Thursday, January 26, 2012

Parashat Bo: On the Old and the New

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the old and the new in Judaism this week.

In this week’s parsha, you have the first commandment given to the Israelite nation as a whole, hachodesh hazeh lakhem, the commandment to declare the new moon each month. The word for month, chodesh, comes from the word for new, chadash. But what is really new about the moon or about our lives each month? More or less, things in nature and in our lives proceed and cycle along as before, and yet we are commanded once a month to stop and declare them “new,” to see the sliver of the “new” moon as a rebirth.

The parsha also discusses the commandments concerning the Passover sacrifice, and here, too, there is a strange erasure of old and new. in the midst of the commands concerning the first Israelite Passover in Egypt – the paschal lamb and the blood on the doorposts – the Torah stops to talk about future Passovers for generations to come, the 7-day festival, the eating of matzah, the annual Passover sacrifice. It is as if, even before the Israelites in Egypt celebrated that first-ever Passover in Egypt – a new event – the celebration had already taken on the weight of tradition, the weight of something old and venerated, to be passed on forever. What was new had the feeling of something old.

Then there is the strange last line of the prayer (originally a Lamentations verse) we say upon returning the Torah to its ark: chadesh yameinu kikedem. “Renew our days as of old.” New or old? Which is it? The idea here seems to be that the ultimate redemption, which will be a kind of national rebirth or renewal, will look a lot like the old days, making a complete circle between past and future.

I’m not sure how to tie these pieces together. One thing that emerges from all of them is a sense that old and new are subjective matters, not issues of the historical past and future, but a kind of other zone above history, a place in which old and new do not contradict one another, but co-exist. What is old is new, as in the moon, and what is new is old, as in that first Passover. The ultimate goal is to be in the place we pray for when we say, “Renew our days as of old,” a place where old and new meet and feed off one another, where our attachment to tradition is the springboard for our energy and creativity in the world, and where the new projects we engage in have the weighty and sure-footed feel of antiquity behind them.

I think we actually have an instinctive understanding of the deep connection between the new and the old. When we hear an idea that feels right or true to us, we know it is right because it feels both familiar – as if we knew it all along somewhere deep inside us – and yet exciting and new. It thrills us with its brilliance and novelty and at the same time, connects to something deep inside us that is ancient and eternal. The Torah exists in this sphere, this place that is beyond the distinction between the old and the new, and in some way, maybe the Torah’s goal is to help us exist in this sphere as well.

Note: I invite other thoughts on this issue. I realize I have just begun to skim the surface and would appreciate input.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Parashat Va'era: On Miracles

Why so many miracles? Why so many plagues that defy the normal order of the universe?

Training. These plagues were a kind of miracle-seeing training. This is a people whose ultimate job is to see God in the world, to bring out those divine sparks in every part of creation. But here they are, slaves in Egypt -- classically seen as the land of greatest defilement -- on the lowest rung of impurity, far from able to do any such thing. So what God does is make things clear to them. No subtle, disputable miracles here. Those are too hard to see at the beginning. You start by training the eyes, teaching them with large shows of power—bloody seas and frogs on every nose -- to see God in the world. It’s easier to see things writ large.

These are beginner miracles. The parsha starts by pointing out that God appeared differently to the patriarchs, who were more advanced miracle students. To them He was El Shaddai, which, as one midrash reads it, means – the God who said to the world dai, “enough,” the God who put limits on the world, created an order, the rules of nature. The patriarchs experienced God within this ordered framework and were able to see God’s hand without fantastic eye-popping sights like the splitting of the Sea.

The Israelites in Egypt, though, had sunk so low, that they were beginners, in need of the full sound and light show to be sure of God’s presence in the world. For their sake – and for ours – God broke the rules of nature, to show that those very rules – what normally keeps the frogs and lice and wild animals from overgrowing like a cancer – are themselves miracles, daily miracles of perfect order and balance. By breaking the rules, He showed that He also created and controls the rules, the daily working of the universe.

It is such daily miracles that it is our task to learn to celebrate. Those out of bounds miracles were a stepping stone for our people, a way to begin the process of a life devoted to perceiving the divine in the world around us.

Tradition offers us further forms of constant miracle-seeing training, the practice of saying simple daily prayers and blessings, meant to increase one’s awareness of the miraculous nature of every moment -- the daily rising and setting of the sun, the return of life to our slumbering bodies in the morning, the perfect balance of a body which takes in food and lets out waste. As we say in the Amidah prayer, we feel thankful “for Your miracles which are with us every day,” al nisekha shebekhol yom imanu. Every day, every breath is a miracle. It is partly our ancestors’ experience of the unnatural kind of miracle that paved the way for our appreciation of the natural kind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Parashat Shemot: On Oppression and Thriving

“What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” So goes the popular saying, which traces back originally to Nietzsche.

