Archive for the '1.01 Bereishit' Category

Men Hiding: Genesis, Purim, and Kavanuagh

We just made it through the holiday season and the next holiday is Hanukkah on the distant horizon weeks from now on December 2-10. This is why it is particularly weird that I woke up this morning thinking about Purim which is not until March 20, 2019. It was less strange seeing that we are reading Parshat Bereishit this week. In one of my favorite passages in the Talmud the Rabbis mix the stories of Purim with earlier narratives in the Torah. There we learn:

From where in the Torah, [do I know] Haman? “Is it from (hamin) this tree” (Genesis 3:11). From where in the Torah, [do I know] Esther? “And I will surely hide (astir)” (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Where is Mordecai mentioned in the Torah?… As is written “Flowing myrrh” (Exodus 30:23), which the Targum renders as “Mira Dachia“. ( Chullin 139b)

There is clearly some fun word play going on here, but why is it important that Haman is prefigured in the story of the Garden of Eden? What is that context? There in Genesis we read:
The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of (hamin) the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” ( Genesis 3:9-12)

The scene is set. Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and God is coming to inquire as to what they did. God asks Adam two questions:

  1. Who told you that you were naked?
  2. Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?

We see in Adam’s answer that he ignores the first question ( subject of other writing) and only answers the second question by way of blaming Eve if not God for his eating that which was forbidden. In some mystical way Haman is prefigured in the Torah as the allure of not taking responsibility for what Adam himself did and hanging the blame of others. Just as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is removed from the tree at the start of our narrative, Haman is returned to the gallows he created for Mordecai at the end of the Megilah. There we see humanity is redeemed when Esther, who is hidden, reveals herself. She is the Eve who Mordecai and the rest of her people are proud to follow.

While these parallel images do frame the Eden and Purim stories, what I find most compelling today is the story of men not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming women. In all of the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court he has yet to take responsibility for anything he might have done consciously or unconsciously.  Regardless if Kavanaugh gets the seat or not, this whole situation has cast violence against women up against “being fair to men” that seems to be eerily prefigured by the Megilah. There King Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to come before the king wearing only her a royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials. Upon her refusal he was incensed and did not know what to do so he turned to his advisers. There we read:

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” (Esther 1: 16-20)

In our tragic version of the Megilah we make Dr. Chistine Blasey Ford show up to display her vulnerability to the peoples and the officials on national TV and still question the victim. Hiding behind a sham of an FBI report the advisers and the King are claiming that any concession to veracity Dr Ford’s accusations would lead to “no end of scorn and provocation” and be very bad do men. In a new low for the President and the country Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, casting doubt on her testimony about her alleged sexual assault.

I for one want to thank Dr Ford, our modern-day Vashti, for elegantly, gracefully, and humbly showing up to show us that our elected officials of naked behind their crowns of power. This is a moment for us to reflect and redefine who has power in our kingdom. We need to be bigger than Haman, Adam, Memucan, or our modern-day King Ahasuerus and his officials. Power and gender need not be a zero sum game. And most urgently we see in the Garden of Eden as today, men cannot hide behind a woman. Men need to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions without blaming women. Truly that will be the only way we will uproot scorn and provocation from across the kingdom. Image result for senate confirmation dr ford

 

 

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The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. (Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point.

Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

Limitless: Möbius Torah 2.0

I love rereading Parshat Bereshit, this week’s Torah portion, anew every year. My one issue is that it really needs months to really get through all of the issues and themes brought up. But alas I wanted to share one thought of many. Here we read:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:16-17)

In the Garden of Eden, the man had no limits, except for not eating from the  tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It seems that our nature to strive to be  limitless, but it is this very innate drive that brings death.

The definition of our  humanity is our being limited by our mortality. What are the implications of  for our morality? How do limits, both mortal and moral, help us create meaning in our lives?

Similar to what Shalom Orzach and I did when we created  Möbius Torah: The Media and Message of Torah and Teshuva we were inspired by McLuhan’s  “The medium is the message“ of the Möbius medium and the advent of the Book of Genesis.  This inspired our creation of Limitless: Möbius Torah 2.0 which explores some ideas in the Divine infinitude and our human limits.

To make a Möbius Torah please:

  1. Print this page our on Ledger (11×17) sized paper. This will ensure it is big enough to read.
  2. Cut out the table on the sheet.
  3. Fold along the dotted line with the writing facing outwards.
  4. Bend Paper  into a circular shaped cuff.
  5. Tape the ends to create a möbius strip as in this picture.Image result for mobius strip
  6. As you learn it turn it and turn it again because there is no beginning and no end to learning Torah.
  7. Alternatively you can just learn the text without the arts and crafts project, but that would not be as much fun.

With Möbius Torah we hope to create a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message the Torah is perceived. Please print this out and enjoy. It has been a pleasure playing with Shalom in the bringing you this Torah. As always I would love your input and ideas for other ways to make revelation relevant, engaging,  and more accessible. So please do be in touch.

Naming the Naming Project: A Deep Look at Adam and the Human Project

With the Holidays behind us, we are back in the Garden of Eden with our annual rebooting of the Torah reading. It really feels like we are starting our year again from the beginning. We are again introduced to Adam.  I am struck every year how familiar and yet how completely other-ly his character seems.  Who was Adam?

Here in Beresheit, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And God Almighty formed from the earth every beast of the field and every fowl of the heavens, and God brought [it] to man to see what he would call it, and whatever the man called each living thing, that was its name. And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field.: (Genesis 2:19-20)

Adam named all of God’s creatures. But is that who he is? It is clear that none of us can be minimized or limited to a job description. But this work is not simply giving names to things. In this work he needed to define his relationship with them ( Yevamot 63a). In giving them names he also had to determine their relationship to each other. What are categories of animal life? To name God’s creations he needed to create language and an entire taxonomy of creation. This means that for Adam to do his job he really needed to come to a deep understanding of the world around him.

