Friday, October 2, 2015

Our Place in the World (Bereshit)

For whose sake was the world created?

In the Genesis account, which we read in this week’s portion that opens the Torah, Bereshit, God gives humanity a mandate to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it. . . rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living thing that creeps on the earth.” (1:28).  Based on this verse, the medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia ben Yosef claimed that God created everything for the sake of humanity.  A thousand years later, Lynn White Jr. referenced the same verse—with an antagonistic twist—in an influential article blaming the biblical tradition for the West’s record of environmental degradation, suggesting that in Judaism and Christianity, “No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.”

But this is not the only reading of the Genesis creation narrative. 

Moses Maimonides famously took issue with Saadia’s claim that creation exists to serve humanity.  He notes that after almost everything God creates, Torah repeatedly declares: “God saw that it was good”—long before the arrival of humankind.  God does not pronounce the abundance of flora and fauna to be good for humanity.  They are, instead, intrinsically good, for their own sake.  As Rabbi Shai Held describes Maimonides’ position in contemporary terms, “The biblical creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right.” Indeed, it is striking that Torah never describes God looking at human beings in particular and proclaiming us to be good.  When it comes to humanity, apparently, for the Torah, the jury is still out.

Talmud teaches that the schools of Hillel and Shammai held a debate on the question: Would the world have been a better place if humanity had not been created? Hillel argues no—our presence is, on balance, a benefit.  Shammai insists that in fact, the rest of creation would have been better off without us.  Alas, much of the current environmental landscape suggests that Shammai was correct.   But the discussion ends as so many in the Talmud do, with a quirky compromise; the sages conclude: “The world would have been better without us—but now that we are here, let us carefully examine our deeds.”

We—and our technological footprint—are here to stay.  Hopefully, in the coming year, we will make progress on considering the consequences of our culture and strive to be more worthy of our unique place in God’s creation.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Garden Story--Epilogue: Leaving the Garden (Neilah)

When they left the garden, I closed the gate behind them, even though there was no need.  It was a gesture like the cherubim and flaming sword—for my sake rather than theirs, as I knew before they departed that they would never come back to stay.  They’d cherish it in their memories, and visit from time to time as their busy adult lives allowed.  But never again would it be their home.  They’d chosen to grow up, which is how I’d meant it to be.

Still, when they departed, I wept.  Tears of sorrow, tears of joy—like those of any parent when a beloved child leaves home.  My tears fell as rain, soaking the earth, splashing in the river that Adam and Chava followed downstream out of the garden.  As night fell, a chill set in.  Rain turned to the first snow, as pure and white as the vestments of this sacred season, as the waxing moon rising in the darkening sky.

Adam and Chava took shelter in a cave beside the riverbank.  They held each other closely, for warmth and comfort and love.  When, at last, the snow stopped, they stepped out and spied their reflections dancing over the surface of the stream, mingling with water and moonlight. 

Then, for the very first time in the world, moved by longing and loss and love, they sang to me:

Avinu malkeinu chaneynu v’anaynu ki ayn banu ma’asim. . .

Have mercy on us, they chanted—be gracious, and show us your abiding kindness.

Then, moved to my core by their brave music in the night, I sang, too.   In a still, small voice—the faintest whisper on the wind—I sang with them, asking their mercy and forgiveness as they had pleaded for mine. 

And so we sang.

And so we sing, here, tonight. 

And so we sing our way together—

through the evening’s closing gates and into the beckoning world.

A Garden Story--Part 4: Hiding (Yom Kippur Morning)

After tasting the fruit, we felt strong and proud.  As Chava told you last night, we did not eat until we’d carefully considered the consequences, to the best of our knowledge and ability.  Although we disobeyed, we believed—and still believe—we did what Yah desired of us.

