Thursday, October 31, 2013

Toldot and Helicopter Parents

The new Microsoft stores, although certainly not as crowded as their rival Apple stores, feature the emerging technology of 3D printing. Like the first PC’s of a generation ago, these devices have the potential to revolutionize our lives. Imagine that one day you will be able to make anything you need while sitting at your desk at home. Rather than running from hardware store to Home Depot and back again for the correctly sized replacement part you can sit down at your computer and printer and make it. Some might dismiss such ideas as the stuff of science fiction, but remember that it was not so long ago that many of us dismissed the notion that we would one day hold in our hands the computing power of what then occupied entire rooms at university labs.

Even more impressive is the recent development of 4D printing. Researchers at MIT are working on this technology. What is 4D printing? It is the manufacture of objects that self assemble. Not only are they three dimensional rather than flat and two dimensional, but they also assemble themselves. That is of course how living organisms work. If you recall your biology classes from ages ago that is how DNA organizes human life. Each of us began from one single cell. (I am of course aware of the steps preceding this but that would be for another post.)

I have been thinking about 4D printing. It seems the perfect image for parenting. I watch from 1000 miles away as my children learn more and more at their respective universities and there get involved in more activities and take on more responsibilities. I look on as they begin to assemble and become responsible and learned adults. There is the temptation to say at times, “You’re doing it wrong. That’s not how it is put together.” But that is not what we are supposed to say.

Too bad our matriarch Rebekah did not share this view. She is the first helicopter parent in history. Here is that story from this week’s portion.

Isaac and Rebekah have twins. Their names are Jacob and Esau. Esau is the oldest and therefore according to biblical law deserving of the first-born inheritance. The literary tension in Genesis is created because although this is the law every one of the story lines upends it. Isaac usurps Ishmael’s rights. Later Joseph bests the oldest Reuben and here Jacob steals the birthright from Esau.

Rebekah continues to hover. She hears her nearly blind husband Isaac tell Esau to go hunting and prepare a meal so that he can then bless him and offer him his rightful inheritance. Rebekah tells Jacob he should pretend to be Esau so he can get the blessing instead. She dresses him up like Esau and cooks her husband’s favorite meal. Isaac asks his usual type of question. He sees but does not really see. Earlier he asks, “Father… where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7) Now he wonders, “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:23) Does he always take family members at their word? Is his only response one of absolute trust? Or does he choose to believe, but in his heart secretly knows? I continue to wonder how he did not at least recognize the taste of his wife’s cooking. Nonetheless, Isaac gives Jacob the blessing.

Esau finds out. He is overwhelmed by grief. Imagine his pain. He knows that at the very least his brother conspired against him. Perhaps he understands as well that his mother helped too. He threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah instructs her favorite son, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides.” (Genesis 27:42-44)

Rebekah moves the story. She manipulates. She believes that Jacob must get the blessing and so moves others in order to make this come true. Our hero Jacob does not figure out his own path until he is forced to run away and create his own life outside of his mother’s (over) protective care. True, without her guiding hand and overbearing presence, he first marries the wrong woman, but understand this: he only becomes Israel after wrestling with the angel, alone.

Perhaps you might say that this is too heavy handed a psychological interpretation of our patriarch and especially our matriarch. Still, I continue to believe that the art of parenting, and teaching for that matter, is to provide the skills, knowledge, and tools for self-assembly. The temptation is to follow Rebekah’s example. The pull is to put it together for our kids. We understand Rebekah. We are sympathetic to her choices because like her we too think we know best.

And so I am left to sit back and look from afar, and at times smile with pride and glee, and other times shout (to myself) in exasperation (Ari, why again are you taking Swahili?) and watch as my children begin to self assemble.

It is not until Jacob runs away from Esau and leaves his parent’s home that he begins to dream. “Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran…. He had a dream…” (Genesis 28:10-11) That is the beginning of next week’s story. And now we see the beginnings of the man who will soon become Israel and the inklings of a people assembling.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chayei Sarah and Broken Hearts

According to rabbinic legend Sarah died of a broken heart.

Moments before she dies, at the beginning of this week’s portion, the rabbis imagine she discovered that her husband Abraham had nearly sacrificed their only son on Mount Moriah.  Her heart was shattered.   The rabbis reason that she died then and there.  The Torah relates: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty seven years.” (Genesis 23:1)  Abraham then mourns, buys a burial plot in the city of Hebron and buries his wife in the Cave of Machpelah.  It was then and there that our attachment to the land of Israel was solidified.

And yet while we understand Sarah’s torment and are sympathetic to the rabbis’ interpretation, our tradition argues that the heart is to be mistrusted.   If we were to rely on the heart alone we might never do what is required of us.  The Torah admonishes us: “Take heed, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn away, and serve other gods.”  (Deuteronomy 11:16)  We are therefore given a very long and detailed list of actions.  The commandments are to serve as our guide.

