Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vayishlach and Forever Esau

The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son.

Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. The midrash comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Esau, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau.

There are days, most especially during these past weeks, when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? Will this enmity continue to be my future? Is this the history that we are condemned to live? I am a descendant of Jacob. My enemies forever bear the imprint of Esau. Our brother exclaims, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)

The world, however, appears to reverse this narrative, casting Jews and Israelis as the oppressor Esau. Mahatma Gandhi, a hero to many young college students, once wrote that only the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine. He viewed the Zionist settlers as colonialists. He advocated that Jewish settlers practice non-violence in order to win over the hearts of the Arabs. Ghandi also thought that the Jews of Germany should follow a similar practice in response to what was in 1938 the emerging Nazi onslaught.

His views were of course dangerously naive. Zionism is about the willingness, and historical necessity, but not I pray inevitably, of defending Jewish lives in the face of enemies bent our destruction. Ghandi refused to divide the world into friend and foe. Our lot, we have learned, is far different. I am Jacob. My brother remains Esau. Then again perhaps the world should not be divided into such polarities. Perhaps we require different categories, and no longer either Jacob or Esau. If I view everyone else as Esau, and my enemy, do I then participate in damning my people to this eternal cycle of violence, hatred and war?

The Jewish philosopher and founder of Hebrew University, Martin Buber, responded to Ghandi by saying that that no land belongs to any people. “The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it—and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

Buber, unlike the majority of Zionists, argued for a bi-national state, a state with a shared place for Jews and Palestinians. It is a vision of Zionism long since discredited by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. How could such a state then have a decidedly Jewish character? Still there must always be a place for Arabs within a Jewish and democratic state.

This Sunday, we will mark the day (November 29, 1947) on which the United Nations argued that there should indeed be a place for Palestinian national aspirations, not within the Jewish state, but instead alongside it. Decades of war, terrorism and bloodshed suggest this is impossible. These past weeks cause our hearts to understandably become hardened. As we read about more youth, about Ezra Schwartz and Hadar Buchris for example, the prophetic vision of the wolf and the lamb becomes even more distant and that of Jacob and Esau becomes increasingly more real. We become despondent. The philosopher Martin Buber refused to lose hope.

And so we continue to ask, “Even after the knife attacks, the deaths of young students and the public calls for our destruction, can we still find hope?”

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

The Torah offers a measure of hope.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vayetzei, Paris and Fears

Fear is insidious. It wears at our hearts. It gnaws at our loves. This is the goal of terrorists. Those who murder in their metastasized faith’s name seek to destroy our values and our enjoyments by these random acts of horrific violence. They attack the ordinary and everyday.

We mourn the brutal murders of over 129 souls in Paris, and 43 in Beirut, as well as the daily slaughter of innocents throughout the Middle East and Africa. We must not forget that what was perpetrated in Paris occurs on a daily basis in Syria. Over 100 people are killed every day in that country’s civil war, often in a similarly gruesome fashion. In Israel Palestinian terrorists continue to attack with knives. Today in Tel Aviv two Jews were murdered while praying and another three elsewhere in Israel.

We live in frightening times. Terror can be debilitating...

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

In addition I continue to remain steadfast in believing the words and prayers I offered at a recent 911 Memorial Ceremony.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Toldot, Blindness and Faith

One of the central questions about our forefather Isaac’s life is what he sees. Is he truly blind or does he prefer to close his eyes to reality? His life is framed by the Torah’s words: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)

It is an important question for our own lives as well. Author Margaret Heffernan writes:
Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)
The Torah concurs. This week we read that Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob rather than his rightful heir Esau. His wife Rebekah conspires with Jacob, cooking Isaac’s favorite dish and urging Jacob to ask for the first-born’s blessing. Jacob approaches his father and lies. He says, “I am Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” Isaac asks some more questions. He has some wine and eats Rebekah’s brisket. (Ok, maybe it wasn't brisket.) One wonders: does Isaac not recognize the taste of his beloved wife’s cooking?