But as it turns out, no matter how well you weigh a decision beforehand, you cannot grasp its full import until after the fact.  As the momentary exhilaration of eating the forbidden fruit wore off, fear and despair seeped in.  With opened eyes, we became aware of things we’d never discerned before: lowering light, lengthening shadows, burnt orange leaves falling from the heretofore verdant trees. We noticed the mushrooms on the forest floor, feeding on decay.  We watched the earthworms transform dead waste into new soil.  And we knew in our hearts and felt in our bones, that one day, we, too, would be food for worms and fungi.  We would return to the clay from whence we came.   Death became palpable, and the pang of leaving the only home we’d ever known grew almost unbearable.  We’d consciously opted for adulthood, but having grown up overnight, with a single bite from the Tree of Knowledge, we found ourselves in way over our heads. 
That’s when we realized that we were naked.  As we watched the creatures swarming around us, we saw they all possessed protective layers to guard against the mortal world: shells and scales, fur and feathers, insects’ exoskeletons and amphibians’ slime.  Whereas we, with our paltry hair and thin skin, stood utterly exposed.  After we tasted from the Tree, our vulnerability overwhelmed us; the least we could do was cover ourselves.  So we girded our loins with fig leaves, then hid beneath the heavy brush lining the riverbanks.

All the while we recognized we were making a very big mistake.  Of course it was foolish to pretend we could hide from Yah, or even wish to do so.  We knew better than to flee from our Creator. But our faith faltered.  Our courage waned.  We lost our nerve. Then, as now, our failures came not from lack of knowledge but from fear, confusion, and want of will. 

Our sin was not the eating but the hiding afterwards.  As in countless cases since, the problem was not so much the original act as the ensuing cover-up—not taking responsibility for our misdeeds.  We failed when we hid.  And then, even more damningly, we failed again when Yah offered us one more chance.  Ayekka, Yah cried out to us—“Where are you?”

Chava and I both heard that call.  Fully aware that Yah knew exactly where we were, we longed to rise to the occasion, to follow our better angels, to be open and honest with Yah.  We yearned to step out from the shadows, and proclaim:

Hinnenu—Here we are, Yah.  We ate from the Tree.  We acknowledge our choices and stand here, now, accountable for them.  We are sorry for our deception.  Now, Yah, what do you ask of us?  Where do we begin to make amends?  How can we use our new-found knowledge to help you continue creating this world?   How do we heal our brokenness?”

But the words didn’t come.  Chava and I held our breath, in uneasy silence.  Worst of all, when a deeply disheartened Yah finally called us out and confronted us, we dumped our accumulated fear and self-loathing onto one another.  I blamed Chava.  She blamed the snake.  And then we blamed each other.  Because we failed to own up to our deeds, our brave act of eating degraded into something shameful.

We were despondent.  The weight of disappointing Yah and one another—and the isolation it imposed—was the worst punishment imaginable.  Separately, Chava and I lamented how we’d diminished ourselves, in Yah’s eyes and our own.  We grew irritated and impatient with one another.  In the long, awkward, alienated stillness that ensued, we struggled to endure the burden of our failure.  Finally, haltingly, I turned to her and offered an apology:

“It wasn’t your fault.  I’m sorry.  I don’t regret taking the fruit.  I’m glad you gave it to me.  But I deeply regret my cowardice, hiding and then blaming you.”

“Well,” Chava replied, “I blamed, too.  Adam, we have a long, hard road ahead of us.  We’d better figure out how to support one another and learn from our mistakes.”

My children, we did, indeed, have a long, hard road ahead of us—as you do, today.  In the ages that followed, we faltered and failed again and again—as partners and parents and people.  Time after time we sinned against each other, against Yah, against our families and ourselves.  And sometimes after sinning, we still hid, even though we knew better.  But in the end, despite and because of all that failure, we managed to make a good life together.  More often than not, we learned to acknowledge our shortcomings.  Thankfully, Yah never gave up on us—never stopped asking that very first question: Ayekka—Where are you?  And with experience Chava and I both gained the courage to mostly respond, “Hineni—Here I am.”

