Monday, October 31, 2011

Noah (Wanderings)

“Their Thoughts were Only Evil all Day Long”

The first images that come to mind when we speak of the story of Noah and the Flood is of the building of the great ark and the animals filing in by twos, of the dove flying back and forth and returning with an olive branch in its mouth, and the appearance of the rainbow. To this, one must add the detailed description of the construction of the ark and the actual chronology of the Flood (which, appropriately enough, both began and ended very close to the time, early in the month of Heshvan, when we read Parshat Noah every year) detailed in the Torah.

But what is really significant, to my mind, is the portrait found here of a world that has “gone to rot”—i.e., totally surrendered to evil. There are two accounts of sin in Parashat Bereshit: the eating of the “forbidden fruit” by Adam and Eve, which seems to have been motivated by curiosity, temptation, an element of willfulness and “testing of boundaries,” and persuasion by the clever arguments of the Serpent; and Kain’s murder of Abel, which may be seen as a sudden outburst of anger and frustration, possibly also an “accident” resulting from Kains’ lack of awareness of his own strength. In both cases, it is difficult to speak of “radical evil” or of evil utterly dominating the personalities involved.

What one may say, in a reading relevant to our abiding interest here in matters of community, is that God, once He had created the world and the human species, “tried His hand,” so to speak, at building community and harmonious social interactions among this new and interesting species. His first attempt was in the nuclear family, in the attachment of man and woman, sexual and otherwise (ודבק באשתו), but the ultimate result was not one of true equality and harmony, but of domination (see 3:16). He then tried fraternity—the camaraderie of two brothers, who were inherently equal in status and standing. The end result was a quarrel that ended in murder. (Interestingly, some midrashim make Kain out to be the “bad guy” from the outset, while others show the two quarreling without distinction about property, religion, or access to a desirable woman. See Gen. Rab. 22.7; HY I: Bereshit2)

In the generation of the Flood, there seems to be a “raising of the ante”: humankind had somehow become fixed on an evil path. The last four verses of last week’s parashah Bereshit speak of God’s seeing that “man’s evil had become very great on the earth, and all the impulses of the thoughts of his heart were only evil all the day” (Gen 6:5). (This follows upon an account of the “sons of God” who took—grabbed, really—whatever women they fancied.) The opening verses of Parshat Noah go on to say that mankind, nay, “all flesh had corrupted its ways in the land” and “the land was filled with violence” (כי השחית כל בשר את דרכו על הארץ... ותמלא הארץ חמס; 6:12, 11).

What was the nature of this radical evil, and what was its source? Martin Buber, in a short essay entitled “Images of Good and Evil” (in his Good and Evil, pp. 63-143) speaks of two kinds of evil: The first is evil as confusion, indecision: lack of direction in life, what he calls the whirlpool or vortex of the multitude of options and possibilities, or what Levinas calls the “temptation of temptation” (the Don Juan, who tries to sleep with every attractive woman who comes his way, epitomizes this type). In my generation, which reached young adulthood in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there were those who saw life as a field for varied and intense experience, and advocated the idea that “one should try anything once.” But, per Buber, there is another kind of evil, in which a person (or an entire community—and it is thus that I see the generation of the Flood, and the people of Sodom) consciously chooses evil as a path. The essence of such evil is not so much in the specific acts performed, but in the scoffing at all values. An attitude of cynicism, apathy, indifference to others, sheer cussedness—which may in turn include hatred, maliciousness, and gratuitous violence; even, a certain hatred of goodness (note the midrash about the people of Sodom, who viciously punished a young woman who showed kindness, generosity, and compassion to an unfortunate person).

What can we learn from the Biblical account about the origin, the roots of these negative attitudes? I would like to return to the verse about Eve’s temptation. The Serpent—whether we see him as an actual persona, a mythical forebearer of modern reptiles or, as Maimonides sees him in the Guide, as a personification of the Evil Impulse within the human being himself—is portrayed as clearly understanding human psychology, and appealing to its most vulnerable points. Eve, after being presented with the Serpent’s offer, says to herself three things: “And the woman saw that (a) the fruit was good to eat, (b) and that it [aroused] desire/appetite through the eyes, (c) and the tree was pleasant [for acquiring] knowledge—so she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 2:6). I suggest reading this verse as alluding to three basic human needs or proclivities. It was “good to eat”—on the most basic level, it fulfilled a basic need, A person may steal an apple or a loaf of bread because he is hungry, or violate a sexual norm because of overwhelming lust. “And it was desirable to the eyes.” The eyes are an organ of perception, not of desire—but they trigger the imagination, which in turn awakens the heart—i.e., the realm of desire. Through sight, a person begins to imagine a multitude of possibilities, of things he might want (see Rashi at Num 15:32). (Some social biologists would say that one of the differences between human beings and other animals is that, standing on two feet, our sexual desire is triggered less by the sense of smell, and more by that of sight—a fact which in turn carries a panoply of further implications.) Third, “the fruit was pleasant for knowing.” Human beings differ from the beast in their intellect, which is not limited to the direct encounter with the environment. Human beings envisage possibilities and lay plans; the human intellect expresses itself in curiosity, in language, in the ability to create abstractions—ideas and concepts; and in the ability to dominate others—the natural environment, other species who may have greater brute strength, and other human brings. This last factor is a two-edged sword: through the application of intellectual power, through tool making and social organization, human beings and humankind generally may help others, build a better world, construct labor-saving devices—but may also develop weapons of destruction and means of enslaving others, literally or figuratively.

The desire to dominate and rule over others is very powerful. It is already alluded to in 1:28, as a blessing, but it may become a central plank in the path of evil. The will to cause fear in others, to bend them to one’s own will, may stem from the imagination, it may take its power to act from the intellect, it may stem from the instinct for self-preservation somehow gone wrong, transformed into black hatred. I think of the case, a few years ago, of three young people who attacked a stranger, an older man sitting on a park bench with his family near the Tel Aviv beach, and viciously beat him to death for no coherent reason (adding insult to injury, the criminals were eventually apprehended, tried, and convicted, but of manslaughter rather than murder). This may be taken as a microcosm for far greater examples of evil our world has known, perhaps especially in our age, from Hitler on down.

To summarize the story of Etz ha-Da’at, the Tree of Knowledge and what went after: God wanted man to have free will, to make his own choices in life. Only thus could he be a true spiritual being; otherwise he would forever remain a child, morally and emotionally (I follow here Erich Fromm’s reading in You Shall Be as Gods). But this freedom carries the possibility of being taken to extremes of evil: of unchecked desire, unchecked curiosity, unchecked imagination, and unchecked aggression towards others. So God gave the Torah (including the “capsule version” in the Noachide code) as a kind of antidote against humanity becoming overwhelmed by its own evil propensities (בראת יצר הרע, בראת תורה תבלין לו–בבא בתרא, פרק א'; “You created the Evil Urge, You created the Torah as a ‘seasoning’ for it”). The Torah teaches a decent path—but of course no one can force people to follow it.

Bereshit (Wanderings)

