Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lighting Up: the Beauty of Chanuka


מצות נר חנוכה מצוה חביבה היא עד מאד

'The mitzva of the lighting of the Hanuka lamp,' says Maimonides, is a very beloved mitzva.' To encounter this passage on its own, you might forget that scholars like to call Maimonides a 'rationalist,' instead we get here a rare expression of enthusiasm - not only an adjective, but even an adverb! There are 613 mitvos in the Torah, and many more decreed by the rabbis, but nowhere else do we find Maimonides in his massive legal compilation evidencing such enthusiasm for a mitzva. We may wonder, adapting the idiom that my kids use when a sibling is evidencing too much enthusiasm for an activity - lama ata kol kach mitlahev? - 'why are you getting so excited?' or more literally, 'why are you so lit up?' Why is Maimonides so 'lit up' by the mitzva of Hanuka?

But there other questions to which we'd have to attend as well. Continuing, Maimonides writes, 'a person should be careful so as to make known the miracle (הנס), and to multiply his thanks to G-d and praise him for the miracles (נסים).' Why is there a disagreement in number? which one is it - miracle or miracles? The inconsistency in Maimonides is paralleled by a seeming inconsistency in the sages. For example, when the sages of the Talmud ask 'what is Hanuka?' - that is, on what basis was Hanuka established as a holiday? - the answer given is the miracle of the oil that should have lasted only one day, but lasted eight days instead. Yet in the prayers on the eight days of Hanuka, there is no mention at all of the miracle of the oil, only the miracles of Jewish victory against the Greeks - that the stronger and more numerous Greek forces succumbed to the weaker Jewish minority. So in the question of miracles - to Maimonides we ask, 'how many?', and to the sages, 'which one?'

The miracle of Hanuka - or the miracles - become clearer in relation to the Greeks and the particular threat they represented to the people of Israel. For the sages, the Greeks occupy an ambiguous position. A Torah scroll can be written in two languages - Hebrew and Greek, but the sages say that it is forbidden for a father to teach his child Greek! Further, while the sages recognize that of all the nations of the world the Greeks have the greatest claim to wisdom, they associate the Greeks with the aboriginal darkness - the חושך - from before the Creation. The Greeks with their decrees, our sages say, darkened the eyes of Israel. The means through which they brought about that darkness, as well as the response of the Jewish people, may provide a way into better understanding the miraculous nature of Hanuka.

The parallels - or better the contrasts - between Hanuka and Purim help in explaining the distinctive nature of galut Yavan, the exile of darkness imposed on the Jews by the Greeks. On Purim, the Jewish people transgressed through attending the feast of the Persian King Achashverus. That is, they transgressed with their bodies, and as a result, the threatened punishment was to their bodies: Haman wanted to destroy all of the Jewish people. He was not interested in Jews who wanted to convert - Jewish father or mother, or even grandparent: their fate would be the same. To avoid the threat against them - they appealed to G-d through fasting, again with their bodies. So when salvation came, the Jews celebrated with their bodies - with drinking and eating, objectifying their joy through physical pleasure. In contrast, the transgression which leads up to the Hanuka story was the neglect of the service in the Temple. As a consequence, the Jews were threatened not with the destruction of their bodies, but their minds and souls. The Greeks had a consistent strategy: they did not destroy the oil; rather they defiled it, leaving its external form, though rendering it impure. So also, they left the Temple in Jerusalem standing, but transformed it internally, turning it into a gymanasia, a place celebrating the primacy of Greek wisdom. So the decrees of Antiochus were not against the body of the Jew: the latter retained his external form, but he, like the oil and the Temple, was defiled internally. The strange exile of Greece - the Jews still in their land! - is the internal and spiritual exile of assimilation. The Greeks were מחלל - they turned sacred into secular - literally leaving a חלל or void in the people of Israel. To avoid this threat against them, the Jews renewed their spiritual efforts, they dedicated their souls - they were מוסר נפש - to divine service. So when salvation came after these trials, the Jews celebrated not through food and drink, but with thanks and praise to G-d.

Praise or hoda'ah - הודאה - is connected to הוד or hod, that is beauty. The kabbalists tell us that the eight days of Chanuka are eight days of hod; the days of Hanuka are days of both praise and beauty. Both words imply flexibility even dependence - to praise G-d is to confess and recognize a reliance upon the divine. Hod is a particular form of beauty - there are many - that defines itself through an acknowledged vulnerability, a yielding. The Greeks emphasized the beauty of the external form, yofi or יופי, but such beauty begins and ends with the external. Unlike the beauty of Greece - yofi - hod represents a beauty that comes about when the physical first joins and then yields to the spiritual. The hod of Moses splenderous face in Numbers is not the external beauty of Greece, but an external testimony to an inner state. Hod is a beauty that breaks forth from the physical, yielding to a force beyond it.

Here is the beauty of Chanuka - in the hod of the Hanuka lamp, burning for eight days. Ask Aristotle how long the lamp will burn, or ask Newton - they will both tell you: one day. The lamp that burns for eight days testifies to a force beyond both the Aristotelian laws of physics and the Newtonian laws of nature. The Greeks are darkness - Maimonides tells us that they were the first of the nations of the world to embrace atheism. Other nations of the world may have worshipped strange gods, but the world of the Greeks was godless. As great as their wisdom was and is, they darkened our eyes, habituating us to a world in which there is nothing more than the laws of nature - a world exhausted by the empirical and defined by the expression 'seeing is believing.'

So Maimonides tells us be careful to make the miracle (in the singular) known - this is the miracle of the oil, the miracle which the eight days of Hanuka commemmorate. But I might ask: why do I have to be careful? I live in a Jewish neighborhood! There are thousands of menoras - of course the miracle is known! Maimonides may emphasize that I need to make the miracle known not only to others, but to myself. Be careful to recognize the hod of the Hanuka lights which testify that nature is flexible; it bends; it yields. First comes the acknowledgement of the hod of the Hanuka lamps, then the hoda'ah or praise for the miracles (in the plural) of the Jewish victory. The Hanuka lamp is acknowledged as a miracle in and of itself, but it also provides a lens through which to see the נסים, the other miracles. The wars between Jews and Greeks can be reduced to a history book example of geo-politics - and they are by the Greeks. But the hod of the Hanuka lamps leads to the hoda'ah or praise for the miraculous nature of the everyday - starting for us with the Jewish victory over the Greeks, but leading outward to the other miracles of our lives. The mitzva of the Hanuka lamps is beloved - חביבה היא עד מאד - in allowing us to thus find light - even hod - in the darkness of Greek exile. Acknowledging the hod of the lamp activates praises and thanks for the miracles that are less easily seen in a world where the Greeks have darkened - and may still succeed in darkening - our eyes. So Maimonides gets 'lit up' by the lights of Hanuka. G-d transformed the oil of the lamp. And through the lamp - if we see the hod - the world we see is also transformed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wounding, Vulnerability and Identity: Jacob's Scar


The most famous scar in Western Literature is that of Odysseus. Disguised as a beggar, he returns from his voyages to Ithaka; to prove his identity to the still faithful servants, he shows his wound. Not his driver's license, or his college ID, but the scar on his thigh. Odysseus's scar is what defines him.

What's in a name, Shakespeare's Juliet asks Romeo: 'would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?' The answer for Homer - as for Shakespeare - is no! Odysseus's name is central to his identity: his grandfather, in the Homeric version of the bris, names him: 'I have suffered and caused other to suffer says his grandfather, let his name be Odysseus' - a name which means to suffer and to cause suffering. Not the name that proud Jewish parents would bestow! And so Odysseus lives out the fate of his name, suffering, causing suffering, and winning glory. As a young man, he hunts a dangerous wild boar - which 'hooks him aslant,' ripping 'his flesh just beneath the knee.' The young Odysseus finally triumphs over the wild beast; and when he returns home, he 'spins the tale' of how he got his wound. His wound defines him. When, he returns home, disguised as an old beggar, his old nurse washes him, and only when she runs her hands over the groove of his wound, only then does she cry out, 'Odysseus, it's you!'

Odysseus's scar is famous, but there are other famous wounds.

Fearing the vengeful wrath of Esau after having taken the birthright, Jacob sends emissaries to his brother with gifts; takes special precautions for his family; and then finds himself alone, isolated on the banks of the Yabok river in the middle of the night:

And Yaakov was left alone, and someone wrestled with him until break of day. He saw that he could not prevail against him, so he touched the upper joint of his thigh - which was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

Our sages say that the dust which whirled up from these two wrestlers 'rose up to the Throne of God.' Not any ordinary wrestling match, Jacob was in battle with the 'ministering angel' of Esau - a battle between Israel and the culture of the West which Esau represents. Jacob also suffers a wound - his thigh was dislocated. And as a result, Jacob limps through history. In the end, the sun does shine 'for him,' and the healing light promises an end to the painful traumas - the experience of suffering and exile. But for now, Yaakov limps through history. After their meeting, Esau receives instant gratification - he travels directly to Mount Seir to the seat of his inheritance - Jacob builds a sukkah, a temporary structure, anticipating the path of the people of Israel - a path of wandering, first in the desert, and then throughout history.

