Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cosmic Consciousness: The Beatles, Passover and the Redemptive Power of Storytelling

What could bring the remaining Beatles - Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr - back together? Surprise: the David Lynch Foundation which advocates teaching Transcendental Meditation - 'every child,' the foundation website reads, 'should have one class period a day to dive within himself.' As part of the show at Radio City, after Ringo and Paul did a version of 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' the two performed a tune which Paul composed on a 1968 trip to an ashram in India - 'Cosmically Conscious.' So the two former Beatles sang - 'Come and be cosmically conscious, cosmically conscious with me.'

Passover is also a time of consciousnessness-raising, but when our thoughts turn to Pesach our thoughts are not wholly transcendental. In all of our festival commemorations, it is the exodus from Egypt which we remember - we don't remember G-d - this would be the transcendental version - who created heavens the earth, but rather G-d who took us out of Egypt. Our service avoids cosmic consciousness for a consciousness achieved through the collective experience of lived history. And we achieve that consciousness not through transcendental meditation, but through story-telling, the reading of the hagadda. 'And that you may tell in the ears of your children, and of your children's children, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord.' As the Sfat Emes tell us 'story telling' - and 'you shall tell your children' - 'leads to consciousness or da'as.' Da'as represents the capacity that Betzalel, the master craftsman, employed in building the sanctuary in the desert, joining heaven to earth.

Perhaps, out of habit, we fail to notice the novelty of seder night when the Torah turns story-telling into a mitzva. Try this for a thought experiment: you're going to create a religion, and part of that religion will be the injunction to tell a story. If there's a eucharistic moment in Judaism, it's seder night, but achieved through story-telling. It's the kind of a thing that a literary critic might make up! Even more strangely, we read in the hagadda that even if 'we are all wise, all understanding, all experienced,' we would still have the obligation to recount the events of the exodus. Our sages tell us also that even a wise person - who finds himself alone on the night of the seder - is obligated to engage in the act of story-telling. He stays up half the night -by himself - repeating a story which he has known since childhood!

The Talmud tells us: 'in every generation, it is incumbent upon each person to see himself - lirot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt.' Maimonides - either he had a different version of the talmudic text or he was innovating - writes that each person is obligated to show himself - l'harot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt. Both versions - but in that of Maimonides especially - emphasize performing the exodus from Egypt, for oneself and others. The hagadda is a set of stage directions for that performance: drinking the four cups of wine, maror, matza, leaning while we eat and drink, derech cherus, our sages tell us, in the manner of free men and women. So interested are the sages in the experience of the seder that they provide actual recipes for that performance. Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset is a commemmoration of the mortar; Rabbi Yochanan says it is in rememberance of the apple trees under which Jewish woman led their husbands despite their protestations about Egyptian oppression ('we can't have kids!,' their husbands protested, 'not now!'). Abaye goes on to provide the recipe - food can be philosophical - for our dialectical consciousness, both slavery and redemption. 'Make sure that you pound it to make it thick' - commemorating our hardship - and 'add lots of wine and apples to make it sweet' - recalling our eventual triumph. No transcendental meditation here; pass the apple peeler.

The seder is full of props for out performance - it's always fun to add your own (red dye for blood, marshmallows for hail are among my favorites) - but the primary means is speech. Aristotle may say that man is the rational animal, but our tradtion tell us that man is distinguished by his speech. 'And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.' A living soul - nefesh chaya - as our tradition tell us, man is the creature who speaks. Man, says the Maharal of Prague, is not a purely spiritual creature - he represents a hybrid between the spiritual and physical, between the dust from which he was created and the divine breath which inspirited him. Descartes, having ruined everything for Europeans with a philosophy separating mind and body, tried to make amends by suggesting that the despite everything, the spirit does invest the physical in - get this for a philosophical joke - the pineal gland. The Maharal, however - no philosophical models for him thanks - is serious when he says that the mind and the body come together in the tongue.

Though a picture may be worth a thousand words - we know that even the most humble of the people of Israel experienced a prophetic vision which was more vivid and intense than that of the prophet Ezekiel - on seder night, we turn primarily to words. When the word for hearing - shmiya - is used in the Torah, Onkelos who provides the Aramaic 'Authorized Version' translates kabbala. Kabbala - don't think of Madonna here - means acceptance, or perhaps in more psychological terms, internalization. Though the people experienced the 'visuals' on their way out of Egypt, it wasn't long after that they were worshipping the golden calf. So much the more so in our generation, we need a way of taking our own cosmic consciousness and bringing it to life. For this, there is the speech and the redemptive power of story-telling - and a performance that leads to internalization.

In the hagadda, we read: 'one who expands on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.' The Alter of Kelm explains that praiseworthy - m'shubach - comes from the word mashbiach - improved or refined. Through our storytelling - to ourselves and our children - we have the opportunity of refining and improving ourselves. Of taking that transcendental cosmic consciousness - internalizing it - and making it real.

1 comment:

Mor Alkobi said...

It's not the same without the Martha Stewart reference...