Archive for the '1.02 Noah' Category

The Tower of Trump: On Civic Ignorance

In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside. Like Augustus, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, Donald Trump has come forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve our problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. Trump will not make American great again. He is an outgrowth of our civic ignorance. Trump really just wants to make his name great.
I was thinking about this in the context of Noah, this week’s Torah portion, where we learn about the Tower of Babel. There is says:
And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ (Genesis 11: 3-4)
Modeled on his gauche Trump Towers his campaign is built on the disturbing idea of building a wall on the Mexican border.  Trump is not offering solutions to real problems, rather he is offering the confused ( read here mivubal) masses a just a place to  ” let us make us a name”.
In Souter ‘s remarks he references a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson said:
If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.
I think we need to reflect on this before we vote on Tuesday. We need to vote against the bigoted  anti-Intellectualism of Trump.  I am not saying that Hillary is beyond critique, but she is no Augustus. To save our republic we need to elect Hillary and bring down this Tower of Babel on which Trump is trying to put his name. On Wednesday we will have to do the hard work of dealing with our widespread civic ignorance.

Looking for Noah: Prophesy for Our Times

When I stop to reflect on this last week and Noah, this weeks Torah portion, there are actually almost too many connection points. When we read :

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with hamas- violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

It is hard reading this without thinking of the situation in Israel right now with all of the stabbings and violence. As with the generation of Noah you have to ask what would make people act this way? There is no doubt that the status quo in Israel needs to change, but this will not make it change for the better. I am afraid it will take generations to heal from this pain and corruption.

And then you get to the flood itself and it is impossible not think about issue we have with climate change. It seems hard to argue with the fact that our treatment of the world has led to a situation in which we are putting our children at risk if not ourselves.

And then we get to the dispersion of the descendants of Noah after the destruction of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

And the Lord said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. ( Genesis 11:6-9)

It is impossible for me to read this without thinking about the current global refugee crisis. Europe is terrified that it will become confounded by the sudden influx of displaced Muslim and Arabs fleeing regimes that look to build up their control and their name.

With so many parallels between the Torah portion of Noah and the headlines it is easy to read it as some sort of cautionary prophesy. I am just looking for our generation’s Noah. He or she need not be perfect, but we desperately need leadership that will save our world for the next generation.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Mickey, Noah, and Gun Control

This past week I had the pleasure to take a group of camp professionals and educators to a backstage tour of Disney. We got to see how they “over-manage” the people, place, and policies of Disney to ensure spectacular costumer service and remarkable mission alignment. It was great, but a little scary that Mickey Mouse is everywhere. At night our group met under Mickey’s hat from Fantasia to go see the “town”. In the context of trying to learn about the magic of Disney it is not surprising to this iconic image of Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice all over the place.   images

So what is the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? The scene starts with Sorcerer Yen Sid working on his magic and his apprentice Mickey doing the chores. After soindexme magic, Yen Sid puts his hat down and retires to his room. When he is out of sight, Mickey puts the hat on and tries the magic on a broom. He commands the broom to carry buckets of water to fill a vat. Mickey is satisfied, he sits on the chair and falls asleep. He dreams he is a powerful sorcerer high on top of the world commanding the stars, planets, and water. Mickey wakes up to find the room is filled with water, the vat is overflowing, and the broom is not stopping. Mickey tries to stop the broom but with no success. He grabs an ax and chops the broom into many pieces. Just when it seems that it is all over, the pieces grow into more brooms with buckets of water. The brooms keep going to the vat and fill it up. Mickey tries to get the water out but they were too many brooms. Mickey goes to a book and looks for a spell to stop the brooms. Mickey finds himself in a whirlpool. Just then, Yen Sid comes in and sees this and with a wave of his hands, the water descends and the army of brooms decreases to one broom. Yen Sid glares at Mickey who gives him back his hat back and the broom. He picks up the buckets and starts back slowly to finish his chores. At the end, Yen Sid whacks Mickey from behind with the broom and Mickey runs out.

As I was traveling around Disneyland I could not help thinking about Noah, this week’s Torah Portion. There we read about God cleansing the world from evil. There we read:

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. ( Genesis 6:11-13)

On one level there is the interesting role that Noah plays as God’s loyal apprentice. But in this case, as compared to Mickey, Noah does his job well and actually saves humanity from God’s heavy duty water cleaning service. A more interesting connection is to the presence of Hamas– violence in the world. Why would otherwise good people act so poorly?

This is connect to a scene in Sorcerer’s Apprentice that you might have missed. As a mentioned above, Micbreakkey lost control of the broom and could not stop it. At a critical moment he takes out an ax thinking it will stop the broom. Instead of stopping the broom it increased his problem exponentially creating many more brooms flooding the room. This seems to connect to our cycle of violence and incarceration and the lack of gun control in this country. When someone does an offense we send them to prison which has not proven to rehabilitate them. Violence is met with violence increasing violence exponentially. All in the name of maintaining control. Why didn’t Mickey just remove the bucket from the broom?  Wayne Lapierre head of the NRA is oft quoted saying, The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” The answer to destruction cannot be violence which will make even more destruction in the world. Why is it normal for us to expect that Mickey would just take an ax to the broom? This points at the banality of evil both ancient and contemporary.

 

Schlepherds and Cities

A friend and colleague of mine shared with me a Dvar Torah she wrote on the occasion of her son’s bar mitzvah this Shabbat. In her remarks she is addressing the fascinating story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. In a mere 9 verses this story tries to explain why humanity became multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and possessing thousands of different languages. She outlines different approaches to this story. The first is that the central sin of these ancient people was in building a tower to reach the heavens.  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, the people wished “to demonstrate that, if all join forces and work together, mankind can overpower nature.”  It is their hubris in attempt to reach the godly sphere that causes God to scatter them.