Odysseus uses his wound - narrates his suffering - to win himself glory: 'I am Odysseus!' he proclaims to the Cyclops he defeats. Jacob's wound, by contrast, has a different purpose. Following Jacob's triumph over Esau's 'guardian angel,' G-d commands that Jacob abstain from eating the gid hanashe - the sciatic nerve. 'Nashe' means weakness or vulnerability. Odysseus suffers and brings himself glory -through retelling his exploits; Jacob however embraces the law of the sinew of weakness, foregoing the physical strength of this world. Esau in his physical prowess - our sages tell us that he was born with hair, fully formed - cannot recognize the infirmity of others. The law of the sinew - bringing glory or cavod to G-d in its observance - reminds Jacob to embrace his vulnerability, not to forego it. Esau expects - in his desire for instant gratification - perfection from the world. Those of us who are in constant search of 'happiness' or constantly affirming our own contenment may have a bit of Esau in us.

In acknowleding his vulnerability, Jacob is prepared to see the vulnerability of others. When Esau invites Jacob, 'come with me,' the latter refuses, he rather 'leads on softly' - accommodating the pace and needs of his cattle and 'tender' children. Jacob will one day fulfill the fate of his name of Israel - when the dawn breaks, at the end of history, and Israel will prevail over his brother. But in the meantime, he is Jacob, the one who comes from behind, who is incomplete, and who lacks. So Jacob leads on softly.

The wounds of Odysseus and Jacob stand both as a testimony to the sufferings of life. The wounds - in the respective frames - define what it means to be alive. But how does one respond to suffering? Odysseus pursues glory; Jacob pursues cavod shmayim - glory to heaven - all the time recognizing his own vulnerability, allowing him to be open to the vulnerability and needs of others.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Esau to Jacob: 'Carpe Diem, Dude'

The most famous meal in the Bible - Jacob's pot of lentils. His brother Esau comes from the field hungry and asks about the red stew. 'Who died?' - knowing that lentils are the food of mourners. 'Our grandfather, Abraham' -Jacob replied. Esau halted - 'Zeidi is dead?' Jacob nods, Esau pauses, composes himself and proclaims - 'if Abraham is dead, there is no Judge and no Justice,' and sells his birthright to his brother Jacob.

Esau did not think that Abraham was going to live forever. To be sure, Abraham told his children and grandchildren the covenant that G-d had sealed with him - that his seed would inherit the land of Israel. Esau knew as much. He also knew that his grandfather would die - at 'a ripe age,' as G-d had told him - before seeing that inheritance. But there was another part of G-d's message that Esau also remembered: that Abraham's offspring were to be enslaved as 'strangers in a strange land' where they would be 'oppressed and enslaved for four hundred years.' Esau was the first born, and he thought he would bear the brunt of the exile. 'Not for me,' he thought. So our sages reveal the motivation for what the Bible tells us happened next: Esau 'ate, drank, got up and left, and scorned his birthright.'

From Esau's perspective, as long as Avraham was alive, as long as the family dwelled together in the Land of Israel - so long as G-d's presence was immediately felt, then he could believe in the one true Judge and his Justice. But when Abraham died and there was the likelihood of exile, then Esau claims 'there is no Judge and no Justice.' No more birthright. Better to enjoy, to eat and drink. 'Pass the lentils,' he tells his brother. Carpe diem. Sieze the day for tomorrow we die. For now, it's party on.

Jacob however is different. His faith is born when G-d's presence is no longer immediate; in the face of loss and death and exile, he agrees to buy the birthright -with all that entails. Esau knows for a certainty that his grandfather's seed will inherit the land. Just as assuredly as the 'tick' of a clock is followed by a 'tock,' Esau knows that the descendants of Abraham will receive their portion. But the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' - between the promise of redemption and its fulfillment - is interminable to Esau. The interim promises too much hardship. So he proclaims: 'There is no Judge, and no Justice.' Jacob by contrast - when he purchases the birthright - shows himselt ready to suffer the long night of exile.

Jacob embodies the faithful waiting of Israel - even after Abraham is dead - when there is no prospect of redemption, but rather suffering. As a people, today, we have our own 'tick'-'tock,' beyond the inheritance of the land promised to the Patriarch. Our 'tick' is Genesis, our 'tock,' the end of days, the coming of Mashiach. Sometimes the wait - the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' - seems interminable. So long that we may forget the end: 'is this the promised end?,' Shakespeare's King Lear asks anxiously. Not yet...

When Maimonides lists his principles of faith, number twelve of the thirteen is the belief in the Mashiach, the messenger of G-d - he is not divine himself - who proclaims the end of days. Maimonides does not merely say: 'I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach.' You would have thought that would suffice, but in an uncharacteristic expansiveness, Maimonides continues: 'and even though he delays - with all of this - I will wait, every day, for him to come.'

Even though he delays, the duration between the 'tick' and the 'tock' does seem endless! Yet even though he delays, אם כל זה - 'with all of this' - I will wait. 'With all of this' - if a principle of faith can be poignant and poetic this quailifes. 'This' - this is what Esau will not bear - the suffering, the anguish, the waiting for redemption. Yet the children of Israel, with all of this they declare, with all of this - they will nonetheless wait every day for him to come. And how much of this there has been!

My twelve year old daughter asks: 'Is Mashiach coming?'

'Yes! He is!'

'We want Mashiach now!'

We are a generation of instant gratification - even when it comes to Mashiach! Children can afford such an attitude. But as adults, it sometimes seems like there is 'no Judge and Judgement,' like the clock has permanently stopped, and that the 'tock' will never come. So we teach our children - and ourselves - not to be like Esau. For with the need for instant gratification comes disappointment, and the indulgence in the pleasures of the moment dressed up in Esau's resigned 'carpe diem!' Yes, we know Mashiach is coming - he is! - but we also know the fine art of waiting. 'With all this' - with Jacob - we still believe!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

'No Good Deed Goes Unpunished'?

A friend called the other day: he needed my help. I had to rearrange my schedule to get to his office on time, but the thought of the loss to my work was compensated by the pleasure of the mitzvah: I was happy to help. Then, my phone rang. It was him: 'Never mind,' he said casually, 'I solved it without you.' 'Oh, and thanks anyway' - as he hung up. Never mind?!? Thanks anyway?!? My afternoon was lost, the traffic back to my neighborhood worse than usual; and when I finally got home, it was without my scarf! My favorite scarf! I had gone out of my way - and all I got for my efforts was a 'thanks anyway!' The phrase ran through my mind - I almost said it! - 'no good deed goes unpunished!' As a friend once observed, in the Jewish Bartlett Book of Quotations, 'no good deed goes unpunished' takes special place.

Abraham, our sages tell us, overcame many obstacles on his way to fulfill the divine command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Coming down the mountain, the test at once fulfilled and averted (a paradox), the father and son meet the waiting lads, Ishmael and Eliezer: we can imagine their hopes for a triumphant homecoming. But our sages tell us that the Satan (or the evil inclination) had something else in mind. Sarah was home, preparing for Abraham's return, when the Satan arrived: 'Know where your husband is?,' he asked. Without giving Sarah the chance to answer, he continued: 'well your husband - how old is he now, in his hundred and thirties? - took your son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him.' 'I saw him' - he lied - 'terrible sight, really, your son, screaming, crying, saying he couldn't take it.' At which point, our sages tell us, Sarah died. It turns out that not everyone survived the Akeida - the binding of Isaac. Sarah was its casualty.

When Abraham does return home, it's not to greet her, but to fulfill a grim task - 'to eulogize her and to cry for her.' The laws of mourning - that both accomodate and structure the needs of human psyche - tell us that first one cries and only after gives a eulogy. Before the formality of mourning and speech, there is the expression of raw emotion. It is as if God says, 'do not supress your humanity to please me!' First the outpouring, then the mourning which enables the transition back to the world of the living. But Abraham engaged in the formal act of mourning first.

Abraham was a celebrity. With Sarah, he had dedicated his life to bringing people close to the one G-d. Abraham had no regrets for his actions: the Torah calls him tamim - pure, even perfect, in his acceptance of G-d's will. But he knew how people think. They will say, Abraham thought to himself: 'Abraham has come back from Mount Moriah with his son to find Sarah dead. Surely, he should have expected G-d to reward his deeds, and instead he finds this!' That is why Abraham refrained from crying. For had he cried, the people of Hebron would have thought - Abraham is crying out of regret for having performed the mitzvah of attending to G-d's words! Like us, they would have shaken their heads knowingly and said to themselves, 'no good deed goes unpunished!' There's Abraham regretting the Akeida. So Abraham mourns first, and then cries.

'Be pure' - תמים תהיה - 'with Hashem your G-d' - the Torah exhorts in Deuteronomy. While the nations of the world practice witchcraft and hearken after those who claim to divine the future, the Torah commands, 'be pure with your G-d': don't anticipate what the future will bring, live in the present! Be pure - like Abraham - who makes himself present to the moment, as when he answers the divine call: 'Hineni, here I am.' Presence to the moment - to the here and now - means to refrain from calculating what the future will or should bring. Abraham knows that mitzvos are rewarded, that his portion is with the one G-d but he doesn't know how. In that humble knowledge, he leaves room for the divine, for the unfolding of a future which he does not fully understand, and which may not go according to his expectations. Surely, there are scoffers in Hebron who will want to say that the world is run by a god with a bad sense of humor whose main principle is 'no good deed goes unpunished.' But while they mock Abraham's beliefs, it is they who indulge in divination, who have created an impoverished religion out of their own laziness or stinginess: 'We told you so,' they say, 'your good deeds have done you no good.' 'You lost your scarf,' they deride, 'next time you will know better!' But telling their own stories about reward and punishment is really just a form of avoidance - avoiding the present, the imperative of now, the imperative of saying 'Hineni, I am here!'

