Posts Tagged 'Genesis'

User-Centered Design: Ignoring the Terms and Conditions

In the Gemara in Avodah Zara there is an interesting discussion about some mythic time right before the revelation of the Torah. There we read:

Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa taught, and some say that it was Rabbi Simlai who taught: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be God, will bring a Torah scroll and place it in God’s lap and say: Anyone who engaged in its study should come and take his reward. ( Avodah Zara 2a)

In this time different nations of world come forward for the option to accept the Torah. From Rome, to Persia, to Edom, in each case they are presented with a Torah that has a rule that they cannot follow and they do not accept the Torah. Finally., Na’aseh V’nishma, the Jews come and accept the Torah sight unseen.  This idea of people accepting rules without their understanding the consiquences is not a new thing.

We see this with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I simply love this image I saw last year on social media:

While there is no rabbinic evidence that it was an apple, it is facinating to understand that our accepting the Torah as we see in Avodah Zara is itself a return to Eden.

It is also facinating to realize that Apple itself was designed to be used before being understood. I remember fondly when our family got the original Apple Macintosh personal computer. Its beige case consisted of a monitor and came with a keyboard and mouse. A handle built into the top of the case made it easier for the computer to be lifted and carried. It was famously designed to be taken out of the box and used right away before reading the instructions.

Image result for macintosh with handle

Apple’s user-centered design invites you to use it before you understand the rules of how to use it. This gives us another read of the Eden story. It was not a fall from grace, but a classic “unboxing“. Fortune favors the bold who just jump in and start playing before understanding. This reading of eating the forbidden fruit and our Gemara makes us question the benefits of reading the directions, terms, or conditions first.

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

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?

Big Word Theory

Here is a  short word on creation for Bereishit, this last week’s Torah portion. There we read, “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. ” (Genesis 1:3) Time and again throughout the story of creation we read how the spoken word creates. It is hard to conceptualize how this worked. How could sound cause matter to come into existence?

According to my simplistic understanding of the Big Bang Theory this is exactly what happened. Reality as we know it started with a huge noise with the expansion of matter. So far beyond and before any notions of logos, there was the first sound. From the sound of a pin dropping to Beethoven’s 9th that sound of creation has been in the background.  It is hard to conceptualize this inaudible sound like that.

It might be easier to visualize it. So we turn our attention to  cymatics, the study of visible sound and vibration. Typically the surface of a plate or something  is vibrated and different patterns emerge depending on the geometry of the plate and the driving frequency. Take a look at this short TED talk, it will explain a lot.

Visualizing sound gives us insight into the very nature of existence. It is no surprise that revelation at Sinai was described as seeing the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). The experience of synesthesia seems essential to the human experience. This experience itself might be the link between the Big Bang Theory, the Divine utterance that caused creation, the revelation of the Torah,  and the  image I see every morning when Emunah, our 2-year-old wakes me before dawn. Even though it is dark out, it is quite a sight. I feel blessed to be part of that world that she is creating with her uttering the word Abba.

– Check out other another post on synesthesia


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