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.