In the evening prayers, we turn to G-d and ask: remove the Satan from before us and from behind us. There are not only obstacles which we meet on the way to performing good deeds, but also those we encounter after. Sometimes, the Satan, as in the case of Abraham, does his best to run after us. So we entreat G-d to take away the obstacles that lie before us, as well as the ones that come from behind - that we will be pure like Abraham. That is, we pray that the thought - 'no good deed goes unpunished' - will remain far from our minds!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Under the Black Hat: A Bar Mitzva Celebration

There was a bar mitzva in shul this past shabbos. As is the custom, upon hearing the bar mitzva boy's blessing over the Torah, the girls in shul, leaning over the mechitza, rifled - more like uzi-machine-gunned - toffees towards the bima. 'Ouch'! - a little sister's revenge - a strawberry toffee right in the bar mitzva boy's face! Meanwhile, the rugby-scrum scramble for candy: there was such an excess of it - the frenzied stuffing of booty into plastic bags - that more than one of the older boys offered toffees to their dejected younger brothers. As order was restored, and the congregation prepared for the musaf prayer, I watched one of the older boys - also already bar mitzva, you could tell from his hat - working through a private dilemma: his bag of toffees was overflowing - too big for his pocket and too unwieldy to balance on the shtender in front of him. With the chazan intoning the kaddish directly preceding musaf, I watched the boy's 'eureka' moment: he lifted his hat and plunked the bag of toffees on his head. By the time the congregation answered 'amen,' the boy's hat was back in place, and he was shuckling away.

When a boy reaches bar mitzva, he becomes a bar da'as - a person of sound mind, responsible for his actions. Our sages tell us, 'just as their faces are not alike, so their da'as is not alike.' Da'as loosely translates as knowledge, but also means opinion, intelligence or even way of thinking. But what is this way of thinking - as distinctive as a person's face - that makes a person responsible for his actions?

Da'as is one of those words - Freud writes about them in his essay on the 'Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words' - that has different, sometimes even opposing, connotations. On the one side, da'as is an ability to make distinctions - that is, to see differences; on the other, da'as is the means to make connections. והאדם ידע את חוה - 'And Adam knew Chava': through knowledge one achieves the closest kind of connection. But to know another person, there first has to be recognition of the separateness of that person. In the earliest stages of child-development, there is no real recognition of the other - just the expansive self, fulfilling his needs in relationship to a world whose independence he cannot yet fully recognize. Many of us know someone who seems still to inhabit (or at least wants to inhabit!) such a world; being an adult, however, means recognizing that the world is not just an extension of the self.

The power of da'as to join together is not, however, only shown in relationship to the outside world: a bar da'as distinguishes, orders and connects with different parts of his internal world as well. A bar da'as first distinguishes: there are some demands of the internal world which he will not heed. Metaphors abound to describe the agent producing desires to which a bar da'as must say 'no': our sages call it the yetzer hara - or evil inclination; Freud calls it the id. But da'as contains its opposite as well: it is a means to distinguish, but is also a כח החיבור - a capacity to connect. A bar mitzva boy binds tefillin on his head and arm to show the connection between the realms of thought and action. Though we may know a precociously intelligent eleven year old, he is not a bar da'as - because he has not yet developed that capacity - da'as - to link thought to action [for those who like to note invidious gender distinctions: da'as is reached by a boy at 13, a girl at 12]. The prophet says, 'on that day you shall know - וידעת היום - and rest it on your heart that G-d is One in the heavens above and the earth below.' G-d's unity is affirmed in the heavens, and then on earth: through da'as, the abstract ideal rests on the heart: da'as - knowledge of the heart - is an act of internalization, bringing the knowledge of Torah down to earth.

'You shall love Hashem, your G-d with all of your heart' - בכל לבבך. Hashem is the name of G-d as unknowable, ein sof - a G-d beyond comprehension. He becomes 'your G-d' - a personal and beloved God through love - the worship of the heart. Through the doubling of the letter bes - ב - in the word for 'your heart' לבבך, the Torah tells us that we should serve G-d with both our good and evil inclinations. It is not, therefore, a one-way street: da'as not only connects the upper to the lower world, but the lower to the upper world as well. Only on the sixth day of the creation does G-d behold His handiwork and call it 'very good' - טוב מאד. Not just good, as in the other days of creation, but very good, because on it, our sages tell us, the evil inclination was created - without which a man would not marry, establish a household or engage in creative activity. A person develops, opens himself up to unknown future possibilities, through harnessing all of the resources of his personality - both of his inclinations, all of his heart. One who is insensitive to the demands of his inner world risks becoming an external shell - 'a frozen ego.'

The greatest form of individuality does not come through intellect alone, but though unifying upper and lower worlds, integrating parts of the soul. The tzadik - our sages tell us - brings together heavens and earth; he does so through the powers of da'as. This is what makes a person an individual: 'just like their faces are different, so is their da'as.' The face is where the soul shows itself in the body; da'as is that internal link between body and soul. My da'as is as distinctive as my face, the point where my energies and desires engage with the ideal image of who I want to be - my way of bringing the Torah down to earth. It's the work of a lifetime, starting with bar mitzva - for one thirteen year old, standing in prayer before G-d, a bag of toffees tucked safely under his hat.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Repentance for Dummies III: Yom Kippur, Time and Creative Repentance

Someone recently told me: there are two kinds of people in the world - neurotics who dwell obsessively on the past and those who have the good sense to ignore the past and move forward. Everyone, after all, has skeletons in their closet, and to dwell on past misdeeds and transgressions seems like a sour and pointless activity. For the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, the soul-searching required for repentance is not, he says, 'a virtue' - rather the irrational impulse of someone steeped in 'suffering' and 'sadness.' For Friedrich Nietzsche, someone who pursues repentance first suffers a 'fearful paralysis,' then an 'enduring depression' - and eventually a 'shattered nervous system.' 'Ask a psychologist!' says Nietzsche: he will tell you about the masochistic 'remorse' and 'convulsions' that repentance always brings with it. Many of us know the type - someone depressed and melancholic, wallowing in the transgressions of the past. To such a person we might say, 'get a life; the past is the past; don't dwell neurotically on things that you can't change!' If this the kind of remorse required during the ten days of repentance before Yom Kippur, then perhaps better to follow Spinoza and Nietzsche and give up repentance altogether!

There are models of repentance which, in taking account the enormity of human transgression, require an intermediary for the weight of sin to be lifted. In these models, man can only be passive in relationship to an irredeemably evil past. In many versions of Christian doctrine, this is in fact so: because of the perceived weight of transgression, hope is placed in a redeemer who satisfies the desire for justice of a 'wrathful' G-d - by whose miraculous grace alone, repentance is granted. In this model, all one can do is passively acknowledge one's irredeemably sinful past and rely upon G-d to grant forgiveness. Is this the model that Jews follow?

Rabbi Akiva says: 'how happy are the people of Israel! Before whom do you render yourself pure? Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven!' Rabbi Akiva cites a verse from Ezekiel as a proof for the principle: 'And I sprinkled upon you purifying waters, and you became pure.' He goes on to provide an additional verse from Jeremiah in which G-d is called 'Mikveh Yisrael' - the purifying waters of Israel. 'As a mikveh or ritual bath purifies the impure,' Rabbi Akiva explains, 'so the Holy One purifies Israel.' But why does Rabbi Akiva need to bring two verses? That he does suggests an unexpected complexity to t'shuva. When we implore G-d to sprinkle his purifying waters upon us, we are passive; but the metaphor of mikveh Yisroel implies an activity. True, it is G-d who will purify us, but we have to jump into the mikveh! G-d will do His part, but we must also do ours. In retrospect, the two verses allow us to look back at Rabbi Akiva's question: 'before whom do you render yourself pure?' G-d is certainly an actor in the process, but we are as well - making ourselves pure in the presence of G-d.

But what is t'shuva? 'Great is t'shuva,' says Reish Lakish, 'for deliberate transgressions are accounted meritorious deeds,' as the prophet says, 'when the wicked shall turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right - through them he shall live.' T'shuva transforms my willfull sins into meritorious deeds'! That sounds like a good deal! What I had thought was at best a dead weight of past misdeeds becomes the source of life - 'through them he shall live!' But 'transgressions turned into merits? That does sound like a kind of hocus-pocus. Is there some kind of divine waving of the magic wand through which the alchemy of bad deeds into good takes place? And if Reish Lakish doesn't argue with Rabbi Akiva, and t'shuva involves human action, then what am I possibly supposed to do enact such a change?

T'shuva is made possible by a particular conception of time. One version of time is distilled by Shakespeare's Macbeth for whom the 'tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow' of successive meaningless moments leads the 'way to dusty death.' But Macbeth's time is really just a sophisticated version of a popular contemporary notion of time, popularized on t-shirts as - I'll paraphrase it - 'stuff happens.' T'shuva requires a notion of time which is different from that of Macbeth where past, present and future interact - as on Rosh Hoshana, when, in the moment of hearing the shofar, we become aware of the Creation, Mount Sinai, and the End of Days. The present is no longer part of a chain of separable and unrelated moments, but it is infused by a knowledge of a future when the Great Shofar announces the redemption of humanity. The future - our ideal image of it - enters the present and even the past. In the resonances of the shofar on Rosh Hoshana we hear, as R. Joseph Soloveitchik says, 'the evanescent moment transformed into eternity.'