The story mirrors an earlier tale. The questions sound familiar. In the Akedah, as Isaac and Abraham are walking towards Mount Moriah, Isaac asks, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham responds, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering my son.” (Genesis 22) Does Abraham also lie? Does he instead believe, as later transpires, that God will stay his hand at the final moment?

More importantly what does Isaac believe? Does he choose not to see the truth; does he choose blindness over embracing the zealotry of his father? Heffernan reiterates: “So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.” The ancient rabbis do not embrace such an interpretation. They cannot. They see Isaac instead as a willing participant. Moreover they calculate that Isaac is 37 years old at the time of the Akedah. In their view Isaac and Abraham embrace God’s demand as one. The Torah states: “And the two walked together as one.” Their devotion is unified. One harrowing rabbinic legend even goes so far as to suggest that Isaac pleads, “Father, please bind me to the altar so that I do not spoil the sacrifice.”

And yet we live in a time of religious extremism, when parents appear to embrace the sacrifice of children on their faith’s altar. I do not know how else to see what we repeatedly view on the news. The command to Abraham becomes horrifying when read through the lens of contemporary events. We want to shout, “Isaac, open your eyes! Find a different path!”

How can we walk a different road? How does one continue to find meaning and healing in faith when confronted by such horrors? When does devotion become zealotry? I am left wondering, again and again. I continue asking. I embrace questioning. I choose to welcome uncertainties.

Heffernan continues:
It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia.
When we retreat from seeing, when we find comfort in the like-minded and are assuaged by conforming arguments, the scales begin to tip away from a reasoned faith. When we turn from a religious devotion that is at home with questions to one that is only filled with certainties we begin to walk towards fanaticism. Then piety too easily becomes zealotry and faith is transformed into something harrowing.

Perhaps there remains an answer to be uncovered. It emerges in the opening of eyes. It is awakened by seeing.

There is a solution for a world beset by religious monstrosities. It is discovered in the very same pages that give rise to the questions and even, I hesitantly add, the horrors. The Torah responds:

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw…” (Genesis 22)

This is what God desires all along: to lift up our eyes and see for ourselves. Things are only certain when we choose blindness over seeing.

Truth is only beheld when we become one with uncertainty.

I would like to thank Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for this post's inspiration. Take an extra 15 minutes to watch Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chayei Sarah, Swimming and Mourning

In memory of Susan Sirkman
In honor of Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

“And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her…” (Genesis 23:2)

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, a colleague and friend, who recently lost his beloved wife Susan to cancer made a telling comment about mourning. He said, “Emotionally there are times when it just hits you like a wave. That’s what mourning is. It’s a wave. But you get back up. You catch your breath. And you recognize that you can still navigate the waters.”

I find myself pondering this image. I remain enamored of the ocean and its waves.

It occurs to me that the waves only knock you down if you stand at the water’s edge. If instead you plunge into the ocean and run into the waves you cannot get knocked down. You have to swim beyond the shoreline. There you will find a spot where the waves do not wash you off your feet but instead gently rock you.

To someone who is tentative about the ocean or about swimming this may seem counterintuitive. The temptation is to run from the beach and its waves. Who wants to get knocked down over and over again? The impulse is to discard all keepsakes and memorabilia. It hurts too much to look at our loved one’s things. The pain and loss can at times make it impossible to get up. It becomes inconceivable that you can ever enjoy the ocean again.

Swimming into the waves requires some effort. Discovering that spot where the waves caress you rather than overwhelm you requires strength.

The ocean is always moving. It is unpredictable. The waves change each and every day, each and every hour. That magical spot, somewhere out at sea is different with each passing day. How can it be found? How can it be held on to? How does one gather the courage to venture forward into the crashing surf? How does one master such swimming if it is never the same? Every loss is unique. Every day is different.

People offer clich├ęs, they suggest that time heals. It does not. They say such words because they do not know what else to say. Here is what I have come to learn. Over time the mourner figures out where to place the remembrances. You discover how to move forward without your loved one and with only the blessing of memories and the gifts of the stories you shared.