While the heart is the seat of love and passion, creativity and even commitment, the law guides our actions.  Our tradition is more confident in legislating behavior over feeling, deeds over inner intention.  We are commanded to observe Shabbat and give tzedakah, for example.  What we hold in our hearts is left to each of us.  What we do is guided by thousands of years of wisdom and inherited tradition. 

Yet we discover inspiration not in the minutia of observance but in the motivation of prior generations and in the promise of future generations.  Grandparents inspire us.  Children motivate us. 

Yehudah Halevi, the unparalleled medieval poet, writes of his desire to leave Spain and travel to the land of Israel.  “My heart is in the East and yet I am in the depths of the West.”  His attachment to the land of Israel is unrivaled.  His words continue to inspire.  He imagines his voyage to the land’s shores.  “The sea is the color 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!” 

Halevi died before reaching the holy land.  His commitment drove him to ignore the advice of friends and undertake the perilous journey to the land of Israel.  A legend recounts that he was killed by Crusaders as he reached out to touch Jerusalem’s stones.  Historians disprove this story.  In fact he died of typhoid on a quarantined ship in Alexandria, Egypt.  One wonders as well if he stayed there because of his new found love for a slave girl. 

We ask again: is the heart to be trusted?

It is indeed the source of passion.  The law, however, is the anchor of an ethical life.

Still the heart is torn.  Can the heart remain whole, filled with passion and creativity while still bound by the demands of tradition and history? 

Following the Akedah, Abraham and Isaac, no longer walk together and as one.  We sense that Isaac is broken.  His heart is perhaps also shattered.  Soon he marries Rebekah.   And we read: “Isaac then brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and found comfort after his mother’s death.”  (Genesis 24:67) 

Is the heart no longer broken?  Is it now healed?

And Halevi writes of his new found love:
“Oh, let my eyes pluck the roses and lilies
that were sown together in your face!
I rake the fire of your cheeks,
to put fire with fire:
and when I am thirsty, it is there that I look for water.”

Perhaps poetry is all that remains.  It emerges from the tension—and even the brokenness of the heart. 

As we walk forward we carry the poem in our heart.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vayera and Unreasonable Demands

Ask children what their least favorite statement to hear from their parents and they will probably say, “Because I said so.” And yet this is exactly what our patriarch Abraham hears.  This is all that he is offered.

In this week’s portion we read of the well-known command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God says, “Take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” What does Abraham do? “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.” (Genesis 22:2-3)

There is no discussion and no debate. We see only a willing and obedient response. Can you imagine a more unreasonable, and perhaps even irrational, command? Sacrifice your son. Sacrifice the son you and your wife have prayed and longed for throughout your many years. (Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when their son Isaac is born.) Abraham’s only response is: “Hineni—Here I am.” Sarah is silent. She is surprisingly absent from the story. Still, Abraham does not question?  He offers no debate?

The ancient rabbis imagine there was more discussion between God and Abraham. God says, “Take your son.” Abraham responds, “I have two sons.” God then says, “Your favored one.” Abraham retorts, “This one is favored by his mother Sarah and the other favored by his mother Hagar.” God says, “Whom you love” Abraham wonders aloud, “I love both Isaac and Ishmael.” And God then commands, “Isaac!” Now the meaning is clear. The intention is understood. The son through whom the promise of future generations of Jews is to be realized is to be taken and offered as a sacrifice. The debate is over. Abraham has no choice but to observe and follow God’s demand.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Protestant theologian and religious existentialist, sees in Abraham’s response a virtuous ideal. Abraham becomes in his eyes a “knight of faith,” a man who knowingly subsumes his own reason to the will of God. Because God says so becomes the basis of Kierkegaard’s theology.

I remain troubled by this interpretation. I cannot imagine standing silent in the face of such a command. I cannot imagine as well heeding such a demand even after a lengthy debate. Ask my parents. “Because I said so,” never motivated me. And it most certainly rarely, if ever, offered me a measure comfort.

One year, my very young, but attentive son Ari, asked me the following question as we were returning from services where we listened to the reading of the Akedah, “Abba is there anything that you love more than me?” I said, “There is nothing that I love more than you and Shira.” And the relentless questioner continued, “What about God?  Abba, you talk about God so much.  Don't you love God alot?” And I understood and said,“That does not change my love for you.” “But what if God asked you to... How do I know that you love me more than anything?” And then I said, “Because I said so.”

We continued silently, each alone with our own thoughts. And the Torah filled the silence, offering its soothing words about a father and son: “And the two of them walked on together.” (Genesis 22:8)

The root of the Hebrew, emunah—faith, means trust and security. In fact emunah is related to the word uman, craftsman. Why? It is because a craftsman is confident and secure in his or her skills and abilities. Thus faith suggests confidence and trust.