My children, Yah still asks that question of each and every one of you:  Ayekka?  Where are you?  On this sacred day, I implore you: Be present to that voice.  Listen for the questions.  Live in them.  Make your misdeeds the measure of your growth.
And do not believe the fear-mongers who preach of thorns and thistles and childbirth’s pain as divine retribution.  Those challenges, like our exile from Eden, are a painful but necessary part of the plan.  Yah didn’t really rebuke the serpent either; why would Yah chastise him for doing Yah’s own bidding?  Consider the way that snakes still move with such extraordinary grace—winding over the earth we love—and you will know that serpent did not lament losing his legs.  Everything that unfolded in Eden was about consequences rather than punishment.  Its moral is the price we willingly pay to live as adults.  For as I’ve aged, I have learned that Yah’s will is sustained by order and chaos alike.  And mature knowledge is, by definition, born of both, the fruit of experience and travail.

My children, as I speak to you now, the vivid late morning light still shines bright upon us.  But by the time the sun sank low that first Yom Kippur evening, I assure you, Yah had fully forgiven us.  Our exodus from Eden was an act of grace, without a trace of anger.  We departed with Yah’s blessing at ne’ilah, the Hour of the Closing of the Gates.

At that same hour later tonight, we will take our leave of you for this sacred season.  Our tale will be set aside, as all stories must be—and your work will begin in earnest.  Meanwhile, Chava and I both wish you all a strong and reflective fast that leads you deeper into the adulthood you desire. 

G’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed for blessing in Yah’s Book of Life.

A Garden Story--Part 3: Taking the Fruit (Yom Kippur Eve)

Our first Yom Kippur began in the garden and ended in the outside world.

Over the course of that very long day, we ate and opened our eyes and hid and forever left our childhood home.

My children, on Rosh Hashanah, Adam and I shared our story of young love; today we recall our first tentative steps toward maturity—how we struck out into uncharted territory, both knowingly and entirely without a clue.  It’s a tale of defiance and destiny, mortality, fear and courage.   And of making one mistake after another.  In other words, our Yom Kippur story is about growing up—a task in which we both failed and succeeded—just like you.

Tonight I’d like to reclaim and retell this tale because, over the ages, many who purport to honor our legacy have warped it beyond recognition.  They refer to our exile from Eden as the Fall, and portray our choices there as the root of all subsequent sin and suffering.  Mostly, awash in centuries of misogyny, they blame me.  So let me be clear from the outset: Adam took the fruit of his own free will, and given the opportunity to revisit that fateful day, both of us would eat it again, without a moment’s hesitation.  In the aftermath of our decision, we failed badly.  We panicked and diminished ourselves.  But we didn’t fall, or condemn our descendants to repeat our failures.  There is no one original sin; everyone makes their own mistakes and must take responsibility for them.  We are all obliged to learn from our own misdeeds.

Our critics also misconstrue the serpent’s role.  They demonize him as a satanic tempter.   But I wasn’t seduced—I knew I’d eat from the Tree the moment I saw it, long before I met him ambling through the grass. I didn’t need the snake to pique my hunger for the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  My appetite was fueled by the innate yearnings Yah created in me.  I learned that we humans are creatures of desire, longing to shape the world through our own choices. 

After the drama of our first day together, life soon grew dull for Adam and me.  In the beginning, the garden seemed so immense—wild and alive, inexhaustible by day and by night, terrifying.  But now, nine days later, it was starting to feel a little small.  The verdant lawns and orchards never changed; even the rivers’ flow, like the always-perfect weather, remained remarkably, flatly constant.  Our calling—to work and watch over the place—became tame and tedious.  We did our duty—exploring the terrain, tending the plants, playing with the animals—but with each passing day, the exercise rang more and more hollow.  That time was like an all-expenses-paid vacation, where you relax on a white-sand beach with exquisite food and drinks and not a care in the world—until, after a week or two, you wake up and realize you are eager to get back to work.   For while we all like to visit Paradise, you can’t really live there.
In the perpetual safety and security of garden life, I was losing my sense of curiosity and wonder.  I surmised that if we didn’t do something soon, I might never again experience the kind of freedom I desired so dearly.  I was learning that a meaningful life requires risk—that human liberty is impossible in a changeless world, and change always entails living with loss. I wanted my freedom.  I longed, above all, to grow up.