Over time you discover that you are a stronger swimmer than you imagined and that the waves are perhaps no longer so intimidating.

You long to find that spot where memories gently rock you.

Each time the waves are different. Finding the strength to swim must be discovered anew, each and every day.

Yehudah Halevi, the medieval poet, who risked his life to travel from Spain to the land of Israel, speaks of the sea and its waves. He writes: “Let not your heart tremble in the heart of the sea… Now the sea and the sky are pure, glittering ornaments upon the night. The sea is the colour of the sky—they are two seas bound together. And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high.” (The Poet Imagines His Journey)

Time does not offer healing. The gaping hole will always remain. The loss cannot be replaced. It cannot be filled with something else.

There does, however, come a day when the waves no longer appear so frightening and the sea appears instead inviting. There comes a day when its caress is welcome and the cries and the tears no longer feel so debilitating. There comes a day when praise and gratitude begin to emerge once again.

There comes a day, perhaps, when one’s heart is filled with thanks for the years shared, however long or even however short, and words of gratitude begin to emerge from our lips.

“Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke…” (Genesis 23:3)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yitzhak Rabin z"l

20 years ago today Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  That Saturday evening remains a dark stain in Jewish history.  

The reluctant peace that seemed nearly at hand in those days now seems even more distant.  In fact Rabin's greatest strength was that he did not wrap the Oslo Accords in messianic hopes but in the realistic aspirations of a soldier-statesman and the practical needs of the State of Israel.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he read a poem by Yehuda Amichai, written years earlier in 1955:
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood. 
But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench. 
Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.
In Rabin's world view compassion was apparently a gift from one human being to another.  Amichai also participated in the ceremony.  He read the poem "Wildpeace."
...Let [peace] come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Rabin, however, was never given to such dreaming and utopian visions.  This was his greatest strength.  This was why so many Israelis placed their hopes for peace on his shoulders.

At the peace rally at which he was murdered everyone joined in singing the famous peace song, "Shir LaShalom."  This song was composed in 1969 and became the unofficial anthem of Israel's peace movement and in particular Shalom Achshav-Peace Now.

The song was not without controversy.  In fact Generals Ariel Sharon and Rehavam Zeevi (later assassinated by Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada) banned the troops under their command from singing it.  This partly explains why a bloodied copy of the song's lyrics was found in Rabin's pocket.  He was unfamiliar with its words.

His reluctance, his apprehension, and even his distrust of Arafat and Palestinian leaders' intentions on the one hand and his conviction about what was in Israel's future interests made him unique among Israel's peacemakers and leaders.  He signed the accords because he believed this was the only way out for Israel, this was the only way for Israel to remain safe and secure, this was the only way for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.  Here are his sentiments in his own words:
Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace. This government, which I am privileged to head, together with my friend Shimon Peres, decided to give peace a chance – a peace that will solve most of Israel's problems.

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here – and they are many.

I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence. Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel. In a democracy there can be differences, but the final decision will be taken in democratic elections, as the 1992 elections which gave us the mandate to do what we are doing, and to continue on this course.

I want to say that I am proud of the fact that representatives of the countries with whom we are living in peace are present with us here, and will continue to be here: Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, which opened the road to peace for us. I want to thank the President of Egypt, the King of Jordan, and the King of Morocco, represented here today, for their partnership with us in our march towards peace.

But, more than anything, in the more than three years of this Government's existence, the Israeli people has proven that it is possible to make peace, that peace opens the door to a better economy and society; that peace is not just a prayer. Peace is first of all in our prayers, but it is also the aspiration of the Jewish people, a genuine aspiration for peace.

There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well: the PLO, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism. Without partners for peace, there can be no peace. We will demand that they do their part for peace, just as we will do our part for peace, in order to solve the most complicated, prolonged, and emotionally charged aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as one who was a military man, someone who is today Minister of Defense and sees the pain of the families of the IDF soldiers. For them, for our children, in my case for our grandchildren, I want this Government to exhaust every opening, every possibility, to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace. Even with Syria, is will be possible to make peace.

