Posts Tagged 'Faith'

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

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Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?

7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity

While her secular birthday was on September 2nd, Emunah’s Hebrew birthday is today. It is crazy to realize that today she is 7 years old. It is also crazy for me to pause to recognize that I have been writing this blog for 7 years. This blog started with her birth and I has grown along with her for the years. Every year around this time I reflect on Emunah, the name, person, and concept. I feel blessed to have them Emunah in my life.

As I have quoted before Martin Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting. (Two Types of Faith 28-29)

This year I take pause to thing about what it might mean to falter in one’s Emunah. The paradigm of this in the Talmud is the life of Elisha ben Abuyah a rabbi born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE who adopted a worldview considered heretical by his community. So why did he lose his Emunah? We learn in the Talmud:

‘How did this happen to him? He [Elisha] once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, ‘It is written, “Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!’ He was unaware how Rabbi Akiva explained it, ‘That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,’ And that you may prolong your days’ in the world which is unending. ( Hagigah 15b)

The Talmud depicts that Elisha lost his faith when he saw injustice in the world. As we see in Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, there is supposed to be a reward of life for sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. In comparison Rabbi Akiva kept his faith because of his belief in a world to come where the perceived God’s injustice would be made right. In either of their cases it is about having or not having faith or belief. What about Buber’s idea of having fidelity and relationship?

It is said, “Mr Goldfarb goes to synagogue to be in relationship with God. I go to synagogue to be in relationship with Mr. Goldfarb”. It is interesting the Talmud does not say that Elisa did not believe Rabbi Akiva, but that he was unaware of his teaching. Is the assumption that if he was aware Elisha would have believed Rabbi Akiva? Maybe if Elisha was aware of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching he would have known that the system works for someone in his community and he would have stayed in relationship with Rabbi Akiva and his community.

Seven years later while Emunah my daughter might be a struggle times, my relationship with her is steadfast and unshakable, even if my relationship with faith is often a still struggle. Regardless I am still in dynamic relationship with my Emunah and look forward its development for many years to come.

 

 

Integral Belief

What does it mean to believe in something? It is hard to read VaYera, this weeks Torah portion, without confronting this issue of belief. In it we read God commanding Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzhak. What would it mean to believe that God told you to kill your child? (This is especially crazy if you have met our four children.) While many interpreters have dealt with the faith of Avraham throughout history, I am less interested in the answer than the question of faith.

To a scientist, the prospect of faith is a puzzle. How could any rational person believe in something that has no data to back it up? The world can only be fairly judged on what everyone can perceive. Nevertheless, the scientists are left with the problem that so many people on this planet of ours do profess some sort of faith. To the faithful, they are left trying to figure out the existence of atheists or agnostics. They experience such a preponderance of evidence to the existence of a god, how could anyone choose to ignore that “fact”?If nothing else, we can appreciate the symmetry in the universe of the argument between these two camps.

Before the birth of our children, I could honestly say that I am not sure that I am a person of faith. But one way or another I know that I have Emunah in my life now. But still I have to ask myself, what is the fine line between faith and intellectual laziness? How often do I say that I believe in something when in fact I mean I have yet to think about it fully? How often do I take something that I have thought about exhaustively and instead of going with the evidence, choose to follow my faith? If I were confronted by a new perception of the world, would I be willing to sacrifice my way of life? I strive to be emotionally honest with the world and myself. I am not suggesting that we risk sacrificing our children like Avraham the innovator of our faith, rather I am asking that we  not risk sacrificing our integrity.

Too Soon

In the Gemara we read:

Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, Yehoshua, and Akiva were once walking along the road when they heard a great cry of joy coming from the Roman camp 120 miles away. They all cried and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “And you, why are you crying?” The answered saying, “These heathens who bow down to idols, they sit safely and comfortably, and as for us, the house of God is burnt; should we not cry?” Rabbi Akiva said, “For that reason I am laughing. If for those that go against God’s will it is so, how much more so for those that abide by God’s will.”

On another occasion they went up to Jerusalem. When they got to Mount Scopus they tore their clothes and when they got to Mount Moriah, they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies. They all cried, and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” He responded, “Why are you crying?” They said, “Foxes are now walking in the place about which it says, ‘the stranger that comes close shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), shall we not cry?” “For that reason I am laughing,” he ( Rabbi Akiva) said. “There is a verse that states, ‘I brought faithful witnesses, Uriah the Cohen, and Zechariah ben Berachiyah’ (Yeshayahu 8:2). What is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived during the first Temple and Zechariah during the second, but the verse implies that the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on the prophecy of Uriah. Uriah says, ‘Because of you, Zion will be plowed over like a field’ (Michah 3:12). Zechariah says, ‘Once again old men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was worried that the prophecy of Zechariah will never happen. Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled it is certain that the prophecy of Zechariah will surely be.” They said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us” (Makkot 24a-24b).