As young as I was that first Yom Kippur, I knew there must be something more, beyond the gates of Eden, and the only way toward it was to eat the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil—even if that meant that one day we would die. And though, like any child, I did not fully understand, I sensed that to create that kind of meaningful life, I needed the dark hug of time. 

So when the serpent came to me, under the shade of that forbidden tree, I took comfort in his presence.  He truly was the most cunning of all of Yah’s creatures—more than that, I realized, he was Yah’s special agent on the ground.  His voice was Yah’s—expressing the wild, chaotic side of Yah that did not obey the ostensible rules.  As he spoke, it dawned on me that the whole drama playing out before my eyes was a set up.  Yah wanted us to take the fruit—that’s why it was sitting so prominently in the center of the garden.  For as every parent knows, if the intention is to keep the kids out of the cookie jar, you hide it; you certainly don’t put it in the middle of the room and point it out repeatedly before leaving the house.  Yah couldn’t wait for us to disobey, knowing that was the only way we could launch our journey to adulthood. 

Indeed, I think that on that fateful morning, Yah was also ready for a change.

They say that Yah created us, humankind, because Yah loves stories.  Well, in a world without good and evil, devoid of both ethics and mortality, the plot quickly runs thin.  How wearying it must have been for Yah those first few days, watching for a show of chutzpah, waiting for the one decisive act to set in motion the whole messy, tragic, comic and endlessly interesting human future.

And so I reached for the fruit—for Yah and for us.  I was not na├»ve.  I—who had so adamantly resisted Adam’s naming everything in the garden because it needlessly separated and divided one thing from another—I willingly brought on the most irrevocable divide of all.  My choice, duly considered and freely made, imposed an unbreachable divide between childhood in Paradise and maturity in the mortal world. 

Yes, my children, I ate—as aware of the consequences as I could be.  It wasn’t an apple, as legend would have it.  Nor was it a grape or a fig or a giant sheaf of wheat, as some of the Rabbis would later suggest.  It was a fruit like no other, unique in the world—at the same time sweet and bitter, delicious and disgusting, sickening and healing, evil and good—which is to say it tasted like everything and like nothing else—like life itself. 
I held it out for Adam.  He hesitated, understandably afraid of losing everything he’d so carefully considered and named.  Contrary to the rumors you may have heard, I did not tempt or cajole him.  I respected his reticence.  I simply placed the fruit in the palm of his hand and affirmed that the choice was his.  He nodded his thanks.  And then, like me—with me—he made the complex, difficult choice.  He chose adulthood.  He raised the forbidden fruit to his lips and bit off love and discord, exile and death and desire.  Our eyes opened to freedom, with its dazzling array of pitfalls and possibilities.   We smiled at one another and stood tall, side by side.

Then Yah knew that we had eaten. . . and saw that it was good, lamenting and rejoicing at our disobedience.  And so, my children, it has been in every generation since.  We disobey.   We suffer loss.  We diverge from our parents’ paths to seek our own—and in so doing, recreate ourselves.  It’s heartbreaking and essential, this expulsion from childhood’s garden.     We don’t want to depart, but know we must.  We leave home.  We weep.  We celebrate. 

Yah leaves and weeps and celebrates with us. 

Oh, my children, if only our Yom Kippur story ended there. . .  Up to that point, we’d done everything this sacred day demands.  We’d wrestled with our consciences, weighed our choices, nurtured one another, listened for Yah’s voice.  We dared to be vulnerable together, mustered the courage to confront and ultimately accept our mortality.  We embraced the terrible beauty of time and love and loss.  But alas, before day’s end, we did one more very human thing that almost undermined it all.  My children, you know the experience or you wouldn’t be here this Yom Kippur. 

We surrendered to shame.

We cowered from ourselves and Yah.

We hid.

We blamed.

We spoke mistruths.

We failed—dismally.

Alas, it wouldn’t be the last time.