December 2018 | Genesis Part 5: Tower of Babel
Shortly after the story of Noah’s ark, we watch the characters of Genesis take on another building project – this time a tower.
The intent of the tower, according to Genesis, was to reach up to heaven. The rabbis of the Midrash explain that the builders’ purpose was to challenge God’s authority. Because of this human arrogance, God had to disrupt the builders by changing their languages so they couldn’t communicate with each other. With no common language the building project came to a screeching halt.
But I’ve always wondered if God overreacted in this situation. Perhaps the builders were not arrogant but simply ambitious. Perhaps they dreamt of creating one structure that represented a true human collaboration in service of one God.
So why does God react so harshly? Why, especially after the destruction the flood, couldn’t God give the tower builders the benefit of the doubt. Surely the potential for human unity was worth a little patience! Perhaps the builders were misguided, but perhaps not. How inspiring it could have been to have a symbol of human collaboration and unity!
We talk a lot about unity and finding common ground in our divided world today. Most of us value the idea of unity and joining together as a human community. We see divisions as barriers and hurdles to overcome.
And yet in this Tower of Babel narrative, God purposely breaks apart unity and creates diversity. What can we learn from this?
Rabbi Mary L Zamore teaches:
God foiled their plan and scattered them—and us, their descendants—to send a strong message, one still needed today. True peace, true unity lies in respectful diversity. The answer to the pre-Flood human-against-human violence is not evolving into a homogenous unit; only when we learn to co-exist as different nations, cultures, religions, lifestyles, and languages will we find true peace.
This is a challenging interpretation but one that I think warrants our consideration. Maybe the goal is not necessarily finding common ground or unifying people into one homogeneous whole. Maybe the real goal is working towards truly respectful diversity.
It is easy to accept those who are just like ourselves. It is easy to focus on our common interests and tune out to areas on which we disagree. By contrast, it is quite challenging to acknowledge true, painful differences and still behave with respect and honor towards the other.
On this subject of unity vs. diversity, Judaism, pushes us beyond the easy goal. We are not tasked with merging into one unified human peoplehood. We are challenged to remain distinct, to have varying values and priorities, and yet still love our neighbor as yourself.
November 2018 | Genesis Part 4: Noah
Believe it or not, our tradition is quite conflicted about Noah. Noah has his positives – he is chosen by God to maintain life aboard the ark and he does so with quiet obedience. But Noah also has his negatives. The rabbis criticize Noah for not advocating for his community, indeed all of humankind, before God.
The midrash (rabbinic interpretations) teaches that Noah actually went deliberately slowly, starting by planting the trees to provide the wood for building the ark. Noah was hoping that his neighbors would inquire about what he was doing and he would have the chance to explain that God’s destruction was on the horizon.
But even with this slow and very public effort, Noah does not convince even one other soul to join him in believing in God.
Noah, it seems, was a poor leader and a weak prophet. No one believed him and no one followed his example.
Is that Noah’s fault? Maybe he tried his best but his generation was simply too far gone. If they were evil and unreachable, why was that Noah’s fault?
A teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe says that Noah was at fault because his efforts were insincere. He tried superficially to convince his generation to change their ways, but he wasn’t fully acting from the heart.
The fact that he did not pray for them implies that, ultimately, it did not matter to him what became of them. Had he truly cared, he would not have sufficed with “doing his best,” but would have implored the Almighty to repeal His decree of destruction—just as a person whose own life is in danger would never say, “Well, I did my best to save myself” and leave it at that, but would beseech G‑d to help him.
Noah was righteous enough that he knew he had to do something. But he wasn’t fully righteous to put his heart and soul into their cause.
The Rebbe teaches: Deep down, a person will always sense whether you truly have his interests at heart, or you are filling a need of your own by seeking to change him.
This test of sincerity I think is relevant for our times. We take part in many worthy causes and give tzedakah generously to important charities. And yet, the real Jewish goal is empathy and human connection.
In our times, we are flooded by regular episodes of murderous violence – most recently at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Since Parkland we have heard the mantra: thoughts and prayers are not enough. We are fed up with insincere words that represent neither a true heart nor a serious commitment to change.
So perhaps we can learn from Noah. When we have a mission, whether it is to lead our government, to guide our children, or care for our neighbors, or work in our profession, sincerity is essential. Going through the motions is not enough. Checking off that we did some charity or donated some leftovers is not what is going to heal our broken world.
Healing comes through human connection and empathy.