Or maybe to the Torah. In reference to the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt, the Torah says, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out.” Suffering made them stronger.

Here we are at the start of the book of Shemot, the beginning of a long period of exile and oppression, an oppression planned by God for the people already at the time of Avraham. Why? Why not just go straight to the giving of the Torah?

According to the Sefat Emet, when God says, “I have taken note of you and what is being done to you [lakhem] in Egypt,” what He means by lakhem, is not “to you” but “for you,” i.e. “for your benefit” [lehana’atkhem]. The process of suffering – while taking its toll on the people in the short run – in the long run had some beneficial outcome, turned them into the kind of nation God had in mind.

New studies show that a moderate amount of adversity actually does make one stronger, makes a person more likely to be happy and satisfied in life, and also more resilient to further difficulties later in life. The key, according to Stephen Joseph, author of What Doesn’t Kill Us, is to be able to create a narrative about one’s negative life experiences in which one is not a victim, nor merely a survivor, but a “thriver,” someone who is able to take adversity and actually use it to his own benefit, as a tool of growth and greater life fulfillment.

The Torah models for us just such a narrative. The people begin as victims in Egypt, but ultimately that experience becomes the basis for a thriving religion. Judaism is a religion built out of the very stuff of this suffering. The ethical commandments related to the treatment of other people are powered by our memory of our own suffering; we must not hurt the stranger or the widow because we “remember that we, too, were strangers in Egypt.” And the religious commandments which structure our relationship to God are also powered by our memory of both the suffering and the salvation, by our sense of gratitude and by a sense of appreciation for the blessedness of everyday life which only one who remembers otherwise can truly fathom. Out of the straits of Egypt emerges a new nation, a new way of being in the world. We become thrivers, able to celebrate life through our national memory of tragedy.

Nor should the experience in Egypt be thought of as a one-time encounter with adversity, says the Netivot Shalom. The Torah is eternal; it speaks to our own daily personal struggles as well, no matter how small. What sense can we make of whatever suffering comes our way? How do we tell the story of our encounters with adversity? Are we victims? Survivors? Or thrivers? Can we learn to tell a narrative like that of Exodus, where we actually use life’s challenges to help us grow?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Parashat Vayehi: On Life and Death

The popular song goes: Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai, “The nation of Israel is alive, our father is still alive.” Who is Avinu¸”our father?” In the song, the word probably refers to our Father God. But the word also picks up on a repeated line in the Yosef story: HaOd Avi Chai? “Is my father still alive?” (45:3. See also 43:27). Here the father is Yaakov, and it is Yosef his son asking and asking about whether his father is still alive.

Is Yaakov our father still alive?

Yaakov Avinu lo met. Yaakov our father did not die, is the remarkable statement of the Talmud (Taanit 5b). What? But it says that he died? Well, no. As Rashi points out, the word met, dead, is never actually used with reference to Yaakov. The Torah says simply Vayigva vaye’asef el amav, “He breathed his last and he was gathered to his people,” but there is no mention of the normal concluding term used for Avraham and Yitzhak, vayamot, “And he died.”

Vayehi Yaakov. And Yaakov lived. So begins the parsha which ostensibly tells of Yaakov’s death. According to the Talmud, then, the parsha is aptly named; in some sense Yaakov never died but continued to be Vayehi, to live.

Perhaps Yaakov’s death is like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s feigned death during the siege of Jerusalem in 69 CE. The story is told (BT Gittin 56a) that, in order to get out of Jerusalem and bargain with the Roman general Vespasian to save the rabbinic academy of Yavneh, Rabban Yochanan pretended to be sick and die so that he could get past the guards at the gate in a coffin. His own feigned death symbolized the end of an era of Temple-based religion. Was it a true death for the Jewish people? No. He made sure of this by creating a new life of Torah on the other side, by serving as a bridge figure—like the coffin that crossed the city threshold -- from one era to the next.

Yaakov needed to do the same for his children. Here they were on the cusp of a period of great national suffering in Egypt. Was this a true death? Would Yaakov and his ancestors and traditions die during this period? No. Just as Rabban Yochanan’s death was not real, so Yaakov’s was not. Why? Because the Jewish people are survivors. There can be no death where there is memory, continuity, tradition. The Jewish people survived the destruction of the Temple just as they survived the era of Egyptian enslavement. Why? Because Yaakov avinu lo met. Because there is this memory of an earlier period. There is continuity and connection, even across devastating events in Jewish history. There is often seeming death, like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s coffin and like the deaths at the close of the book of Genesis. But somehow the spark is kept alive, the memory is preserved.

Why is Yaakov Avinu lo met? Because we remember him. Because we read about him in the Torah. Because we carry him with us across the thresholds of history’s twists and turns, just as his sons carried him across the border between Egypt and the land of Israel. As long as there are Children of Israel , Children of Yaakov, passing on his traditions, then his death, like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s, is never final, but simply a bridge to a new era.