in the 90s. Heck, even Jane’s Addiction, in “Ted Just Admit It”, said

Camera got them images
Camera got them all
Nothing’s shocking
Showed me everybody
Naked and disfigured
Nothing’s shocking
And then he came
Now sister’s
Not a virgin anymore
Her sex is violent

That was 1988, for the record.

So I have no idea why other reviewers seem to think this play has actual emotional depth, but honestly, I’ve seen more depth in puddles.

All this play has is shock value, and even that has worn out – it’s more a testament to boredom and ennui than it is to love stories.

not recommended.

Before there was Sgt Pepper

Nineteen years ago today, my life changed for the best.

I didn’t know it at the time, being a callow youth, but making a phone call at 3AM was about the best possible thing I could have done, because on the other end of that call was Sarah. We wouldn’t have actually met in person otherwise, and I’m reasonably certain we wouldn’t have started dating had we not met at that particular juncture in our lives.

Boy, I sure am glad we met when we did.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Roya is glad too.

smile

Now a 3AM call means something a bit different, and this kind of 3AM call, like the kind that started it all, is a worthwhile one – the kind that I’m happy to answer.

Happy anniversary, love; for this nineteen, for the nineteen to come, and the nineteens to come after that.

Survey Says…

Obviously, no baby yet. The results of the highly-not-scientific-at-all poll for when Sarah would give birth are (N=34):

poll_results

Interestingly, not a single person thought that she would deliver on the “due” date. The graph is a little distorted because the 2013 ranges are two days, and the 2014 ranges are four days – if you normalize that, you’d see that it’s top-heavy (which the bottom graph shows better).

percentages_from_poll

I was also surprised to see that more than half of the respondents thought that she would deliver before the stated due date, even though 80% of women deliver after the calculated due date in their first pregnancy. Interesting!

Non-political polling

When will Sarah give birth?.

Thank God, Sarah is well, and we’re all pretty much ready (or as ready as you can be to begin a commitment for the rest of your life), but there have been some jokes about when she would deliver, so I figured that an actual poll would add pseudo-rigor to it. Science!

Kacy is bitterly upset about all of this: she is guarding Sarah, and is about to have her life change dramatically – she’s all jealous, and is acting out a lot already. Hopefully she will adapt well: at least we aren’t getting a puppy!

Maoz Tzur

I wrote this back in 2007 back on my old livejournal (don’t laugh, you whippersnappers), but I want to bring it forward and preserve it, and it’s timely for Thanksgivikuh this year.

====================

My all-time-favorite Jewish song is Ma’oz Tzur (no, not Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages”). The song chronicles God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from a series of oppressive regimes in chronological order.

In prior years, I noticed something interesting in the fifth verse, the one about the salvation from the Selucids (translation from Wikipedia):

יוונים נקבצו עלי ‏‏אזי בימי חשמנים,‏
ופרצו חומות מגדלי ‏‏וטמאו כל השמנים,‏
ומנותר קנקנים ‏‏נעשה נס לשושנים,‏
בני בינה ימי שמונה קבעו שיר ורננים.‏

Greeks gathered against me then in Hasmonean days.
They breached the walls of my towers and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight – eight days established for song and jubilation

The third line there is pronounced “u-minotar kankanim, na’aseh nes lashoshanim,” and as it’s spelled out in English letters, the pun becomes clear – “u-minotar kankanim” doesn’t just mean “and out from the flasks,” it also can mean “and the Minotaur is yoked to ploughs” (Jastrow helpfully provided confirmation of the uncommon usage of kankana as a plough)

I checked the assorted Siddurim (prayerbooks) around the house (Sacks, Birnbaum, Metsudah, Artscroll, Koren), and none of them mention the secondary meaning at all, so I asked RBF about it. His response was that he didn’t remember reading anyone talking about it, but that it’s obviously there. He said that the commentators would have eschewed pointing it out because that would imply that they knew something about Greek culture (!) and this was looked at as a gateway to heresy.

I think that the liturgical poets were pretty clever in their use of multilingual puns.

A suprising miss in the Wiki article is associating “Admon” (lit. “the red one”) with a specific ruler rather than with “Edom” (Esau) = Rome = the Roman Catholic Church, who were clearly the opressors of the Jews at the time of its composition – this association seems strikingly obvious to me…

Anyway, I was pleased to have caught something not much discussed.

XV (not to be confused with Quinceañera)

I’m exhausted, and very happy. In the last week, I’ve built four pieces of furniture (a shelving unit, two bookcases and a crib) to get our house a little more ready for the birth of our daughter.

It wasn’t long ago that this seemed like a chimerical will-o’-the-wisp, and now it feels quite real indeed.

But none of those dreams would have been more than figments, let alone realities, had not Sarah taken my hand in marriage fifteen years ago. That remains the best thing which has ever happened to me. I will always be grateful for her ability to see beyond who I was then, and her willingness to give me a chance – it would have been very easy to write me off.

I fell in love with Sarah right away, but each day is better than the one preceding. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

For fifteen beautiful, wonderful years, I thank you. And for the years to come, I applaud.

My cup of blessing runs over.

A Slip In Time

thegameiam:

This is the first original explanation explaining the passage of the “A”CA I’ve yet seen. Everything else looking at the difference between European state-run health care systems and the US one has basically boiled down to either “American Exceptionalism” or “Insufficient Progress” depending on the opinion of the possessor.

I think Hoyt might have really hit the nail on the head with this one.

Originally posted on According To Hoyt:

I’m not going to pound on the fiasco that is the “socialist convention named” Affordable Care Act.  (There is no affordable in the care act, just like there was no Democratic in the Deutshe Republic and there certainly is very little input from the people in China’s People Republic.)

I’m not going to pound on it, only examine why our reaction to the fiasco it is (and likely will continue being) is so immediate and in your face, when it is true that in most countries with centralized health care, people are fond/proud of it in some way.

Honestly, I think the left had convinced itself that even if it were a very rough start, as this is proving, we would swallow and go along, because other countries have/had.  They thought we would grumble, and moan, but eventually we’d be happy to have that government-provided-health care and not mind too…

View original 1,211 more words

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers