Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hallowed Spaces - Reflections on Parashat VaYera 5774

Nestled among all the drama of (literally) Biblical proportions in this week's parasha - the destruction of Sodom & Amorah; the birth of the miracle baby, Isaac; the expulsion of Hagar & Yishmael; and the Binding of Isaac - there is a remarkable verse that is quite easy to overlook. I refer to Genesis 19:27 - "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he stood before Gcd."

Why does the Torah even bother to note this seemingly insignificant fact? Check out this gemara: "Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: the Gcd of Abraham will help a person who establishes for himself a fixed place of prayer; furthermore, it will be said of them when they die, 'what a humble person! what a pious person! what a student of Abraham!' And how do we know that Abraham fixed for himself a special place of prayer? For the verse states: "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he [had previously] stood before Gcd." [BT Berachot 6B]

The trigger word here is "amad", stood/stand, which is the name of our central prayer, the Amidah, which is recited while standing silently. By this we infer that Abraham established for himself a special place to render this special prayer.

But why should this be the case? We Jews understand and are very good at sanctifying time - we have this weekly gig called Shabbat, when we unplug our iPhones, tablets, and televisions to plug in with the A-lmighty; to commune with Gcd and focus on our families. So far, so good But the notion of sacred space is a little foreign to the Jewish mind, especially in an age when we don't have the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). Why should the living room floor be qualitatively different than a pew in the synagogue? or driving in the car? or sitting on the beach? After all, the verse says, "Holy is the Lcrd of Hosts, His Glory fills the entire world."

Rav Kook explains the need to sanctify both time AND place. He wrote that prayer is not a sterile intellectual exercise. The spirit and the emotions must also be marshaled in the service of Gcd. Therefore, any environment that provides emotional and spiritual inspiration to match the intellectual fervor of the pray-er can be a sacred space. As the verse states, "And you shall love Hashem your Gcd with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your energy." Intellectual. Emotional. Spiritual. And what could be more inspirational than a place where prayers have been previously answered, like Abraham's choice of place?

From this perspective, shul (synagogue) - where the Holy Torah Scrolls abide, where countless prayers, both individual and communal, have been answered - is a much better place to pray than, say, sitting naked in the lotus position on the living room floor. Good luck with that. (I mean just getting in the lotus position.)

Ask a mathematician if something exists, and he will examine the values in the x-coordinate, the y-coordinate, the z-coordinate, and the t-coordinate. If all four of those values are positive, then yes, that 'something' exists (or at least did exist). In other words, the 'something' must take up space in time, with the x-, y-, and z- coordinates indicating length, width and depth, and t- indicating time. See the pattern? The inter-connectedness of space and time.

Every time we make a brachah (benediction) we say these words: "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of the Universe..." The Hebrew word for Universe (OLAM) has a double connotation. 'Olam' means place, like the world or the entire created universe; but it also has a connotation of time, as in "l'olam va'ed" to mean eternity. Again - space and time combined. X-, Y-, Z-, & T. Existence itself. So perhaps a better way to understand the blessing is "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of all Existence..."

This was Abraham's unique contribution to human thought - to first recognize, and then sanctify and unify both time AND space - very existence itself. And for us, as students of Abraham, we follow his example, binding together mind, heart & soul in prayer; and by doing that, we declare the Unity of the Creator. 

So come to shul! Anyway, that living room carpet is looking kind of grungy...

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Anything Goes - Reflections on Parashat Noach

Good authors too who once knew better words, 
Now only use four-letter words writing prose,
Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today, the good's bad today,
The white's black today, the day's night today...
Anything Goes.

Cole Porter's lyric comes to mind in thinking about this week's parasha. In it, we read of the Great Flood, and of Gcd appointing Noah as the Great Trustee of creation, tasked with preserving the seeds of life and repopulating the post-diluvian world. But why was the flood necessary in the first place? OK, so maybe people weren't on their best behavior, but destroy the world? Woof, that seems kind of harsh...

But in the ten generations since Adam and Eve, the world had degenerated into a pretty brutal place. Not just your garden variety, cut-you-off-in-traffic, urban jungle brutal, I mean really brutal. Uber, mega, hyper-brutal. No rules at all brutal, a sort of might-makes-right Mad Max badlands; where the reigning ethos was "I want, and I don't care what I have to do to get it." A world where the weak and the compassionate deserve to die. It was inhuman, monstrous. A world where, as the warbling tenor croons, anything goes. 

Against this stands Noah, "a righteous person, blameless [compared to] his generation" (Genesis 6:9). So the A-lmighty, looking down upon a world that had somehow short-circuited, resolves to wipe the slate clean and call a do-over. With one critical difference.

The Covenant of the Rainbow.

After the flood, Gcd promises to never again destroy the world. We are taught (BT Sanhedrin 56a) that Gcd also holds humanity to a new standard, known as the Seven Laws of Noah. These laws are binding on all people, at all times, irrespective of religion, creed or location. 

The Seven Laws are:

1.) To believe in the One True Gcd, sole Creator of Heaven and Earth;
2.) Not to blaspheme (to give thanks to the Source of Life);
3.) Not to murder;
4.) Not to steal;
5.) Appropriate intimate relationships (as listed in Leviticus 18);
6.) Compassion to animals (and by extension to one's fellow man); and
7.) Ensure the rule of law.

Anyone who lives their life according to the Seven Laws is assured a place in the Afterlife. Good People. The good guys. The white hats of the world. 

Unlike other faiths that reserve Heaven exclusively for their own peeps, the Jewish understanding of eternal life is universal, open to all people, specifically including non-Jews. Jews are commanded by Gcd to hold to a yet higher standard, the Sinaitic Covenant of the 613. And as the Light Unto the Nations, it is our mission, our divine calling, to teach the recognition of Gcd and these Seven Laws to the World.

What broke down in the generations before Noah? These rules are so fundamental, surely they could have reasoned them out on their own? The answer to that question is as relevant today as it was 5,000 years ago. 

Man's capacity to rationalize his behavior in order to justify getting what he wants is virtually boundless. Faulkner wrote in Light in August, "ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth."

Ante-diluvian man was so clever, so ingenious, that he justified rape, murder, theft, cruelty, and torture. Day was night. Wrong was right. Gcd was not in the picture. What was the inevitable result? We are taught that the deeds of evildoers return the world to a state of "Tohu VaVohu," utter chaos and nothingness (Genesis 1:2).  And the acts of these generations caused the world to be shrouded once again in the primordial floodwaters of chaos.

We've all encountered rotten people - thieves, adulterers, cheaters, drunk drivers, addicts, people who commit all manner of evil, petty and grand. Do they ever escape the consequences of their deeds? They create horrific chaos in their own lives and in the lives they touch, and that chaos casts very long shadows. Primordial darkness.

We have been taught to abandon totem and religious taboo and place our faith in the enlightening and redemptive power of Reason. But lawyers used the sharpest legal rationales to justify the Nuremburg laws. World-class doctors used the noblest rationalizations to experiment on Jewish children without anaesthesia. Chemists and engineers applied their brilliant command of the sciences to design ever more efficient methods of human extermination. Open the newspaper; shocking crimes no longer shock, and the world looks on with a yawn at the systematic murder of innocents. The Age of Reason died in the gas chambers.

It takes a formalized legal code, predicated upon an absolute moral standard, to curb our "ingenuity." We simply cannot trust our own intellect to construct a functional standard of behavior for ourselves. We need not abandon reason, but we do need to recognize its limitations. 

The enduring lesson of the Great Flood is one of humility - of recognizing our inherent limits, and recognizing that we cannot manage on our own - we need Gcd.

Shabbat Shalom.