This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world, and indeed to the entire world, that the Israeli people want peace, support peace. For this, I thank you.
These were as well his last words.  His sentiments reverberate in my heart: "Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated."

We are today even farther from peace.

Shalom chaver!

May the One who brings peace in the high heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel--and to every being on this earth.

I continue to pray.

I stubbornly cling to hope.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vayera and God's Lies

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s examine the first story.

God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son. “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 18)

The ancient Rabbis notice that God does not accurately report what Sarah says and what is the source of her laughter. Sarah suggests that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age. (No Viagra jokes please.) When God repeats her words to Abraham, God instead suggests that she blames herself for their lack of children.

The Rabbis spin lessons and values from God’s apparent mistaken retelling. It can’t possibly be that God did not hear her words correctly. They reason: it must instead be that God wanted to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship and so decided that it would be better to lie than inform Abraham of Sarah’s true thoughts and her doubts about his virility.

In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace. That may be a surprising lesson, but our tradition counsels that peace is the highest value. It draws a lesson from this very story: it is better to lie than destroy shalom bayit, peace in the home. Truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace.

The Talmud debates this idea and offers the illustration of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day. (This of course is only a theoretical debate for there could never be such an occurrence.) Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his zealous commitment to principle whatever the cost, says, “Tell her the truth.” Hillel says instead, “Tell every bride she is beautiful.” Jewish law follows Hillel. He reasons that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what anyone else thinks. On the wedding day every bride is beautiful.

Hillel always seemed to find a way to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Shammai on the other hand probably did not get invited to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.

Judaism wants us to be at one with others, to stand with the community. This is why peace is valued more than truth. I often think about this when I occasionally watch reality TV shows where guests are encouraged to share their most intimate secrets or hosts harshly criticize their guests. “You’re chopped!” they scream. These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships. It might makes for great entertainment and in many people’s eyes great TV, but it also makes for damaged relationships and broken communities.

Truth does not always set you free. Sometimes it leaves you alone and by yourself.

This is one of Judaism’s most enduring lessons. Beware of the truths you share. Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace.

Shalom is indeed the most precious gift of all. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with the blessing of peace.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Standing with Israel

We join in solidarity and prayer with the State of Israel given these past weeks of terror.

As much as I believe that the settlement enterprise erodes Israel’s democratic character and that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued refusal to acknowledge this danger is perilous to Israel’s future, the current wave of terrorism is not about settlements but instead directed against Israel’s very legitimacy. The statements by Palestinian leaders are evidence of this. Their continued denial of the Jewish people’s 3,000 year ties to the land in general, Jerusalem in particular, and the Temple Mount most explicitly, make a mockery of the claim that this intifada is about the occupation. The goal of a separation from the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank is not only to shore up Israel’s founding democratic principles but to first and foremost create increased safety and security, and then we pray, the space for a measure of hope to emerge on both sides of an agreed upon border and from that in some distant moment, I stubbornly continue to pray, peace.  Nonetheless, my sentiment at present is singular in its commitment: we stand with Israel.

David Horovitz concurs:
They say that this is the latest uprising against the occupation. It isn’t. It’s the latest uprising against Israel. 
Most Israelis don’t want to rule over the Palestinians. Most Israelis want to separate from the Palestinians. If the Palestinians want a state based on the 1967 lines, they have to convince a majority of Israelis that their independence would not threaten our existence. You’d think this would be obvious. Evidently it isn’t. 
This latest phase of terrorism and violence — like the conventional wars, and the suicide bomber onslaught, and the relentless campaign of misrepresentation and demonization and denial of Jewish history in the holy land — sends the opposite message to Israel. Much of the rest of the world — so short-sighted in viewing Israel as the Goliath when it’s a tiny, loathed sliver in a region seething with Islamist extremism — refuses to see it. But in bloody, unmistakable capital letters, the perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here.
There are unfortunately too many instances of what Horovitz writes about.  Palestinian leaders incite.  They stand guilty of antisemitism.  There is no other way to label the call to "Kill the Jews!" than the word antisemitism.  It is horrifying to read and watch.  Here is but one chilling example.