Another approach she shared was from Drs.  Robert Alter and James Kugel. These biblical scholars point out that the text does not necessarily support this interpretation.  In fact, while the tower is certainly there in the story, it is hardly the whole point.  If it were, there would have been no need to mention the building of a city at all.  In fact, Kugel writes, “it is remarkable that, after God’s intervention, the text says, ‘and the building of the city was stopped.’  There is not a word about the tower’s fate; if it were so crucial, should not the text have mentioned its collapse or abandonment?”In this interpretation it was urban materialism itself that the Torah is rejecting.

I find this point of view particularly interesting when you juxtapose it with Yosef’s dreams. There in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams when he has dreams of their stars and bundles of wheat bowing to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother. But, is that enough to make them what to kill or even enslave their brother. Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  prediction of Yosef or his preaching for the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was as if Yosef was saying what would be later popularized in the New Testament that his brothers needed to put their childish things away.    In some sense his dream was calling for a radical technological innovation. They went after Yosef because he was calling for  end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. In this light it seems that Yosef was leading us back to the “crime” of Migdal Bavel. 

Some questions to consider:

  • What is the difference between the building project of the Mikdash and Migdal Bavel?
  • What is the role of Jerusalem  (or Tel Aviv for some)  in Jewish thought?
  • What is the relationship between the  ideal contemporary Jewish life and urban living?
  • Will the Jewish people survive being scattered outside of our cities?

For Nothing

Our lives gains purpose when we find a cause bigger ourselves and we commit our lives to that cause. What a tragedy to discover that your life work was for nothing? Just think about the people who toiled in building the Tower of Babel  about which we read in Noah, this week’s Torah portion. They might have been just a swarm of people, but this project gave them purpose. There they were in valley of Babylonia spending night and day making bricks to construct into a Tower. And then their plan was confounded.

Similarly we will read in the story of Exodus that Pharaoh increased the burden upon the Israelite slaves by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

Hevel Hevalim– Vanity of vanities  it just feels that our lives have no meaning when we have nothing to show for our work.  This is something that I am not sure I would not be abel to bear. According to Victor Frankl our primal drive as human beings is meaning. Can you imagine the devastation of spending your life working on a tower only to have it be destroyed? How do we know when we are living lishma for our values and when we are just making castles in the sand?

 

Keep Dancing

Having survived another Simchat Torah filled with much music and dancing, I find it difficult to get back to a regular work week.  I am reminded of a story told by the Baal Shem Tov. He said:

Once a fiddler played so sweetly that all who heard him began to dance, and whoever came near enough to hear, joined in the dance. Then a deaf man who knew nothing of music, happened along, and to him all he saw seemed the action of madmen- senseless and in bad taste.-  Buber

Is Judaism a wonderful dance or something senseless or worse in bad taste? I guess it depends on your perspective.

In this weeks Torah portion, we learn that Noah saved humanity because he was righteous in a corrupt generation. (See Rashi on Tzadik B Doro) In many ways Noah needed to be counter-cultural to build an ark. In the end, the story teaches us that we cannot determine taste by the majority.

I hope that even with the holidays behind us, we can all strive to find ways to continue to dance to the rhythms of Jewish living. I believe that commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish will ensure our sustained contribution to the world. It is not so bad being counter cultural; it might just be the secret to our survival. Together we can find ways to dance to our timeless music and talk about how we might do our part to ensure a safe future for all of God’s creatures.

More on Woodcutters and Water Carriers

Last week marked our daughter Emunah’s first birthday and my first year anniversary of writing this blog. At the start of last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim VaYelech we read,

9You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodcutter to water carrier (Deuteronomy  29:9-10)

Every Jew was included in the renewal of the covenant, regardless of his or her socio-economic situation or the variety of his or her religious/ritual commitment. But, what can we learn from the Torah’s specifying from the woodcutter to the water carrier?

The Bible seems to be telling a story of a dynamic tension between these two vocations. Last year I explored how Adam and Eve might be understood metaphorically as the woodcutter and the water carrier. This year I wanted to suggest two more readings.

Soon after we celebrate Rosh HaShanah we will celebrate Simchat Torah and reboot our yearly cycle of Torah reading.  And then just after the creation of the world, we will turn our attention to Noah and his generation. While there are many stories in the Bible in which people are looking for water, in the time of Noah that is not their issue. God sent a flood to expunge the world of the poor behavior of the sinners of Noah’s generation. Noah saved humanity from the peril of too much water by following God’s direction to make and ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) In this context we can see that the people acting like animals were the water carriers and Noah in hewing the wood for the ark was the woodcutter. This is to say that in last week’s Torah portion we were inviting everyone from the savior ( Noah)  to the sinner ( the people who caused the flood). We learn that no one has the monopoly on access to Torah.

For today’s readers the story of the flood seems like a Disney movie, but have evolved so much since biblical times. We think we are in control and that we have conquered nature. But it is obvious from the recent flooding  in Pakistan and Katrina here in America that this is far from the case. As much as we try we cannot transcend nature. Even Noah the person who survived the flood by becoming the woodcutter did not know when to leave the ark he built. There we read,
The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.( Genesis 8:11)
There is a sweet irony in that we almost went extinct in acting like animals in becoming the water carriers and it was an animal that became a woodcutter and saved Noah and his family.  In this sense the invitation of the woodcutter to the water carrier  is a reminder of the famous words of Rabbi Simcha Bunam. He said,
Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha’olam, ‘for my sake was the world created.’ In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va’efer, ‘I am dust and ashes.’
It seems that control itself might be illusory. I hope that Emunah has another wonderful year perfecting her walking and learning how to navigate her “two pockets”.

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