Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parashat Noah: Finding Favor in the Eyes of God and Man

The Moroccan havdalah includes the recitation of a biblical verse about Noah, the main character of this week’s parsha. VeNoah matza chen be’eynei Hashem. “Noah found favor in the eyes of God” (Gen 6:8, the last verse of last week’s parsha). The verse is chanted by the havdalah leader, and the listeners respond: Ken nimtza chen vesekhel tov be’eynei Elokim ve’Adam. “So, too, may we find favor and understanding in the eyes of God and man.” It’s interesting, that added word at the end, Ve’Adam. We want to be like Noah, but we don’t want to find favor only in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of our fellow humans. Herein lies the crux of the Noah story.

Noah was a loner, for good and for bad. God chose him because Noah was able, as Bet Shraga teacher Morah Yisraela taught her second graders this week, to be a righteous person even when those around him were not, not a simple matter. The flood is a good image for Noah’s generation. He lived in a flood of evil, but somehow managed not to be swept away by the current, to stay morally afloat in a sea of wrongdoing, to keep himself perfect and pure, tamim, like an island onto himself, like the little ark-island he eventually inhabited.

But good is not meant to be done alone. Noah’s good is shut inside a sealed ark, inside himself, and so, in some way it eventually becomes suffocated and twisted. When he comes out of the ark, he seeks only his own intimacy; he becomes drunk and “uncovers himself within his tent.” The verb is vayitgal, a reflexive verb; he is closed in upon himself, doing the uncovering of himself to himself.

Such good cannot last. Our own internal good is partly a reflection of the goodness of those around us. Noah found favor in God’s eyes, but he did not find favor in the eyes of those around him. Finding favor is work. It is partly a matter of finding the good in other people, seeing those buried good points in others (nekudot tovot, in Rav Nachman’s terms) which in turn helps them see the good within us, and so a cycle of good is created.

Avraham is the model of this cycle of goodness. The midrash speaks of the many people he influenced and converted. If the symbol of Noah is a sealed ark, closed against a sea of evil, the symbol of Avraham is an open tent, drawing others in around him to the pursuit of good.

Later, when we hear of Avraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom, we will think again of Noah. Lot, too, had a certain righteousness about him, but one that was purely limited to himself. The evil around him was so great that the only way for him to keep it out was literally to shut the door on the hordes of evil-doers at his doorstep, waiting to come flood his home like the waters outside Noah’s ark.

There is something to be said for a closed door approach to evil. Noah stands as a model of great moral fiber and fortitude in his ability to withstand evil. And there are moments – Nazi Germany comes to mind -- when such strength of character is required. May we not be tested with such moments. The general work of the world, though, seems to lie mostly in the Avraham open door approach, the attempt to find good in the eyes and souls of those around us, the attempt to share our goodness with that of others and thereby increase good in the world. Ken nimtza khen be’eynei Elokim ve’Adam. So, too, may we find favor in the eyes of God and man.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Simchat Torah: On Imperfection

“Imperfection and incompleteness are the certain lot of all creative workers,” wrote H.G. Wells. This is how we feel when we read the last words of the Torah – on the upcoming holiday of Simchat Torah – which describe Moshe’s death scene, standing atop a mountain looking out into the Promised Land which he will never enter. This man has accomplished so much; he took the people out of Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and through 40 years of desert journeys, and gave and taught them the Torah. And yet we leave Moshe with a sense of incompleteness; he has not achieved perfection; he will never arrive at that utopian destination.

This is the human state. But not the divine state. Immediately upon reading the end of the book of Deuteronomy, we begin the Torah again; we read of God’s perfect, orderly creation of this world in 7 days. There is perfection in the world; there is completeness; it is just not ours.

What are we to do then? Give up? If we can’t be perfect, is there no point? We return to the cycle of Genesis and hear once again how quickly the first humans made a mess of God’s perfect world. We can identify. Here we are at the end of a season of high religious activity. We promised ourselves we’d do better. Maybe we’ve changed a little, but have we arrived? Have we achieved our goals? In the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur eve, what we say is not “Nullify the vows of last year,” but rather, “Nullify the vows of the coming year.” We know already that we will not achieve them. We are hopelessly incapable of doing it completely right.

The figure of Moshe begs the question of imperfection, but it also provides some suggestions of how and why to nonetheless proceed. First, Moshe is the final and best example in the Torah of a successful divine-human partnership. Maybe alone we are imperfect, but look at what can be achieved together with God! The Torah is brought to earth. Moshe momentarily overcame his human imperfections by being a person who could stand atop a mountain –between heaven and earth – and catch glimpses of the Promised Land, glimpses of the divine. Where is our mountaintop? Shabbat and the Torah, each a piece or a taste of divine utopia, a taste that allows us, too, to move beyond our human imperfections.