It is with this consciousness of time that we approach the days of awe and Yom Kippur. For not only do we as a nation have an ideal image of our future, but each person has his own ideal - cultivated and created through repentance and good deeds. Just as the ideal future - the End of Days - invests the present moment with meaning for the people of Israel, so a person's own ideal future connects up with the present, as well as the past. Through the image of my own ideal future, I not only mold my present - and here is the power of t'shuva - I re-create my past. This is a long way from the past as an object of my neurotic obsessions weighing me down. Rather, through the retrospective glance of t'shuva, my past is transformed. Undoing the relation of cause and effect, it's not my past actions which cause future events, but rather my conception of an unrealized future which re-creates the past! Instead of A leading to B, B leads to A!

But I still might protest: 'I'm ashamed of my past! I did bad things! best for me to start with a clean slate! or even better - I need to seek absolution!' But such absolution only comes - remember Rabbi Akiva - through the creative act of repentance, the creative transformation of my past. It's true that I did bad things, but my motives - and even the actions themselves - were not all bad, not irredeemably bad. In fact, my retrospective glance reveals that willful transgressions - my stubborness, waywardness and selfish desires - are not only consistent with, but they have actually propelled me towards (now I realize it!), my ideal future. The very actions I thought had most distanced me from G-d are in fact those that now bring me close. So willful transgression are turned into meritorious deeds! Refined by the image of my ideal self, my past misdeeds are seen to have shaped my present in a way that they now have the power to help me realize my ideal future. I'm not stuck with the depressing either/or of obsessing about my past or abandoning it. Nor need I despair about a past weighing on me - determining who I am now. Moving towards the future, the past re-cast in its light, my present is transformed. Through the power of t'shuva - no hocus pocus here - sins become good deeds: they are actually the source of a new and transformed life - through them we will live!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Repentance for Dummies: Hypocrisy and the Power of T'shuva

'One who has transgressions in his hand, and feels ashamed to repent or to do t'shuva, let him exchange his transgressions for good deeds, and do t'shuva, and it will be accepted. Let it be compared to a person who has bad coins in his hand who goes to a money changer and gives something extra — in exchange for good coins; so also, one who has transgressions, let him do good deeds, and t'shuva.'

The words of the sages are strange. For they imply that one should first do good deeds or mitzvos, and then only after tshuva. Yet a verse from Psalms suggests just the opposite: 'turn away from evil, and then do good' - first repent, and then, only after, do good deeds. It makes sense, as Rambam writes of the penitent:
Yesterday he was separated from G-d: when he called out, he was not answered; when he did good deeds, they were ripped up in front of him. Today, after he he has done t'shuva, he is attached to the shechina, the divine presence; he calls out, and is answered; he performs good deeds and mitzvos and they are accepted with pleasure and joy.
A person who does good deeds without first having done t'shuva has those deeds ripped up in his face! So one might think: 'I had better desist from doing good deeds until I have transformed my inner world. It's better to do nothing then to be a hypocrite! G-d doesn't want my lip service!' The kabbalists go so far as to say that such lip-service gives strength to the Forces of Evil in the world.

But our sages are warning us from leaning on the hypocrisy claim - 'I can't do t'shuva, it wouldn't represent the real me! I'd be a hypocrite!' For honesty can also be a form of avoidance behavior - a way of cheering myself up in my complacency. So they advise: even before a person transforms his inner world, he should look to do as many good deeds - acts of kindness, mitzvos - as possible. Even though they are not accepted at the moment, when eventually he does t'shuva, that is, when he makes the attempt to perfect his inner world, to come close to God, his good deeds will be accepted retroactively. The parable makes this point: the good deeds that a person does before t'shuva are like bad coins. But at least he has some currency - not only transgressions - in his hand! He brings something to the table! When he adds something extra (ie t'shuva), the bad coins are exchanged for good ones; the deeds of questionable status before t'shuva, because they didn't reflect his inner being, are transformed into good deeds. Not only that, but his t'shuva is so powerful that past transgressions are nullified - as if they were never committed.

One feels despondent at his distance from G-d; each transgression appears as yet another barrier between him and G-d. He fears, or thinks he knows, that his mitzvos will be rejected - torn up in front of his face. To be sure, the sages understand that good deeds without the prospect of internal tikkun (or repair) are of no value - only a symptom of hypocrisy. Yet they teach that t'shuva spiritual renewal - cannot be achieved through turning an internal switch. Contrary to what we might think, change begins not from the inside, but from the outside, through action. First I have to perform good deeds, and try to be the person I want to become on the outside - even though at first it doesn't really feel genuine. I may even say to myself: 'it's not really me!' But when I've accrued enough coins - even if they are an inferior currency, my inner world catches up. Through that extra that I am now ready to add - for now I am ready to admit to myself that I am the kind of person who can do t'shuva! - I reveal a continuity between who I am now, and the person I once was. The person who did those good deeds at the beginning with ambivalence turns out in the end not to have been a hypocrite; in fact, he has been transformed retroactively - the amazing powers of t'shuva! - into the person who now stands in the divine presence. My good deeds propel me towards repentance - revealing from the very outset someone who desired to return to G-d.

So when the sages advice us - especially in Elul - to focus on deeds first, and then the inner world, it is not an exercise in hypocrisy, but rather pragmatism: part of the pragmatic guide to repentance.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Only A Lobster: Woody Allen's Neurotic Pleasures


There's a new film by Woody Allen. Which made me wonder: why have Allen's movies been so disappointing for so many years? Or, why is Annie Hall of 1977 still the standard against which all of his later films are judged? It's not much of a movie, more a series of memorable vingettes, held together by a feeble plot line-the failed romance of Alvy Singer played by Allen and Diane Keaton, the title character.

Would it be too much of a stretch to say it's his best film because it's his most Jewish? Between screenings of Max Ophul's Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary on the Nazis, Alvy hangs out with 'some guys from NBC', and asks: 'did you eat yet or what?' One of them, Tom Christie [read Tom Christian] responds with the innocent, 'no, did you?,' misheard by Allen as 'd'jew?' 'You get it? Jew eat?' Jew? 'You're paranoid Max,' says Roberts to Allen who always has Jews and Judaism on his mind. But the paranoid anti-semitism probably doesn't get as much play as Allen's tortured Jewish consciousness. How many non-kosher animals are there in Annie Hall? Alot. There's the ham served at Annie's family gathering. 'Nice ham this year' says Annie's mother to Grammie Hall, 'the classic Jew hater' in whose eyes Alvy appears-at least to his own imagination-as a chassid, complete with hat and long payos.


Then there's the 'pork and shellfish' that Alvy's doctor rules out as causes for his stomach ailment (surprise: it's hypochondria), and the spiders--one the 'size of a Buick'--in Annie's bathroom. Most notable of the non-kosher creepy crawlers are the lobsters on the kitchen floor of Hampton's summer home, with the squirming Alvy's shouting 'they're disgusting!' As one of the lobsters escapes behind the refrigerator, Alvy implores Annie: 'you talk to him, you speak shellfish!'

Annie does speak shellfish, and that's part of Alvy's fascination with her. There's enormous pleasure for Allen--even though it seems like he's in pain--with the transgressive love affair with the shellfish-speaking Keaton and her lobsters. It's the kind of pleasure that French psychoanalysts call jouissance-the neurotic pleasure one gets from unresolved psychic battles. Alvy knows he shouldn't be eating the lobster, but there's the jouissance in doing it anyway. Towards the end of the movie, after Alvy and Annie have separated, Alvy tries to repeat the scene-same house, same kitchen, same lobsters. Allen with lobster in hand, looks up plaintively to his new companion who responds with utter indifference: 'it's only a lobster.'

There's a whole generation of Jews who share Alvy's neurotic pleasures; the kabbalists might look generously at such neurosis and see the 'sparks of holiness' of a struggling Jewish soul. Not that the Torah wants us to be neurotic. The Talmud tells us we shouldn't make theatrical shows of disgust at non-kosher animals: it's not that I don't want to try the eel at the local sushi place; really I crave it. But, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says of the cheeseburger he forgoes, 'I want it, but my Father in Heaven decreed me not to partake of it.' So I admit my desires, and become responsible for them, even as I decide not to pursue them.

Some might say that Alvy admits that he really likes lobsters, and just wants to eat them. That's one form of resolution, and maybe some sort of psychic health for Allen. Though it's a shame really, because for all of the images of Jews in his films, almost all center on fear--paranoid anti-semitism and neurotic anxiety about being Jewish. When there are Jewish scenes in Annie Hall, they are more generically ethnic than particularly Jewish. If Alvy--with all those Jews he represents--had access to a lived Judaism and not just its negative stereotypes, he might have worked out his inner conflicts in some other way, true to his neshama as well as his psyche. He might have been responsive to his desires, as well as the voices of Jewish tradition which he knows and feels, but eventually represses to satisfy the perspectives of those who say: 'it's only a lobster.'

