Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Psalms)

Psalm 8: “This is the Torah of Man”

This week’s parsha begins with the birth of a human child, and the laws of impurity that follow. Hence, it is seen as a paradigm of, and counterpoised to, the “torah of the beast and animal” that precede it, and as an opportunity for discussing what it means to be human. Many midrashim on this parsha (Leviticus Rabbah 14) duplicate or parallel those in Bereshit Rabbah, dwelling upon the paradoxes and antinomies of human existence.

One might add that the laws with which our portion opens (Lev 12) are themselves among the more paradoxical in the halakhah: the blood issuing from the post-partum woman renders here impure and then, after passage of a certain number of days, that selfsame blood is dam tohar– a flow of blood that is ”pure.” This can be seen as symbolizing the duality of human existence, which is itself both pure and impure: man is bound by his biological existence, and soars free in his thoughts and consciousness. As for the perennial question: why are the two periods of impurity following the birth of a baby girl twice as long as those for a baby boy? One might answer: because woman lives both aspects of her being more intensely: she is both “more biological,” so to speak, in that her life is more closely tied with such biological cycles and events as ovulation and menstruation, childbirth and lactation, while simultaneously more “spiritual,” in that she has a greater potential, through the possibilities of motherhood, for unconditional love of at least one other person—her child—without the same internal struggles between ego and connection to others that seem to mark the lives of so many men.

All this, by way of introduction to Psalm 8, one of my own favorites. This is a short, almost perfectly formed hymn, which reflects upon the essential paradox of the human condition. The first half of the psalm, vv. 2-5, sings of the glory of God—“O Lord, our Master, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth; your glory is given in the heavens”—which is even celebrated “from the mouths of sucklings and babes”— and of the sense of wonder upon seeing the sky and the stars, “the work of your fingers.” This in turn calls forth reflections upon the smallness of the human being: “What is man that You should remember him…” (v. 5). Note the use here of the term enosh, suggesting weakness, vulnerability, mortality, to refer to the human being.

And yet…. and yet… There is also a greatness, a dignity, even a certain sense of mastery and majesty, in the human being “Yet you have made him but little less than the angels [or: divine], and have crowned him with honor and glory” (v. 6). Man is assigned to have dominion over all other creatures upon the face of this earth, as if delegated by God to govern the earth (almost Prometheus-like?!) as God rules over heaven: over the flocks and bulls, wild beasts, birds and fish—in short, everything. But the psalm ends, almost as it began, by reaffirming that in the final analysis it is God who rules the earth, just as He does the heavens: “Lord, our Master, how great is Your name upon the earth” (v. 10).

The oscillation back and first between man feeling his own smallness, and his own greatness and potential for Godliness, is perhaps one of the factors implied in Rambam’s description of the factors underlying the twin mitzvot of love and fear of God, in Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2: the same sense of God’s greatness that leads a person to seek closeness with and knowledge of “He who spoke and created the world” also leads to a certain awed reticence and withdrawal from Him. A similar back-and-forth motion is known in Hasidism as ratzo va-shov, “running and returning,” the movement of the religious seeker between clinging in devekut “above” and returning to the world.

This sense of the duality of human existence, of man’s power and of his smallness, is articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s essay, Lonely Man of Faith, in the typology of “Adam I” and “Adam II.” The latter feels the mystery of the universe, is poignantly aware of his own mortality and creatureliness, and seeks first and foremost meaning and community in life. The former is described as Majestic Man, who rules the earth through his ability to understand and harness the rules of nature and to create tools (whether physical objects or social and organizational patterns) to rule over and dominate his environment.

In recent years many people have begun to wonder whether there is isn’t a certain danger in this latter approach. Too often, the idea of mankind having a Divine mandate to rule over everything in the world has been understand in terms of dominion alone, of the unchallenged exercise of the collective human will, rather than as custodianship. Those who are ecologically sensitive often point to Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the… fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and all the creatures that fill the earth….”) as providing a certain justification for what can be a dangerous mind set.

There is a certain paradox here: the wonders of science and technology that have been introduced over the past century have changed our world beyond recognition: whether in terms of transportation, communication, medicine, bio-engineering, etc. Yet there is simultaneously a widespread sense of anomie, of disquiet, of widespread unhappiness, even among those who most benefit from the wealth and convenience of modern life. There is a profound sense of psychological discontent, of alienation, of a sense that “it was not for this child that we prayed”—and the solutions offered are often bizarre. There is also great fear for the future. As a result of human wisdom and ingenuity in harnessing energy and creating weaponry, the potential for destruction and for world-wide conflicts is far greater than in the past. Similarly, the ravaging of the environment, the depletion of precious limited resources, the process of global warming—may lead to unimaginable disasters. The very devices, such as the automobile, that have in a short period of time have become indispensable, may yet prove to be short-lived.

We are living through a crisis of values, of so-called “post-modernity”—meaning, a culture that is post-rationalist, but also beyond the hegemony of any clear-cut system of belief, of clear moral guidelines. In such a situation, there is a crying need for a profound rethinking of what it means for humankind to have “dominion” over the world. But beyond that, religion, and specifically Torah teachers, must be a source of healing within mankind, and certainly not as inciters of hostility and militancy towards those who are “outside” the particular circle of the faithful. Let us all pray, most immediately, for a peaceful Rosh Hodesh, and for a renewal of light and true wisdom among our leaders.


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