Introduction: Wandering the Highways and Byways of Torah

I deliberated for some time as to what topic to choose for this year. Truth be told, I even considered taking a “sabbatical” from writing this year, as there are many pressing personal tasks I have delayed for far too long which I need to do, and at times the time spent in writing this sheet requires time that, while deeply enjoyable and rewarding, I cannot always afford. This thought was reinforced when I realized that the one major genre of Jewish literature that I have not treated in years past is that of classical (i.e., medieval) Biblical exegesis—parshanut ha-miqra—a topic in many ways more difficult and complex than any of those I have treated thus far. It seemed to me that, at least for this year, it would demand far more time than I have available, involving intensive study even before writing one word. This is particularly so in that one of the central figure ins parshanut (apart from Rashi, whom I have already treated after a fashion [see Year VIII: 2006–07], whose writing is seemingly simple—I would add, deceptively so), to whom I would doubtless devote much of my attention and energy, is Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nahman, or Moses Nahmanides, 1194-1270). Ramban’s entire approach is dialectical and polemical: he almost always begins by quoting some other commentator, usually Rashi, and then demonstrating why the latter’s interpretation is wrong, and then proposing an alternative reading of the given verse or section. Hopefully (bli neder), if the Almighty gives me continued strength, I will undertake this project in 5773 (2012-13).

But I could not see giving up Hitzei Yehonatan and disappointing my devoted readers. I thus decided this year to write “free–style”—without any preconceived limitation or specific topic or genre. Hence the title: “Wanderings the Highways and Byways of Torah,” suggesting no specific agenda, but a kind of free roving over the terrain of Torah. This also provides an opportunity to tie up certain loose ends—zenavot, or “tails,” as they’re called in Hebrew. For example, I would like to discuss treat certain psalms which seem important to me, which I did not get to during the year I wrote about Tehillim (Year VI: 2004–05). I will no doubt return now and then to the words of Rashi or to Aggadot Hazal which I have not yet examined, or simply to the peshat of the parashah. And, after Pesah, during the spring and summer months, I hope to return to Pirkei Avot, about which I have written in the past, but in helter-skelter, unsystematic fashion. In addition, there are a number of special essays which I have not yet brought to fruition, which I would like to share with readers once completed. These include a major essay on Individualism (a kind of summation of this past year’s topic); thoughts on Orthodoxy; Zohar and the Eternal Feminine; Reflections Upon Rereading Richard Rubenstein; and the follow-up to what I wrote earlier about Torat Hamelekh.

Many readers have suggested that I publish some of my writings in book form. This idea is something which appeals to me and which I would like to do, if possible. I already have a scheme as to how to organize these writings, involving multiple volumes; all that I really need is time and, at a later stage, money.

Speaking of money: I have always believed deeply in Torah Lishmah—that, insofar as possible, the Torah must be studied and taught without any thought of material reward, but for its own sake. Rambam’s declaration (an extreme minority view, certainly in today’s religious world) that those who study Torah without working, in the expectation of communal support—i.e., the kollel system—ultimately profane God’s name, resonates deeply with me. I have never studied in a kollel or lived off study stipends; I have never asked for money for sharing my insights in Torah. But, increasingly, I see the practical difficulty to this approach in today’s world. Hence, I would ask whoever can do so to contribute any sum, large or small (recommended minimum: US $20 or NIS 75 per year), to enable me to continue writing Hitzei Yehonatan and to engage in my other writing and pre–publication activity. (Re the above: I would consider this as partial reimbursement for the time invested in HY, that might otherwise have been spent for remunerative professional work.) If anyone knows of potential patrons for this project, I would appreciate their help; similar, if anyone wishes to dedicate an issue of HY to the memory of a loved one, they may do so. Concerning all these matters, please contact me for details at my email address.

In the Beginning

“In the Beginning.” When the King conceived ordaining [or: in the beginning, in the King’s wisdom], he engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark [or: spark of darkness] flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. — Zohar, Parshat Bereshit, I.15a. Translation from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah, p. 52.

These words, with which the text of Sefer ha-Zohar properly begins, are deeply evocative of the mystery of Creation. The important thing about this chapter is not, as the Creationists have it, whether it is to be read as a literal description of origins, nor the pros and cons of Darwinsim, nor whether the universe is 5772 or 15,000,000,000 years old (even if these disparate views can somehow be reconciled through clever mathematical sleight-of-hand). The perennial question elicited by the beginning of Genesis is: why is there Being at all? A. J. Heschel once said that the basic religious emotion is wonder, what he called “radical astonishment.” Knowledge of God begins with a certain sense of childlike amazement at the fact that this beautiful world, with all its diverse species and vistas and phenomena, and all the vast, nearly infinite space beyond it, exists at all, rather than there being nothingness. Beyond that, the message of Genesis 1 from verse 2 on is that there is order rather than chaos (symbolized by the primordial waters); the Six Days are paradigms for God ordering the world from chaos….