And had he found some other resolution, and sought an audience other than the one which looks with pitying condescension at his Jewish connections, maybe his movies would still be funny.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cosmic Sharing and Cycles of Love: Parenting for Independence


In Kurt Vonnegut's short story, 'Harrison Bergeron,' a society of the future installs 'mental handicap radios' in the ears of its population, sending out periodic sharp noises to keep the overly intelligent 'from taking unfair advantage of their brains.' My oldest daughter was in London recently, and on the Friday before her return I thought of the story I read with so much pleasure in junior high. That day, each time I sat down to my computer to work, there was that vibrating buzz--'one message received'-'where are you?' When she and her friend first arrived at Heathrow, I welcomed the buzz: after the first encounter with British Immigration, and the flurry of messages which accompanied it (the two Israeli Beis Yaakov girls, deemed a threat to Her Majesty's Commonwealth, were detained for over an hour), I was less enthusiastic: 'two messages received'-'what are you doing now?'; 'four messages received'-'what are you having for dinner?' When we finally spoke, just before the onset of shabbos, I couldn't disguise my frustration: 'fifty-seven messages in one day! you're joking, right?'

So parents make mistakes. Mentioning the sms excess had been the planned opening to the conversation, but from her point of view it was already over: 'Where's Mommy?' That was a snub.

'Your mother has already lit shabbos candles.'

Silence.

I quickly improvised: 'Mommy made the cholent, but added too many chick peas; I made your spicey orange chicken with eggplant, but Freidie left it in the oven too long and it burnt; the girls helped Mommy make the brownies, but ran out of chocolate chips; and the boys are napping and will wake up just in time to cry through the shabbos meal.' I understood that though she is eighteen and managing her independence half a hemisphere away she wanted to be grounded, reminded of home.

Recently my three year-old son gave me an understanding of what had happened. On an afternoon visit to shul, he was restless and felt like exploring, but as he started to lean away from me, ready to wander, he tightened his grip. A living emblem: his feet perched on mine, tilting away from me, pulling my hands-almost an inverted compass.

Though it was not just a simple question of his need for re-assurance. More than that, when our children are becoming themselves as toddlers or even adults, if we are good enough parents, they will be, at the same time, asserting their connection to us. Or maybe it's through connecting to us that they become independent? Almost like a conceit from a poem by John Donne: we become most independent at the very moment we are most connected. This is the identification born out of love, allowing for the self to grow. For 'living,' as Freud writes, 'is the the same as being loved.'

'Beloved is man, because he was created in G-d's image; even more beloved is he because he was so informed, as it is written: "in the image of G-d, He created man."' So Rabbi Akiva tells of the love that links G-d and man, but there is an even greater love: the love that G-d shows by telling us that we are created in His image. G-d loves man, says the Maharal, and with His cosmic 'I love you,' elicits our love. Not only is there a connection-expressed in the image of G-d that links the Creator and man-but G-d informs us of that connection because he wants our love. Through the mutuality of love, man does not become divine as the Serpent falsely promises; rather man, through becoming godly, elevates himself as man.

So when the shabbos siren sounded-just as I ran out of details of Friday's preparation to recount-I added one more thing to our globetrotting and ever-more independent daughter: 'We love you!'

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Birthin' Babies: 'Orthodox Jews Don't Care About Their Children'

Dateline: Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv

In a story first reported in Haaretz, and then syndicated to the BBC, Yahoo, and, among other places, the Fort Mill Times (it's a South Carolina paper), a toddler was left behind at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as her parents and four siblings boarded a flight to Paris. By the time the four and a half year old girl, roaming around a duty-free shop, was found by an Israeli policeman, the flight was in the air. The parents were informed by a stewardess, according to Haaretz, forty minutes into the flight, that they had left their daughter on the ground.

The left-leaning and often anti-religious Haaretz was unusually restrained in their coverage--only intimating that the girl's family is 'ultra-orthodox.' Sarit Ben Eden, the officer in charge of the departure area, Haaretz reports, bought the crying girl an ice cream cone; the latter had become sufficiently composed to inform the officer that she only eats food with strict orthodox supervision (Badatz hechsherim). Subsequent accounts in the syndicated press, however, include due mention of the toddler's 'ultra-orthodox' background. A post by 'Jane' on the Haaretz 'Talk-Back' gives insight into the world-wide fascination with the story. Jane's post--'That's What I'd Call Too Many Children'--implores: 'If you can't keep track of them it's time to stop birthin' babies.' Anyway, everyone knows, as Jane implies: 'not only do the ultra-orthodox children have too many children, they don't even care about them!'

I'm not going to try to explain or justify what happened. Perhaps the parents were anxious about their departure from Israel, overwhelmed by their eighteen bags and their return to France; perhaps they had arranged some buddy system among their children, and there had been a failure of communication. Even though we've sometimes had a hard time keeping track of our children (as recounted in these pages), I can't fathom leaving one of them behind in the departure lounge (and then snacking peacably on airplane pretzels until given the news by a stewardess!). It's unimaginable to me.

But as much as I'm not interested in apologetics for the parents, I'm also not interested in a diatribe against the media's anti-orthodox prejudice. I'd rather think about why we are so compelled by stories like this one. It probably has to do with the kind of thinking that literary critics associate with synecdoche--which is an expression through which a part of something comes to stand in for the whole. By looking at a supposedly representative part, I claim to be able to make generalizations about the whole. So the story of the hapless French couple becomes a synecdoche for all orthodox parents: 'you see they have too many kids! and the ones they have they don't even care about!'

Stories like this help us keep our pre-conceived notions about people we'd prefer not to know. They are the urban legends--which the quantitative methods of sociology (and the statistics course I never took)--would tell us not to believe. But the stories are widespread, and it's not only stories about the orthodox: there are corresponding stories about other communities as well, stories which are the means by which one community or sector retains its prejudices about another. The 'horror' story of the 'secular promiscuous adolescent,' for example, which gets great play in some circles in Israel, comes from the same psychic place as that of the 'indifferent ultra-orthodox parents.' Though totally different in their content, the stories serve a similar function--insulating from any real knowledge of people who are different. Both stories serve as cautionary tale and modern allegory, ways of transforming people--sometimes whole communities--from their complex realities into cartoon characters. To be sure, sometimes these stories are true in the particular, but they are rarely representative--they are rarely synecdoches--in the ways which some like to claim. What if all secular people are not immoral hedonists? what if all ultra-orthodox are not irresponsible and indifferent to their children?

Imagine: we'd have to re-think. And once we re-think--who knows?--we might see things differently.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why I (still) Love Milton, or Milton in Love

Stanley Fish has a column in Monday's Times about the Milton Conference in London, marking 400 years since the poet's birth.



Well, I was there too! Stanley came over to me--it's been a long time since he was my very first Milton teacher at Columbia--and said he wanted to talk. Preparing his piece for the Times, he was surveying the gathered Miltonists on the question of why we continue to find Milton 'captivating.' I was at the National Portrait Gallery (Madame Tussauds for snobs), the Tate Modern (chasing pigeons with Pinchos while my wife was in the gift shop), and then at Magdalen College at Oxford (and All Souls and Christ Church!), so I never got to have what Milton calls 'meet conversation' with the brilliant (and to me avuncular) Fish.

Sometimes an invited shabbos guest--usually a seminary girl or a yeshiva boy--will ask about the connection between Milton and Judaism. To which I usually respond by passing the hummus and charif (hot sauce), and reminding them, in not-so-subtle ways, that I am the One Who Asks the Questions (especially the personal ones!). But it is a good question.

The archangel Raphael in Book 5 of Milton's Paradise Lost explains to Adam:
...freely we serve
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall...

Service and love come together: in this we stand or fall. And so Milton's Adam returns:

...we never shall forget to love
Our Maker.
The enjambment (remember that from high school?)--the line which both ends and runs into the next--shows how love of man and love of the divine are related, a service based upon love. We never shall forget to love!

Love, as Jonathan Lear writes, is the impulse towards connection and union. While Milton's seventeenth-century philosophical contemporaries were inventing reason and objectivity, Milton himself was hopelessly in love--with God, with poetry, with his fellow Englishmen. Milton understood that only through love does the individual truly 'stand': through identification and union the individual--and this is the paradox--becomes more and more himself. Thus Milton was both the greatest of individuals and the most faithful! (a paradox reduced to a contradiction by some of my Miltonist colleagues).

The modern university--the institutional legacy of those philosophers against which Milton rebelled--is founded upon the knowledge that comes from a disembodied and supposedly neutral reason, not the wisdom that comes from the connection of love. Universities train the detachment of sophisticated distance, the studied disengagement that trickles down into pop-culture, distilled in the expression: 'whatever.' There was no 'whatever' for Milton; for him the wisdom of love is 'an act of union'; he knew as Lear does that the 'perspective outside love'--what passes today as 'being objective'--must be 'one of developmental failure and pathology.' Milton passed on the philosophical innovations of his contemporaries--Descartes, Hobbes, and the rest of them--and continued to love. Without love, there is the illusion of an objective view of the world, but it is actually one of disinterested nullity--the pathology of disengagement.