Judaism commands us to love our neighbor as yourself. Working on this mitzvah, I believe, is the true pathway to a better world.
October 2018 | Genesis Part 3: Cain & Abel
Immediately after the drama of Adam and Eve, we move on to the drama of their sons, Cain and Abel.
Adam and Eve committed the first mistake of disobeying God’s command. Cain and Abel go even further and descend into the realm of actual murder. Cain kills Abel for some unnamed reason. The Torah simply states that the brothers argue. There is no clue what the argument was about or why it lead to such a violent outcome.
Abel is killed and Cain is marked for life as a murderer – hence the term “the mark of Cain.” It’s not exactly the happy start to our Torah we might envision.
I want to look at what this narrative represents and why it is placed right here at the beginning of our whole Torah.
Why wouldn’t the Torah begin with a positive, uplifting and inspiring story? Why do we have these prominent opening narratives where things really go horribly wrong?
You could argue that the Torah is teaching the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. They violated God’s one commandment not to eat from the tree and everything went downhill drastically after that.
But I think the Torah is teaching something more subtle. To me, the Cain and Abel story is about human responsibility. Their sin was not arguing, their sin was not taking responsibility for each other.
After Abel’s death, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” and Cain famously answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain is angry and offended even at God’s question. You can almost hear the fake indignation in his voice: Who me? What did I do? It’s not my fault!
God then answers Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me.”
God says, yes, absolutely, you are responsible for your brother. There is no escaping you that you are brothers and even in death, his blood is your responsibility.
Perhaps the reason this tragic narrative is presented at the opening of the Torah is to instill in human beings at the earliest possible moment, that we have individual responsibility. This world is not going to be governed by a capricious god like those of other ancient mythologies. This God is powerful, but not more powerful than human will.
The Jewish answer to “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an emphatic yes. Yes we are all responsible for one another.
In our world today it is easy and tempting to revert to our small circle of family and friends. It is comforting to help and be helped by those familiar to us.
But the Torah teaches us to aim higher. But by placing the drama of Cain and Abel at the opening of the Torah, we can see Judaism’s higher standard.
It’s not enough to take care of those closest to us. It’s not enough to show concern only for our brothers. Our goal as a human race is to reach beyond our immediate circle and be the keepers of everyone’s brothers.
It sounds lofty, indeed impossible.
But keep in mind the Torah is not a fairytale with happy endings and simple morals. The Torah is a challenge. It’s intent is to make us reach and stretch and go beyond our innate norms of kindness and goodness. The Torah is also about justice. And if we’re honest, we know that the world is seriously out of balance.
The Torah doesn’t let us off easy. It doesn’t say, do what you can, try your best.
It says: Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. It says: In fact you are the keeper of every brother and sister, every child and every senior, every living creature and every natural resource.
It is not an easy mission. It is not a mission for even one lifetime or one generation. But it is the mission that has been handed to us since the time of Adam.
Be a keeper – in as broad a sense as possible – and that is a pathway to returning the human connection of brotherhood back to our world.
SEPTEMBER 2018 | Genesis Part 2: Adam & Eve
I was talking with some students in our Judaic Studies class recently about the Adam and Eve chapter of Genesis, when something struck me. This kids were not at all disappointed that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
“But isn’t that a bummer,” I said, “that they couldn’t live in this perfect paradise and have the easy life?”
“No,” they said. “That wouldn’t be good for them. They didn’t even realize how good they had it.”
When these kids learned that the punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was expulsion, these kids seemed actually relieved. The perfection the Garden of Eden was not appealing to them. In fact it was too much pressure. And they argued, if Adam and Eve didn’t know anything bad, they wouldn’t appreciate the good.
I was interested and impressed to hear the worldview of young people who are perfectly at ease with imperfection.
Indeed Adam and Eve don’t complain about their punishment, and although dialogue is sparse, I get the sense that Adam and Eve carry on with relative calmness after their punishment.
What is the Torah trying to teach us with the narrative?
Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard Professor of Humanities writes:
Hebrew Scriptures seems to be offering a powerful way to understand a fundamental set of questions about the way we humans live: Why do we have to work so hard? Why are women oppressed by men? Why do they continue to desire men who oppress them? Given that childbirth is necessary for procreation, why is it so painful? Why, in the end, do we return to the dust? While the story, as told in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), does not suggest Adam and Eve sinned, it does seem to suggest that the earliest human beings bear some responsibility for the way things are.