Quoted in the name of Carol Burnett, Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, we all know that , “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Rabbi Akiva had the vision to see the comedy of the tragedy before his peers. You can almost hear Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, and Yehoshua saying, ” Too Soon”.

This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av during which we will have the vision of our future destruction. We should all be blessed to have a Rabbi Akiva in our lives. He had a capacity to foresee a time in the future when we will be able to look back at the worst tragedy and laugh. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that laughing does not make it light and surely is not about forgetting. Life is too short. I enjoy laughing over crying any day.

– Have a meaningful Fast

Between Faith and Honesty

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a Canadian Indian version of the classic Cinderella Tale. In this version of the Cinderella cycle, a father in a village has three daughters whose mother has been dead a long time. The youngest of the three is much younger than the other two, has a wonderful personality, and is loved by her community. The wicked older sisters hate her and made her dress in rags, puts cinders in her hair (hence the cinder for her being Cinderella) and burned her face and body with hot coals in effort to have people think that she is ugly.

Just outside of the village there lived a warrior whose name was Strong Wind. Strong Wind has been good to the god Glooskap and has been granted the power of invisibility which has made him a formidable hunter. Resolving to get married he has to determine who to marry of the many women who seek his hand in marriage. With the help of his sister Strong Wind devises a test for all of these fair maidens. His sister is the only one who can see him when he appeared invisible to others. Each evening when the sun was about to set, his sister takes a would be bride down to the shoreline and asks them if they can see Strong Wind. When they responded yes, as they always do, his sister asks “With what does he draw his sled?” Responding incorrectly they are all dismissed. One day our Cinderella goes to seek Strong Wind’s hand in marriage. When his sister took her to the bay and asked the first question, the ash girl said that she does not seen him. Upon hearing her honest response Strong Wind reveals himself to her. Then Cinderella is asked “With what does he draw his sled?” The girl is very afraid and answers, “With the Rainbow”. And when she is asked further, “Of what is his bowstring?” the girl answers, “His bowstring is the Milky Way.” Telling the truth Cinderella passes the test and marries Strong Wind.

This image of the Milky Way stuck in my head as I read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of Emunah- faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

How is it possible that Avraham was able to count the stars in the Milky Way? We often talk about the fact that as a man of Emunah– he believed that he could. But as I have discussed in the past Emunah does not translate to English as faith, but rather being trustworthy. All too often in our society we tell people who are in positions of authority over us what we think they want to hear. It is possible that he believed that he could count them. It is also possible that despite the pressure Avraham felt to say yes he could count them, this man of Emunah  told the truth that he could not count them. It takes a certain kind of bravery, self-assurance, and faith to just tell the truth to an authority, especially one we hope to please . Like this Cinderella being lead out to see the invisible Strong Wind it took a unique sense of sense of self to be strong enough to be honest.  In light of this Canadian Indian Cinderella story might we translate Emunah  as being trusted to tell the truth.

John 6:13

It is hard to watch a sporting event let a lone walk down the street without seeing signs reading “John 3:6“.  So what does it say? The New Testament reads:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.— John 3:16

It  has been called the most famous Bible verse and the Gospel in a nutshell. Seeing that I am an observant Jew, that is a nut I just cannot crack. While a historical Jesus may or may not have existed, I am not sure how good of a religious leader he was and he was surely no Son of God. Despite being so famous, it was never covered in any of Biblical studies classes in Rabbinical school. I am stuck thinking about Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

2 If there arise in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams–and he give you a sign or a wonder, 3 and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you–saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them’; 4 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God puts you to proof, to know whether you do love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 5 After the Lord your God shall you walk, and you shall fear God, and God’s commandments shall you keep, and to God’s voice you shall hearken, and God you shall serve, and to God shall you cleave. 6 And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he has spoken perversion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to draw you aside out of the way which the Lord your God commanded you to walk in. So shall you put away the evil from your midst.  (Deuteronomy 13:2-6)

Clearly for us Jews, there is no idea of agency. We do not need any intermediary between us and God. We are not called by John 3:16, but rather the Torah 613. And I know this will not make me popular but this Jesus guy would probably have fallen into this false prophet category.

I believe on free speech and on one level I can acknowledge that it is lovely that people want to share their faith with me. But on another level I have to admit that I am a little put off by all of the John 3:16 signage. How would those people feel if I showed up at sporting events with signs reading  “Deut 13:6”?  I am not about to do that, but if one of you reading this makes a shirt, please send me one.


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