So when in London last week, I was reminded of the importance of Milton in my path to engagement, as well as the persistent resonances of Adam's claim--that 'we never shall forget to love'!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Two Black Boxes and A Murderer

I don't blog politics. But like many of us, I suppose I had images of them--Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev--defying the pronouncements of the politicians and walking triumphantly out of Lebanon. And the parades that would follow (like the one we still imagine--perhaps one day?--for Ron Arad). But instead only funerals:





And here is part of the package of what was given up for the black boxes... And this...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Delayed Architecture Review: Yad Vashem and the New Zionism

There's something about the Arrivals Hall at Ben Gurion which always draws me. Maybe because I compare it with the dreary arrivals building at JFK--which though also a gateway for immigants just doesn't compare. Getting to Ben Gurion early means more time watching the spectacle--where the airport guards sometimes seem less interested in security than overseeing family reunions. It also gives me more time to imagine and embellish the stories of the arriving passengers: the Beis Yaakov girl back from her first trip abroad away from her family; the high-tech executive returning from Silicon Valley to his wife and balloon-bearing twin daughters; the squat Bukharin women walking tentatively as their flag-waving family members, upon sighting them, let out shouts of joy. There's a common set of fantasies expressed in the financial pages of the newspapers here: if only all of the Jewish CEOs and CFOs would come to Israel, then the Israel economy would really be strong! But it's not Steve Jobs and Stephen Spielberg that I want here (though they can come also), but all of my friends and relatives! When a longtime friend of mine left Israel, I felt not only the loss of a friend, but the loss of a particular lens through which to experience Israel. And so when a friend visits, it's a new lens on Israel.

So naturally, when an old colleague and friend of mine came to town for an academic conference, I was happy to put aside my current research on British Church history (exciting as it) and make the trip to the holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. When I was in high school, I remember writing an article for the school paper called 'Museum Madness'--which was about the experience of culture overdose I used to feel after about thirty minutes in a museum (I've been scouring the net, thought to no avail, for late seventies web archives of the Hilltop Beacon). Nowadays, I can usually go about forty-five minutes of concentrated museum-going, but then it's back to that old 'museum madness' state. At Yad Vashem, 'museum madness' sets in quickly. I have a hard time concentrating for long on the exhibits: all of those galleries!; the written testimonies (such small print!); so many oral histories! But in Israel, there's always so much more going on (just my bus ride to the library this morning included several mini-dramas). Like the exhibit of a pre-war living room (replete with dining room table and embroidered wall-hangings) destined to be abandoned in the late thirties, but now filled--with a kind of awkward triumph--by kippa-wearing soldiers in their green khakis, some of them looking as if they stumbled into the wrong movie. And in the Auschwitz galleries, an American in a Boston Red Sox hat volunteered: 'If any one has any questions, my father can answer,' pointing to the man beside him, 'he was there.' And the girl in the Def Leppard T-shirt, with one of her IPod earplugs dangling, sobbing uncontrollably in the Hall of Names.

If that wasn't enough to keep us busy, there's also, like any really great museum, the amazing architecture of the place--and, in the case of Yad Vashem, the contrast with its predecessor. You can still see the the old museum, the two-panel scruptural frieze adorning the squarish building's outer walls. On the right side is the image of a procession of Jews--weak, shrowded and downcast. Here are the old Jews of exile, and at the center, a Moses-like figure, carrying the Torah in his hands.



On the left side (remember the Hebrew-reading mind moves from right to left) is a very different vision: the Jew is no longer downtrodden, but standing upright and noble. The cylindrical centerpiece of the previous tableau--the Torah--is replaced in the second image by a machine gun: from Revelation at Sinai to the Uzi.



As it turns out, the second sculpture was created as a commemoration for the fighters of the Warsaw Rebellion. Whatever the original intention, on the old museum facade, it's part of a 'before and after' story: the 'before': the old weak European Jew wed pitiably to the Torah; the 'after': the new strong Israeli Jew independent, defiant in his own might and military strength.

In the new museum--not in a frieze, but in the architecture of the building itself--the before and after story is re-told. Walking into the museum, there's a continuous film-loop--projected on the triangular wall that serves as one end to the long prism-like structure of the museum--with scenes from the World That Was Lost, the Europe of before the war. In these fantastic grainy old images, there is so much more than the story told by the old museum frieze. There are still the pious Jews marshalling their horse-drawn carts down shtetl paths, but also Jewish trade unionist marching on modern city avenues. Then there's the Hitchcock-like Rear Window sequence which peaks into various windows of Jewish life: two women framed by a door sporting the latest fashions, an older man seated at a piano practicing, a chassidische boy fehered (tested) by his rebbe. The Jew of Europe is portrayed in a diversity absent from the corresponding image on the frieze; what replaces the machine-gun bearing modern Jew is even more arresting. True, in the last exhibit hall, there are the children of Munkatch, trundled up in their winter coats outside of a school, singing what would become the Israeli National anthem Ha Tivka--interspersed with the footage of May 14, 1948, Ben Gurion's declaration of the State.

But this more recognizable ending to the zionist story is in one of the side galleries--subordinate to another story which becomes clearer as one emerges from the dark low center of the museum which brightening into another triangle, a window, directly opposite the projected images at the museum entrance. Opening the glass doors, the burst of wind, the view of the Jerusalem Forest: my friend Ken turned to me and said what I felt: "exhilirating!" One walks through the doors not to the polemical zionist triumph of the old museum frieze (though there are those who continue to thive on the tired antagonism represented there), but to the zionism of the endless horizon of possibilities. Turning away from the iconic story of Israeli military triumph of כחי ועצם ידי, the new Yad Vashem opens up a story for a zionism without idolatry. This is the zionism of the land of Israel and the many lenses--like the Torah with its many faces--by which, with every one who enters the Arrivals Hall at Ben Gurion, a new face of Israel is revealed.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Modernity is Hell: Korach and Hobbes

I have plans to go to London in a couple of weeks for the International Milton Symposium. When people ask me about my upcoming academic trip, and I tell them I'll be speaking about 'Milton and Hobbes,' they gently correct me: 'you mean, "Calvin and Hobbes"'? No, it's not early senility, and not a slip of the tongue, and not a Bill Watterson spin-off, and not a tiger and a boy, but the poet, John Milton, and the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. So, given my current scholarly interests and the time of year, I've been thinking a lot about Hobbes, and his predecessor in the desert, Korach. I'm picturing some of my graduate students now giving a collective eye-roll, and saying to themselves: 'there you go again Kolbrener, yoking the most heterogenous ideas by violence together!' Korach and Hobbes: p-lease...! And yet...

I sometimes wonder about interesting historical figures to have at my shabbos table (a strange thought, i know); I think Hobbes would be a great candidate--though he would probably scare the children. He scares me! Hobbes, the first philosopher of modernity, saw a world--or maybe he helped invent it--of only bodies, just an interacting 'motion of limbs.' Though Hobbes devotes half of his book to discussions of religion, he allows no place for spirituality among those limbs: there's just the physical world, nothing divine. Out of Hobbes's universe of only physical bodies and their conflicting desires comes the need for the Leviathan--who through his 'rule by the sword' provides the only barrier to endless war, and the life of man which he describes (so very cheerfully!) as "nasty, brutish and short." In a world without spirit or common rationality, there are only competing political interests: she may dress up her interests in certain value systems and beliefs; and he in others, but everything always boils down to politics and interest. The sensible person (ie Hobbes) will say: in such a world of warring passions and interests, the best thing to do is to give into the authoritative and authoritarian Leviathan, and just let him keep the peace. In a world without anything else holding people together, raw authority holds sway. It's all power.

Enter Korach, the Leviathan of the desert. Korach questions Moses's authority, Moses--the most humble of all men, G-d's true prophet. And how does he challenge Moses? He says: 'You are a politician! you've set up your brother Aharon in a cushy position as High Priest; your nephew as next in line; and you take the leadership position for yourself! You're running a corrupt government based upon protexia (for non-Israelis, nepotism); and you benefit the most!' As a way of winning favor, Korach then morphs into Spinoza and says, 'we are all holy, Moses; not just you; spread some of the power around.' (I admit I'm being overly academic here, but for those not in the know, Spinoza was the seventeenth century philosopher--an honest to goodness heretic--who made possible the scene, centuries later, of Shirley MacLaine on an East Hampton Beach, shouting, "I am God!"). Korach doesn't believe in Torah min Ha'shmayim--Torah from Heaven: Korach 'deconstructs' Moses's actions, and finds their true meaning: 'It's your doing Moses!; your Torah keeps you in control!; your Torah reflects your preferences; you don't like cheeseburger's Moses; you are of the levitical class and like the day of rest; that's why you gave us this Torah of yours!' All Korach sees is his own desire for power, so he can't see anything else (everyone, I think, knows someone like this). So even in Moses, the spiritual man par excellence, he only sees politics and power.

Our sages tell us that there are two kinds of dispute, one for the sake of Heaven, represented in the dispute of Hillel and Shammai; the other of Korach and his followers. The dispute of Hillel and Shammai is beloved by G-d, because each are engaged and committed to bringing to light aspects of the Torah. And though they disagree--and sometimes say opposite things--they are united through their love and learning of the Torah. Here, we return to the mystical power of the number three. For two are transformed into one through the point that brings them together. In this way, as the Maharal puts it, three is at once less and greater than two. Jewish algebra: three unites into the number numerically less than two (one); but one is superior to two for representing unity. Hillel and Shammai are united in their disagreement (having a meaningful disagreement is hard to do!)--through the Torah.