There is however a measure of light amidst the darkness. There is as well the example of Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab newscaster, who speaks forcefully against such incitement.  She also speaks about God!

My devotion at this moment is one: we stand with our people.  I stand with the Jewish people!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lech Lecha's Promise of Questions

The political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would be to lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” (The Life of the Mind)

Our Jewish story begins this week. It begins with a call. Jewish civilization begins again today, and every day. God speaks to Abraham. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) It begins with a journey. It is founded on exploration. Our faith starts with a question.

Why me? (I imagine this was Abraham’s first question.) What am I to make of this life? How might I bring meaning to this journey?

Why us? What are we to make of our world? How might we bring meaning to others?

People think that religion is about answers. People think it is about promises. They cite as evidence the assurances God makes to Abraham. They call to mind the certainties with which the Torah speaks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. So this portion first appears as well.

Is our religion about the promises made, or the journey Abraham begins on this day? I choose the journey. I am at home with its questions and even its uncertainties. I am agitated by the certitudes others profess.

Our faith is about the journey of questioning we begin again. Go forth!

Answers prove allusive. Promises might always evade us.

Faith is in the journey. It is about making room for our questions.

Today we are witnesses to, but we should instead be participants in, an epic battle for the soul of civilization. On one side are those who profess a faith of answers. They scream their answers at what they perceive to be the answers of others. They never bother to ask questions. They shout, “We are right. And you are wrong.”

They forget today’s call. They forget the question hidden in every command. They neglect the discovery that is implicit in every journey.

Go forth! Lech lecha!

It is not just the Jewish story that begins this week but the Christian and Muslim stories as well. All look back to Abraham. Some might wish to think that God speaks only to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, instead of seeing that God speaks today to the Abraham who is the founder of faith, and the progenitor of a religion in which journeying is sacrosanct. Faith properly understood is a faith of questions. Such is my dream.

And God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”

How will we become great?

Must our greatness come at the expense of others, must it be made great by their diminishment?

Is it instead about the journey? Is it then about striving after some measure of truth, although rarely if ever apprehending it? The quest is not about shoring up our parcel of truth and shouting down the truths of others. It is instead about discovering our divine purpose, our God inspired task. It is about discovering meaning as we go forth.

Our greatness can be realized in renewing the journey.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers. Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions. To have faith is to be in labor.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity)

We begin the journey anew. Today!

Answers consume us. Questions propel us.

Lech lecha. Go forth.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Noach and Babbling Blessings

The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Here is that episode. Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven. They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4) God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7)

Thus this first building project does not fare well. The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat. Only God dwells in the heavens. And so the tower remains unfinished. We remain human. We are left babbling. We are cursed to speak different languages.

The rabbis ask: what was the people’s great sin? It was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for their workers. A midrash relates: if a worker fell from the tower to his death, the people were indifferent, but when just even one brick fell, they lamented the construction delays. It is for this reason, the legend suggests that God punished them, scattering them throughout the world and confounding their speech, producing the myriad of human languages that we still discover.

Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of the many human languages. How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages? The Bible’s answer is that this was something that we brought upon ourselves. God’s initial desire was unity. Our divisions are our doing. Our attempt to reach the heavens, our efforts to become like God, are our downfall. There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when all shared one piece of land, and when communication was easy and never confused by language barriers.

And yet there are blessings in our present, less than idyllic situation. I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity. So much is discovered in the multiplicity of languages. Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition. Look what we can learn from Hebrew! Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, Hebrew offers a myriad of names for God.

Are the languages that confound our understanding of one another a curse? Are they in fact the punishment that the Book of Genesis suggests? Or do they provide opportunities to learn and grow? Are the many human languages doorways to uncover some nuance and gain some insight into human existence?

What might we uncover about our God as we enter another year of paging through the Torah and hearing the music of its Hebrew?

The language beckons.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Too Much Light!?

Another interpretation of the creation of light in the Torah's first chapter by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.  Enjoy this G-dcast video!