Second, Moshe did not pursue this relationship alone but as a leader. His concern was not just his own relationship with the divine, but the continuity of this relationship, its transmission to others and to future generations. The Torah ends with the words asher asah Moshe le’eynei benei Yisrael, “which Moshe did before the eyes of the people of Israel.” His actions were “before their eyes,” or “for their eyes,” for their sakes, for their understanding.

And so we face our looming sense of incompleteness and imperfection this time of year with two tools – a sense of human-divine partnership and a commitment to transmit the Torah to future generations. Alone we are imperfect and incomplete, but together – together with God and with each other, thoughout the generations – we are somehow complete. We become, like the joining of the end of the Torah to the beginning of the Torah, not a line that ends, but a circle that has no end and no beginning, a part of eternity.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sukkot: On the Joy of Flying

In the desert, the sukkot were meant to provide the Israelites with protection from the elements, the sun and the wind. But today, when we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot and move out of our well-built, well-insulated homes to a shabby hut outdoors, it’s not so much protection that we feel, as openness, a breaking down of barriers. The skhakh roof above, mandated to have holes in it for seeing the stars, symbolizes this openness.

We need this feeling of openness. We are generally very constrained in our lives, bound in by our bodies’ limitations and by the obligations of work, community and home, and especially, by time. We have to be at a certain place at a certain time and there is no way to get there any faster than traffic or our feet will allow us. It often seems – and is true – that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get done everything we need to get done.

And so this holiday comes to break open the paradigm, to remind us not to let all those constraints come in the way of seeing the stars, of taking the time to think what this life is all about, what we are other than physical bodies taking up time and space in this world.

Such a glimpse of the stars, such a sense of divinity/spirituality, such a glimpse gives us intense joy. It is the like the joy of biking, the sense of a sudden release from the normal constraints of one’s physical body, of being lifted off of one’s feet, defying gravity and the plodding nature of our normal pace, and simply flying. Have you ever had a dream about flying in the air? The feeling is of a joyful release from constraint, a sense of doing the physically impossible, of freedom, of the incredible power of the spirit over the body.

Flying is indeed physically impossible. But sitting in a sukkah is not. It gives us a chance to sit within the confines of walls, to dwell within our physical constraints, and yet still see the stars, still feel the power of something above.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yom Kippur: Who is Compassionate?

Hashem, Hashem, Kel Rahum Vehanun. “O God, O God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and One who cleanses.”

We say – or sing – these words countless times during the Yom Kippur service. They are a list of the 13 attributes which God revealed to Moshe as part of the forgiveness and healing process after the sin of the Golden Calf.

What are we doing when we recite these attributes? On the one hand, we are describing God, reminding God on this day of judgment that it is His basic nature to be compassionate and forgiving, that, as He sits on His throne of Judgment, He should judge us kindly.

I wonder, though, if we aren’t also describing ourselves, or rather, setting up for ourselves a model of the virtues we should strive to attain. God is not the only one involved in judgment. We as humans are constantly evaluating and judging ourselves and others. Perhaps on this day of judgment, when we ask God to take a kind approach, we are also asking this of ourselves, in imitation of Him.

This is where Jonah went wrong. God asked him to be an instrument of divine compassion in the world, to reflect the tenderness God feels toward His creatures, but Jonah wanted only to be an instrument of divine judgment. It is particularly on the Day of Judgment that we are asked, like Jonah, to learn to feel --- as God does -- tenderly and compassionately toward our fellows.

The task is not an easy one. We are all like the priest Eli – from the haftarah of the first day of Rosh HaShanah—who looked at Hannah standing in the sanctuary moving her lips but not making a sound, and presumed the worst, that she was drunk, when she was in fact fervently crying out to God in pain. We – like Eli – stand on the outside judging others, when maybe what looks bad is really not, when maybe – usually – we don’t know the whole story, don’t know the inner woes of our fellows’ hearts.

The key is to be, like God, rahum, compassionate or sympathetic. Our fellows’ offenses are often a sign of some inner disturbance or insecurity. Instead of taking offense and becoming angry and judgmental, we can ask ourselves why the offense was made, what troubled thought must have preceded it, and thus, like God, learn to move from “the throne of judgment” to “the throne of sympathy.”

Good judgment begins at home, in how we treat ourselves. Rav Nachman says that we need to learn to look in others as well as in ourselves for the nekudah tovah, the “good point,” the single good thing inside us. Yes, maybe we are full of faults and shortcomings, errors and misdeeds. But to focus on those is to give free reign to the waiting evil of sadness and depression. Instead, we should -- like God – look to the good, not to the Accuser, and find within us those points of good.

O God, O God, compassionate and gracious. O human, O human, be compassionate and gracious as well.