Kierkegaard remarked, “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” (Fear and Trembling) 

At a certain point, discussion, debate and dialogue, must conclude. Trust and confidence must take hold of our hearts. We must take that “leap of faith” and bound forward.

There are moments when “Because I said so” becomes reason enough.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lech Lecha and the God Particle

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and tells the story of Abraham’s call. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) And Abraham went as God commanded.

Often when examining this story we look at the later success of the journey. We judge the trip by its destination. Abraham journeys to the land of Israel and there secures our attachment to this sacred land. But at the outset this is not assured. Still Abraham sets out on the journey, trusting in the promise even though he is unaware of the destination. God instructs him that the journey will conclude at a land that “I will show you.”

How often have we set out on a journey with the destination so unclear? I would guess, “Almost never.” In our goal oriented society we rarely if ever journey with no destination in mind. Yet the majority of the Torah is a record of our wandering through the wilderness. We are a people defined, especially in our beginnings, but also throughout our long history, by wandering. Still today we insist on setting goals. We must know the destination at the outset of our journey.

Abraham, however, sets out without knowing. He does not know where his wandering will conclude. Would we be comfortable setting out on road trip without a destination in mind? Would we remain at ease sending our children off to college with undeclared majors or without clear career goals? We forget that learning is about wandering. It is about a journey through unknown, and yet undiscovered, lands.

This week’s papers reported that Dr. Peter Higgs and Dr. Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory first elucidated in 1964 about the Higgs boson. The theory proposes that there exist undiscovered particles that lend mass to other particles. This past year the Higgs boson was finally detected at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. It took 10,000 scientists to build this collider and wade through some 2,000 trillion particles to find one Higgs boson. What was only a theory and invisible fifty years ago was now made clear.

Even more interesting was the fact that Dr. Higgs still does not know he won the Nobel; he still has not been told the news. Why? On Tuesday he told a friend that he was going away for a few days by himself and would not return until Friday. He told no one where he was going. He also does not own a cellphone or computer and so cannot be reached. One of the greatest minds in theoretical physics does not even use a computer and according to reports values being alone with his thoughts. He will not find out about his prize until tomorrow when he returns.

It occurs to me that great minds need to wander. Perhaps goals and destinations sometimes cloud our thinking. Even prizes divert our attention from the journey.

According to rabbinic legend, and in particular the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, Abraham discovered God during his wanderings. On his journey through the desert, he looked up to the stars and thought to himself, “There must be an invisible force that moves the stars. There must be a God moving the heavens.” It was then and there that he theorized that there must be only one God.

Wandering is indeed where great ideas are born.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Government Shutdown and an Oven

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, in response to the question of why he and other like-minded conservatives have forced a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act said, “Because we’re right. Simply because we’re right.” (The New York Times, October 1, 2013)

A story from the Talmud. Millennia ago, in the land of Israel, the rabbis faced a similar political stand off. At that time they were arguing not about health care but about the oven of Aknai. The question was asked: Is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. All the other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled.

Rabbi Eliezer became enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the academy prove it.” The Sages looked up in alarm as the walls began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, however, rebuked the walls saying: “When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute you have no right to interfere and take sides!” Thereupon the walls stopped falling.

This only further incensed Eliezer and he turned toward heaven and cried: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from heaven.” A voice from heaven responded: “Why do the Sages dispute with Rabbi Eliezer seeing that the law should agree with him?” Rabbi Joshua then jumped out of his seat and with passion and fury screamed: “Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What did Rabbi Joshua mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a voice from heaven…”

The law follows the majority even when God sides with the minority. God gave us minds with which to reason and faculties with which to discern the truth nestled between the lines of Torah. The law must therefore follow the will of the majority.

Given the stubbornness of Eliezer’s position, the rabbis felt they had no choice and voted to ostracize him. The great Rabbi Akiva was given the painful task of informing his beloved teacher of the council’s vote. Rabbi Akiva donned a black garment and sat at a distance from his teacher and said, “My rabbi, I think your comrades have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. It is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b) 

The Talmud’s wisdom is clear. Community is built on consensus. Even God cannot rule against the sages. The law is founded on majority rule. The Talmud counsels: beware of the individual, who, no matter how wise and well reasoned, is willing to subvert the will of the majority and in his zealousness bring the walls down upon his own community. He thereby writes himself out of the community.

Our country may indeed be founded on ideology. It is certainly furthered by passionate debate. Once the vote is tallied, however, the law follows the majority. At that moment, the meaning of democracy is found not in ideological debate and righteous indignation but in following the law. Then we stand together and as one.

Rabbi Eliezer lived out his remaining years secure in the knowledge that God agreed with his reasoning, but nonetheless alone, bereft of colleagues and students and most important without his community. The community was forced to move forward without one of its most cherished teachers.

Being right is not the foundation of community. A community, and a country, can only be sustained by compromise.