Korach however is forever stuck in the world of two. He is not paired with Moses, but with his fellow politicians, the company of two hundred and fifty men who follow him to their death. Korach pursues not the unity which comes from dispute in the name of heaven, but the dispute of politics and division. The dispute which Korach pursues was created on the second day of creation, the day the waters above and below were separated (a cosmic division)--the only one of the six days of creation which G-d does not call 'good.' It is also the day, our sages tell us, when gehinom--hell--was created. Hell is the day of division without the hope of coming together, of separation and absence, a vacuum filled up only with the warring desires of men whose lives are 'nasty, brutish and short.' And so Korach projects a world based upon his own selfish desires and political machinations. But as Korach and his followers sink into the abyss of the fiery earth that swallows them, the rest of the people of Israel cry out, 'Moshe Emes, v'Toraso Emes,' 'Moses is True and his Torah is True!' The Torah of Moses makes possible a world where the division of two turns into the unity of three!

Hobbes describes a modern world in which many of us still live, a world without anything to unify but power, a world of politics and faction, self-interest and endless division. Korach's dispute provides a legacy for Hobbes which he gives to the modern world: Hell.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Living with Failure

A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared 'the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.' Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I've given an overly idealized impression of my family, I'm coming clean. Though I think it's important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it's obviously not the whole picture.

In the Torah portion from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: 'why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn't we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?' They felt 'diminished' for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah--an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni--the 'second Pesach' for those who missed it the first time around--are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as 'meritorious' ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question--any teacher or parents knows this--allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses's questions!

I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don't know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I'm the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour--which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we've both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the 'Questions' topic would make a great discussion for the kids: 'Have any of you had any questions this week?' My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn't ask because his rebbe wouldn't have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי--or 'I already understand everything!' (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: 'will someone pass the cholent please?'

After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms--'A tzaddik falls seven times'--doesn't mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it's because he's fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows--in the end--for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It's almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn't accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don't go the way you want.

'Why don't you put that in your blog?'--she concluded.

So I am...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Special: Running Away Redux, A Woman's Perspective

Guest Contributor, Leslie Kolbrener
[the following is excerpted from a longer piece; and no, this is not a different perspective on an old story; he ran away again--WDK]

Shmuel ran out of the house, dressed, and disappeared. Night was approaching and there were a lot of cars in the streets and everybody I could find standing or sitting still seemed just to have arrived in that position and so couldn't have had the leisure to sight a little boy with Down Syndrome running away from home. Freidy started crying after a time, our searches all coming up empty. I told her to have faith and keep on looking. She did and she found him, she out of all of us, enlisted friends and all the other children. He had crossed the busy street in front of our house--unless an angel had carried him across. Perfectly natural, I keep telling myself to want to leave the house alone, in the heat of the summer I feel it every night, the desire for it. He was newly created when he came home that night, one hand firmly in Freidy's, a stange new joy permeating his exuberant knowing little face, Freidy happy beyond expression, as if the hand she held were that of her newly wedded husband, instead of just the hand of her wayward younger brother.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Moon Mamas, Tradition, Innovation and Bliss

David, an old high school friend, sent me a link to a web posting by the Moon Mamas Rosh Chodesh Group in the Bay Area and their innovative "transition ritual" (though the subject heading in David's e-mail was a succint 'oy vey!'). Here's part of the ritual:

Begin by having friends and family line a path for the individual marking the transition to walk through. Each individual holds a jar/cup filled with water. The transitioning individual begins at the start of the path holding an empty jar/bowl and states the following:

The transition I am about to honor is ___________

She/He continues stating each of the following:

I am leaving behind _________

I fear _____________________

I need ____________________

I hope for _________________

I welcome _________________

As she/he makes each statement, the family and friends repeat:

You are_________________

She/He continues walking as each statement is made. As the individual marking the transition makes her/his way through the path, each person she/he passes pours water from their jar into hers/his (representing support and giving). At the end of the path the individual marking the transition bows or pauses. The last person in the path then takes the jar/bowl from the transitioning individual and pours the water over the hands of the individual marking the transition.


The ritual testifies to a lot of things: to the powers of community, the continued need for ritual in an ostensibly secular world, and the persistence of, for lack of a better word, the 'spiritual.' But the ritual that grows out of the Moon Mamas group seem to assume that tradition and creativity are opposites--that to be authentic one has to throw off the rituals of the past, and supply new ones. True, the Moon Mamas acknowledge--with the very turn towards ritual--that spirituality needs some kind of vessel, but instead of embracing those traditions and practices sanctified by time and practice of generations of Jews, they create their own.

But does adhering to ritual and tradition necessarily mean the abandonment of creativity? Does being 'orthodox,' as so many people have told me since graduate school, really mean giving up one's authentic creative self? If you want to be yourself, Joseph Campbell-style (remember him? he was that anthropologist from that PBS special years back), you have to "follow your bliss." Is the only recipe for finding such bliss the kind pursued by the "Moon Mamas"?

It's common to think that being traditional means blind submission to the past or mimicry of the practices of others, and that creativity its opposite. So in the Jewish world, there are those who believe that authentic Judaism means either giving up subjectivity entirely (with everyone in the same mold), or, at the other extreme, the pursuit of individual 'bliss' independent of traditions (and the creation of new rituals and liturgy). But there is another route: I take the traditions, customs and laws, and I make them my own. Not through uprooting them, but through investing them with myself, they become new and distinctly mine.

In my travels giving lectures, I am the beneficiary of lots of hospitality; as a result, I get to see many Jewish families in action. A few months ago, I was at the house of the Kohls of New Hempstead in Monsey--master parents and educators. It's a custom to say over words of Torah at the shabbos table; the Kohl family had a particular way of making this custom their own. Right before dessert, the kids took out a huge box of candy, and from the different shapes, sizes, colors and brands available (tons of different kinds of kosher candy in America!), they spelled out in acrostic from--though often in cleverly complicated fashion--different verses from the weekly Torah portion. I couldn't guess them at first (I wasn't, for example, able to follow the manifold connotations of different sorts of laffy taffy), but their parents did, and the kids were exhilerated by the activity.

I thought to myself, I have to try this at home! But it wasn't long before I lost my resolve: in my house, it would never work. Forget about the fact that the local candy store doesn't boast the same variety of candy, but my wife would never countenance candy during the meal (for good reason: our kids would probably eat the whole box). But then there was that moment, when the resignation yielded and I realized I could make it my own. My kids love to put on shows, so I transformed the candy acrostic into what I coined 'Parsha Pantomine'--mini skits acting out Torah verses. At the outset, I was the director: in the first scene, two of the girls took their seats on the imaginary 39 bus, initially not noticing me walking down the aisle of our fantasy bus, but then, in the end, yielding their seats ('on behalf of an old person, you should stand'). That was an easy one. When they got the hang of it, they directed another 'play': one of the little ones was blindfolded; an older sibling placed a footstool in her path; and another of the kids--just at the crucial moment--came to the rescue, pushing the obstacle away: 'do not put a stumbling block before the blind.' All this, with the rest of the family guessing, and thinking of possible skits for the next verse.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great sages of the eighteenth century, writes: "At every moment that a person is working and cleaving to the words of the Torah, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai." Revelation is not limited to a particular time or place: but when we are truly engaged in Torah study, the process of revelation repeats itself. When someone produces a genuine new insight into Torah, the words themselves rejoice as if they were given at Sinai. Simcha, joy, is the linked by our sages with the experience of renewal: the words of the Torah themselves feel simcha--joy--because Sinai is renewed in a new and contemporary context. So it is true in our practices: at the moment that we fill the vessel of ancient rituals with our creative energies, we show a side of Torah which--now revealed for the first time in our homes, with our children--has its origin in the revelation of Sinai. This is not Campbell's bliss, but the simcha that unites past and present, the ancient and the modern--the new joy of a creativity which links back to Mount Sinai.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Writing an Inspirational Story

I re-connected with an old friend last week. We had been in high school together (though not in the same class), and when a mutual friend let me know that Justin (not his real name) was going to be in town, the two of us set up a meeting. Justin recognized my name ('I knew a Billy Kolbrener when I was in high school!'; yes, that is how I was known back then), but when we met, he couldn't link my name to my face. Over cafe hafouch at David's Citadel in Jerusalem, we shared the pleasure of discovering similar paths taken. Though many of our fellow-classmate in Roslyn High School all strongly identified as Jewish (though it didn't stop many of them from intermarrying), only Justin and I (with just a handful of others of whom I know) overcame the suburban prejudices against orthodoxy to discover what Justin described as the "treasures" of Judaism. And he was not talking about the tunnel tour in the Old City or the laser show on the City's Walls...