The First Sin

A few brief thoughts about the story of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden—one of the most important and suggestive stories in the entire Torah. Following the mystery and wonder of Being, the central question posed here is: What is Man? What is the meaning of life as a human being? What are we to do with the ambiguities, ambivalences, and antinomies with which we live?

I see a line connecting the notion of man dominating the rest of Creation (1:28b); the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; the disruption the idyllic relations between man and woman as a result of the sin, expressed in the curse addressed to Eve, “Your desire shall be towards your man, and he shall rule over you” (3:16); and God’s words to the angry and frustrated Kain, foreshadowing his murder of Abel, “If you do good, you shall be uplifted; but if not, sin crouches at the door, and its desire is to you, but you may [or: must] rule over it” (4:7). Kain is confronted with moral choices, indeed, with two chances to improve himself—already now, when he is angry and frustrated; and even if he submits to Sin—the violent, even murderous impulse lying within every person, here personified as a wild beast lying in wait to pounce on him—he may yet succeed in taming and dominating him.

Two leitmotifs here: the intellect, the crowning glory of the human species, is also a potential pitfall, a quality with its own innate dangers. The mind, ever active, is filled with curiosity, with the desire to know (the woman saw that the fruit was not only good to eat and attractive in appearance, but also that the promise of knowledge which it offers is somehow “pleasant”: 3:6). It also provides the ability to dominate—for human beings to dominate all of nature, and of man to dominate woman. Together with that, we are also filled with inchoate desires and lusts, which drive us to action at least as much as does our intellect: the woman’s desire for her husband, notwithstanding the inevitable domination that comes in its wake; and the sin–demon lurking by the gate, that caused Kain to smite his brother.

There are those thinkers—first and foremost one of the wisest and greatest Jews ever, R. Moses Maimonides—who suggest that, if only we could learn to give the intellect a final and conclusive victory over the inchoate elements in our nature—our desires, lusts and instincts, our imagination, our emotions—all would be well with us. Then we will become a kingdom of wise philosophers who will spend our time contemplating the Godhead. But somehow, with all due respect to the Great Eagle, besides whom I am like a puny ant, I don’t think it’s going to happen—not in this world, and not with this human species. (And for those who are in doubt on this point: go see the award–winning film, “Footnote,” about the scholars of Jerusalem).

The Torah of Beginnings

Even more than Rosh Hashanah, I see Shabbat Bereshit as the real beginning of the year—that is, the effective beginning of the year made up of ordinary days and weeks, during which we get up, go to work, come home, eat, spend time with family, sleep, have Shabbat once a week, and face the challenge of somehow finding time and mental room to fit in Torah and prayer and other mitzvot—not to mention dealing with all the situations of real life in an ethical and menshlikh fashion. The festivals are a sort of “time out,” a special, elevated kind of time, during which we are as much preoccupied with preparation and observance of the various rituals and celebrations as we are with “ordinary” concerns. The real beginning of the latter only comes with Parshat Bereshit.

It was in this light I wanted to preset a few teachings from the very first page of a wonderful little Hasidic book, Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik by R Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, but due to constraints of both time and space I will postpone that until next week.

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for October 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Simhat Torah (Individual & Community)


Sukkot (Individual & Community)


Yom Kippur (Individual & Community)


Ten Days of Teshuvah (Individual & Community)


Rosh Hashanah (Individual & Community)


Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Individual & Community)


Ki Tavo (Individual & Community)


Ki Teitzei (Individual & Community)


Shoftim 2 (Individual & Community)

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