It seems that our job and our identity as human beings is still to make sense of the world around us. It is interesting to realize that in so many ways we are still striving to create a language to make order of the chaos of our experience of the world.

In terms of Adam’s initial job he have maps that classifies the animal world.

Besides the incredible history of cartography of the world around us we are also running to map the world inside us in the Human Genome Project.

 

Similarly we strive to organize our understanding of the chemical world:

 

This Periodic Table inspired this Tiffany Shlain’s periodic table of character traits.

SOC_Periodic_Poster_small.png

In tern this inspired my own Making Mensches Periodic Table, which eventually turned into this:

I like to think of this work as the genome project of the soul.

But we are just getting started. There are those who look to map our experience of flavor:

 

Figure 2

And even smell:

There has been similar work to understand music. This has been popularized by Pandora.  Similarly I recently discovered the Art Genome Project which is an amazing effort to classificy the characteristics that connect artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects across history. And there is Scott McCloud‘s brilliant categorization of comic art:

And even efforts of map out the history of philosophy:

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of all of our naming projects. It seems Adam’s job is hard-wired into who we are as human beings. We just need to name it that in a very deep way Adam is who we are striving to become.

Lets’ Do This

Here we are again at the beginning of it all with the reading of Bereishit, this week’s Torah portion. Like every passing year I get sucked deeper into thinking about the story of the Garden of Eden. As a parent constantly tending the garden of my children’s education I am struck by the need in the story for setting limits. As we read:

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat from  it you shall surely die.’ 18 And the Lord God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help mate for him.'(Genesis 2:16-18)

Adam and Eve are two different people and have different experiences of the world. And sure enough this help mate and Adam eat of this fruit and that limit is breached. So with eating this fruit they also breach an absolute understanding of what is “good”. There is no longer the absolute of  truth and false, but rather relative categories of good and bad. Their eating of the fruit simultaneously gave birth to human mortality and human morality.

This brings to mind one of favorite and shortest TED talks. This talk is given by Damon Horowitz who teaches philosophy through the Prison University Project, bringing college-level classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison. In this powerful short talk, he tells the story of an encounter with right, wrong, good, and bad that quickly gets personal. Please take the two minutes to watch this ( it is worth it and you will thank me):

In light of this talk we can see the direct line from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the Mark of Cain. In many ways we all bear the burden of having to work to reestablish what is “good” in the world.  As Horowitz says, “But we are not here to trade opinions, everyone has an opinion. We are here for knowledge. Our enemy is thoughtlessness. This is philosophy.” His argument is beautiful in its simplicity. The project of philosophy is to help us turn or return to truth. In living the examined life we can reenter the Garden ( the always already there) unmarked by society. Tony and Horowitz discovered this in prison, a place in which the prisoner is locked in. It is our task to return to Eden a place from which we have been locked out. As we are starting off this new year, I want to echo Tony and Damon Horowitz’s words,” Let’s do this.” Who is in?

Tasty Education

Tonight at dinner we served the kids tofu, sushi rice, and nori.  They love it. It has become one of our weeknight staples. Once we give them little bowls with soy sauce for the dipping they are in heaven.

But at some point Yishama and Yadid made a bit of mess. I asked them to clean it up. Yishama smiled and said that he was making ” Tohu V Vohu. He obviously has started his Genesis unit at school. Without missing a beat Yadid said, ” No you are making a Tofu V Vohu”. I sat for a while basking the depth of all of us sharing a good laugh.

While it is chaotic imagining how we will pay for Jewish education as a family or as a community, there is no mistaking the value of a good Jewish education. Jewish education adds depth to the human experience and it makes life tasty as well.

No Narrative No Nomos

Early in my own religious evolution I was swayed toward Orthodoxy by their a critique of Reform Judaism. It seemed artificial to separate ritual from moral law. In my experience keeping Shabbat itself made me a moral human being. How could one be judged separately? While I understood that people might not see any relevance in Jewish law in general, the line between these two areas of law seemed arbitrary. One would not need to make-believe that it was Judaism. There was no shame in being moral secular humanist. A Halachic mind  sees ritual life as an integrated context for moral living. This approach cultivated people to respond to the world systematically and habituated its adherents to behave justly. In retrospect I can see over time my own views grew in nuance. In general and now with all of the horrible religious coercion going on in Israel more than ever I would not make that claim for Orthodox Jews, but I  still would make the claim for those committed to living according to Halacha ( And yes for those following at home they are not the same).

As time went on and I spent more time in yeshivah, I was overcome by the what I found there. How many times did we skip through an aggadic section in the Gemara in pursuit of the Halachic section? The same people who lodged the above mentioned critique perpetrated the same division in their own lives.  Just like the Reformers, the Roshei Yeshiva (and most of Chazal) had trouble realizing that within learning these aggadot we are creating meaningful context for the law. Without these laws we lose boundaries; without the stories we lose direction.

At the start of Genesis Rashi asks why the story of the Bible starts with the creation of the world. Why not start with the first Law given to the Jewish people? So too, one might ask the question by the start of Exodus. Why not start the book of Exodus off with Parshat Bo, when we read “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim  – this month is to you the head (first) of the months.”(Exodus 12:1) It is clear that  in the case of the entire book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, we need a context for the law. Or in the terms set out by Robert Cover, we cannot have the nomos removed from the narrative.

Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. Rituals are themselves an enactment of stories over time. In this way stories are the pillars of our society. That being true, it is troubling to realize how difficult it is for us all regardless of religious affiliation to realize this truism. If we forget our law or our lore we will not endure in making our collective contribution to the world.


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