In the process of catching up, Justin asked if among my books and articles, I had anything that I might want to pass on--mentioning that he had an interest in stories providing inspiration, of people who had overcome challenges as they maintained and strengthened their faith. I've admittedly never written in that mode, and I wondered if I could come up with anything. Certainly, there are no shortage of such stories. In Jerusalem, you hear about them all the time. A friend of mine had just the previous day recounted a hesped (or eulogy) from a funeral service he had attended. In this case the eulogy was simple, a sparse recounting of the facts of a life: from a birth in Austro-Hungary, to a loss of parents in Auschwitz, to the beginnings of a life in France, to an eventual re-settlement in the US and then Israel--the story of a woman's life (or what seemed to be different lives) interspersed with the challenges and tragedies that someone from my background (and Justin's) can hardly even begin to imagine. My mind turned also to the pair of men who sit in front of me in shul--'regulars' (always precisely on time; "early is also not on time," one of them often tells me). Over sixty years ago, they had been among the children of the kinder transport--German Jewish children who were sent away from their homes by their parents who sensed the horrors to come. Brought on one of the special trains from Germany which carried children during the period that began shortly after kristelnacht and ended with the blitzkrieg), they were 're-located' with British families--many of them not even Jewish. The two bonded as young refugees in England while the war spread and the fate of their parents was sealed. At war's end, they were separated (one remained in England, the other to the US) until they were reunited in a little synagogue in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, my neighborhood shul. In Bayit Vegan alone, there must be hundreds of such stories, of enormous spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.

These are stories which can't fail to make an impression, but I was struck, by the end of our meeting by another story--Justin's. By any possible measure, Justin was wildly successful, having risen to the top of his field, with access to all of the accoutrements of luxury, wealth and privilege which his position afforded. But here he was in Jerusalem. Although I did not hear all of the details, I know that the path which brought him to the Holy City was also not without sacrifice--not the sacrifice of the previous generations, but sacrifice nonetheless. For Justin (to the mixed admiration and disbelief of friends and relatives) had made his own sacrifices, given up many of the benefits and entitlements that the fast track has to offer--moving his family to a community with a shul, placing his children in Jewish day school, and committing himself to a life of connection and service to G-d and others.

Our tradition teaches us that there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah--one for each of the six hundred thousand who gathered on the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So every Jew has his or her corresponding letter in the Torah, and it's the task of a lifetime to discover that letter. No letter is the same; there is no 'objective' Torah template of how Torah observance should look. Achitophel, our sages tell us, wore all of the outward trappings of a frummer yid, a religious Jew, but G-d rejected his service, because the service was not his own. G-d wants the whole person--that is, he wants our subjectivity to express itself in and through our service. Achitophel did not search for and write his own letter, he merely imitated the service of others. Again, G-d wants our letter, not someone else's. As we write that letter--carving it's shape, adorning it with embellishments, deepening it's hues--we may gain strength and inspiration from the letters of others, but we should also own up to both the challenges and pleasures of writing ourselves. Making too much out of ourselves leads to egotistic self-satisfaction and stagnation; but making too much out of the stories of others may lead us to a resigned humility preventing us from finding and writing our own letters. (A friend relates to me that his Rebbe tells his students to avoid reading too many stories of great contemporary figures, lest they fail to develop their own distinctive avodas Hashem, service of God).

In Jewish practice, the absence of only one single letter from a Torah renders it invalid: for the Torah to show itself fully in this world, each Jew needs to find his or her own letter. Once found, we spend a lifetime crafting that letter, writing our letters for all to see. Sometimes, it's true, it takes someone else to see the beauty of the letters we have already begun to craft, to feel the inspiration of the stories we have begun to write.

On our way out, as Justin and I walked through the revolving doors of David's Citadel, he turned to me with a sudden realization and said, "you are the Billy Kolbrener I once knew; when you smiled, I recognize you; it is you!" So surely, people like Justin and I find inspiration in the stories of gedolim and tzaddikim--great and righteous people. Though sometimes we may also find evidence of letters in unanticipated places, and in recognizing them, discover how those letters are shaping us and others in ways we did not expect.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Current Events: Sociology, Tommy Lapid and the 'Ultra-Orthodox' Response.

Just trying to distinguish--with my title--this more timely (and thus more conventionally blog like) post. I saw the following link on "Life in Israel" blog--which I thought I would share: http://lifeinisrael.blogspot.com/2008/06/more-haredi-reactions-to-death-of-tommy.html
The youtube link records Haredi (or ultra-orthodox; that word again!)reactions to the death of Tommy Lapid--who was best known for his activity in the Shinui Party, a party which according to the left of center newspaper Haaretz, "sought to curb the growing political power of ultra-Orthodox parties" (this is a generous assessment of Lapid's sometimes inflammatory and provocative political behavior). The Israeli YNET reporter went to religious neighborhoods in attempt to elicit reactions after Lapid's death. Even those who don't understand Hebrew can tell from the tone of the questions, and the tone and body language of those interviewed, that YNET was not able to elicit the reactions (that is, extremist) which it sought.

This goes to demonstrate what sometimes seems like a conspiracy between right-wing kanai'im (fanatics) and the left wing media which both want to portray the 'ultra-orthodox' sector as fanatically extreme. But beyond the stereotypes and sociological distinctions (which as I've said before put a wedge between people rather than unite them), there is something like normalcy, and maybe even room for common ground.

I've always felt, by the way, that Lapid's persistent attack on the orthodox was a sign of his own internal connection to Torah--to use a mystical register, the sparks of kedushah or holiness, that were trying to come out. I know others may think differently, though apparently many in the orthodox world against which Lapid fought so vigorously (and sometimes bitterly) felt a connection to him, and genuine sadness at his passing.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More Thoughts on Dentistry and Chesed (and the Middle Way)

For those keeping up with the saga of my son Shmuel and his encounter with modern dentistry, last Sunday and Mondary mornings, it was back to the dentist--this time the Pediatric Emergency Dental Clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. The care was excellent, though we were told that Shmuel may need general anesthetic for further treatment. And we were also told--in a nice Kafka-esque (read Israeli) twist--that Shmuel requires the treatment in the next few months or so, but that the waiting list for that treatment is eight months. In any event, it's an eventuality we want to avoid; so we are considering our options. As I said in a comment in a previous posting: gulp...

Which goes back to my daughter Avital, and her show of chesed (mercy or loving kindness) for her brother, particularly her pleas to the dentist that he refrain from pulling Shmuel's tooth. In hindsight, while admirable in an abstract sense, Avital's cries on behalf of her brother may not have been the mature or pragmatic response (and sometimes, for better or for worse, the two coincide). Though we cultivate the mida (or trait) of chesed, it often needs to be tempered with it's opposite: pure chesed and pure din (adherence to strict legal judgment) may not fit the complexities that the world puts in our path.

The necessity to temper the tendency to show unqualified chesed (as siblings, parents or spouses) is a principle enacted in the lives of the patriarchs. Abraham represents pure chesed. Yet while we know of his acts of generosity and hospitality, we also know that he prayed for the transgressors of Sodom. Can chesed go too far? In Abraham's offspring can be seen the consequences of a chesed which has no bounds: while Isaac continued in the tradition of his father, Ishmael represented chesed without limits--which, as our sages tell us, showed itself in his lascivious behavior. Chesed, which was manifested in Avraham's openness and generosity to the world, transforms in Ishmael to a generosity without limits, a full giving of himself leading to sexual impropriety (so yes, and this is a message often lost in our generation: there is too much of a good thing). That the Torah in Leviticus uses the very word chesed to refer to sexually forbidden behavior reveals how a chesed without boundaries transforms from a virtue into a transgression. (On how words sometimes have double--and opposite--meanings, see Freud's essay, "The Antithetical Meanings of Primal Words.")

While Abraham brought the characteristic of mercy into the world, Isaac, the inheritor of the legacy of his father, brought the polar opposite, din or judgment. Isaac's life is one of heroic restraint and withholding (as evidenced foremost in his experiences during the akeidah, the sacrificial binding which he withstood). Our tradition tell us that Isaac did not want to give blessings to either one of his sons, Esau or Jacob (though he does of course in the end to both); for such a blessing would upset the order of judgment upon which for Isaac the world needed to operate. This characteristic, like that of his father, was primary and powerful in the make-up of Isaac, but also resulted in an offspring--in this case, Esau, the hunter--unsuitable to continue the tradition begun by Abraham. Ishmael's licentiousness represents the excess of chesed; Esau's murderousness, represents an excess of din. Making oneself too available, giving too much of oneself turns into an openness which leads to license; while too much of an insistence upon judgment can lead to a desire for strictness which transforms in the end into rapacious violence and murder.

The history of the patriarchs shows the coming into the world of the ideals for which we as a people are known (generosity and justice), as well as their progressive refinement. While Abraham represents the ideal of chesed, and Isaac that of din, it is Jacob--all of whose children continue in the tradition of Abraham and Isaac--who represents emet or truth. Of all of the patriarchs, only one merits the affirmation of ongoing life: "Jacob our Father is not dead"; the Torat Emet of Yaakov, the true Torah of Jacob, contains both chesed and din. Jacob takes the middle path, avoids the extremes of din and chesed by themselves, and is associated with tiferet, splendor or glory--what Maimonides describes as simply the path of the straight or middle way. Derech Hayashar, the path of b'nai Yisroel requires negotating between the extremes. When our sages tell us that there are "only three whom we call patriarchs," they are not engaging in a simple counting game. They are rather revealing the deep secret that the Jewish people have their beginnings, as well as their destiny, in the number three. Between chesed and din, which reached their perfection in Abraham and Isaac, is the middle and third way of Jacob, the way of rachomim: a more refined mercy, one informed by judgment.

Does this all mean that we will not continue to celebrate Avital's love for her brother? Certainly not. Though the refinement of chesed into rachamim, a maturity that balances between extremes, will hopefully also come in time.