The Adam and Eve introduce the idea of human responsibility. Imagine if they hadn’t been expelled from the Garden. Imagine if God had simply said, “Oh well, you broke my only law, but no big deal. Let me fix that for you, let me give you another chance.”
My students in school would have been very disappointed in God I think! But more importantly, the potential for human beings to learn and grow would have been stunted right there at the beginning.
Very early on, our Torah sets up a dynamic between God and humanity that is two sided. In other ancient religions, the gods were arbitrary. Humans couldn’t influence when it would rain or when there would be enough food. Judaism starts from a different point: that human beings can and do influence our environment and our reality.
That is not to say we can control everything – surely the ability to let go and not control is a particular challenge for many of us. But the spiritual challenge of our time is to know the difference. When do exert our efforts and influence to make changes and when do we release and let life takes its course.
My sense is that we often confuse the two. We try to control the small things close to us – our family members, our professional lives, our public image, while we give up on the big things that seem uncontrollable – the environment, social injustices, politics.
Perhaps the Adam and Eve story is reminding us that we have more power than we think – work on the big things that God created us for: caretaking the earth and all its creatures. And give up some of the things that are driven by ego.
AUGUST 2018 | Genesis Part 1: Creation Consciousness
This year, my Torah column will focus on the Book of Genesis. Genesis is the first, and probably most familiar, book of the Torah. This book has many themes that still influence us today: being created in God’s image, a day of rest, creation and destruction, along with many issues related to family relationships.
In my view, Genesis is book about God and our early Jewish ancestors getting to know each other. They are creating something totally new and revolutionary. God is open to the influence of humankind and humankind is learning how to live in holiness rather than in simple everyday-ness.
Many of Genesis’ stories are familiar – Creation, Noah, Joseph and his coat – but these stories as child-like as some may appear, are the foundation of our religion and indeed many world religions.
Let’s talk about Creation.
Why does the Torah start with creation?
In our day and age, we believe in science and evolution. We know intellectually that Earth wasn’t created in 6 days. We know that God probably didn’t speak things into existence with commands like: Let there be light!
So what use is a creation narrative?
Rashi, the great Medieval commentator explains that we have the creation story so that all humanity can know that Earth is God’s property. Should any people or nation become too haughty and dominating, the Creation story reminds us that whatever we have is on loan from God. God is the landlord of Earth.
I value that interpretation but it’s not quite satisfying. We have commandments about letting the land rest in the 7th year and returning property to its owners in the Book of Leviticus. To me, Rashi doesn’t fully answer the question of why the Torah begins with Creation.
Dr. Carol Ochs, a professor at Hebrew Union College, shares a beautiful interpretation of the creation of light on the first day. We may think that light on the first day means the sun. But the sun, moon and stars were called into being until the fourth day. So what is the light of the first day?
Dr. Ochs teaches that Day One light is the light of consciousness.
It is the moment of awareness and awakeness that happens even before we physically see something.
Living in our world, we may think of sunrise, but that is not the light referred to in the Torah-the sun is not called into being until the fourth day. Rather, it is the light of consciousness, which appears to us just after waking but before we open our eyes to admit physical light.
If we understand this first form of light as consciousness, then we understand that from the beginning, creation is conscious and deliberate.
Our prayerbook also recognize this ability in our morning blessings when we say, Thank you God for giving us the ability to distinguish between day and night.
The blessing is not referring to our physical capacity to distinguish but to our spiritual consciousness, the ability to be aware of our universe.
This interpretation resonates with me because it answers the question of why start the Torah with Creation. Creation is not simply an itinerary of what happened when. It is a deep statement about the purpose of life. Consciousness, awareness, awakeness is the purpose.
Why does the Torah include the Creation story? To show us our purpose, not just when we were created, but why.
For we Jews, that awareness comes through mitzvot. By taking part in the holy activites Judaism invites us into, we develop a consciousness of time, environment, other people and perhaps God as well.
On Rosh Hashanah, coming soon, we sound the shofar. Its blasts are not an organized melody but their purpose harkens back to creation. Each shofar sound is meant to wake us up, to blast us into consciousness of the holiness around us.
From Creation through our holy days, Judaism gives us an opportunity for a higher consciousness and more meaningful interactions.
As we begin this new year together, may we gather strength from each other to be more awake and alert in our service of God and humanity.
Think & Discuss:
What is the spiritual message of our Jewish creation narrative to you?
How can we be more aware / awake in our environment today?
When are the moments when you feel more aware?