Monday, December 31, 2012

2013 New Year’s Resolution: Go Out… and See

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | Shemot 2013

I am not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions, whether they come in Tishrei or in January. They feel like a tokenistic, gratuitous act, to be flicked off like a dry scab a few weeks into the New Year. Yet sometimes it is the smallest shift of focus which can open the door to enormous change. Inspired by the first Parasha of the new year, Shemot, I aspire this year to give a new twist to the most mundane of acts: seeing.
A strange midrash describes our ancestor Primordial Adam as having the ability to see “from one end of the world to the other”. This might be classic rabbinic hyperbole, but compared with, say – 1813 - we in our generation have again reached the ability to “see from one end of the world to the other” - from the comfort of our mobile device. This information revolution has raised awareness to many ills, and spawned revolutions where before ignorance and oppression reigned. At the same time, it has created a “compassion fatigue” where headlines come and go and we become increasingly cynical and unsympathetic. Faced with the ability to hear endless points of view on any issue we are increasingly putting on the horse blinders of parochial media outlets, creating homogeneous virtual villages of our own ideasas our fatigued eyes close to all things that don’t already fit our view.
With the ability to see everything, a new “ethic of seeing” is required, for what and how we see is the key to all moral behavior. 
The opening of the book of Exodus makes a similar point. In the portion which will be read by Jewish communities the world over on the first Shabbat of 2013, Parashat Shemot describes how the distorted sight of Pharoah turns the Children of Israel in Egypt from upright citizens to dangerous others; then to invisible slaves; to the objects of genocide; and finally to candidates for annihilation.
“The Mother of Moses,” Simeon Solomon  1860
Or so it would have happened if not for the moral courage of a handful of women, who are described again and again as simply – seeing. The term “to see” appears 22 times in the first three chapters of Exodus, essentially every third verse. When Pharaoh orders two midwives to kill any Israelite baby boy they see, they instead “see God” and refuse to kill. In a description evocative of God’s seeing in Genesis Chapter 1, a young mother “sees that her child is good” and places him in an ark. Consequently, Pharaoh’s daughter “saw the little ark among the reeds… opened it and saw him, the child!” It is this seeing which is immortalized in Moses’ name: “She named him Moshe, He-Who-Pulls-Out; saying: “For out of the water I-pulled-him (meshitihu).” Ethical seeing is the pre-requisite to any act of moral salvation.
True to both his biological and adopted mothers, Moses is a person dedicated to ethical seeing. Upon entering adulthood, Moses has the entire world open to him. Yet his first act is described as follows: “He went out to his brothers – to see in their burdens.” Rashi points out that this is not a simple act of sightseeing, rather:
“He directed his eyes and his heart to share their distress.”
וירא בסבלתם: נתן עיניו ולבו להיות מיצר עליהם:
Rashi astutely points out that the heart follows the eyes. To truly “see” is an act of the heart, not just the eyes; it is an act of deep compassion. What are the ethics of sight according to Exodus Chapter 1-3? Inspired by young Moses, one must “see in their burdens” – to see with heart as well as with eyes, in a directed manner, fighting off compasion fatigue. Moreover, it is about “going out” – going beyond our regular circles of information to gain new (in)sight.

How does this translate into action for 2013? For our information addled generation, we must be purposeful about where we direct our sight. Since the primary way we “see” today is by consuming written and visual media, we must curate out information guided by moral vision. We must “go out” of our usual information silos, reading opinions and reports we disagree with, consuming media in a purposeful way and from a myriad of perspectives, overcoming our compassion fatigue. In the last confrontation between Israel and the Hamas, I attempted to consume media with purpose: reading and watching an increased amount of TV from “my brothers” in Israel, but also “going out” and reading about the plight of Palestinians and seeking out the perspective of Al Jazeera. I read the analysts who preached to my comfort zone (Haaretz?), as well as the pundits whom I vehemently disagree with (Arutz Sheva? When I disagree with them they are always pundits…). “Going out” does not mean not taking sides – I know who “my brothers” are – yet I feel there is an ethical imperative to constantly widen my lens of sight, in all directions.
Beyond virtual consumption of media, “going out and seeing” is to be done in person and in our local communities. I salute those who simply drove out to Newtown, the Rockaways or Beer Sheva, to see first-hand and “share their distress”, not to mention lending a hand. Yet seeing ethically also begins right in our backyard, seeking out those who are invisible to us. There are few experiences more degrading than feeling that one is not seen. Like Pharaoh’s daughter, we must seek those hidden by the reeds whom we have trained our eyes not to see, and refresh our seeing of them. We must “go out… and see”.
Woody Guthrie's New Year's resolution, 1943
We might not be able to right all the wrongs of the world in 2013, but seeing them is the first and crucial step towards a better year for all. I hope to still be seeing in this new light in February, continuing to explore and refine what "ethical seeing" means in the 21st century. If you see me around, please nudge me to keep it up.
Happy 2013,

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Becoming a Community of Comforters: Newtown’s Charge to America

“There is no revenge for the blood of a little child – such a revenge has yet to be devised by Satan,” wrote Hayyim Nahman Bialik about a very different massacre over a century ago. In lieu of vengeance, Bialik calls for a cosmic response: “Let the blood pierce through the abyss!”
As the children and teachers of Newtown are being taken to their final rest this week, one can feel the blood piercing through that abyss – the abyss of human cruelty, the abyss of our inability to fully protect our children, the abyss of society’s obligation to its weakest links.
Many of the darkest challenges of American society have been exposed through this massacre, but one often overlooked challenge is American culture’s relationship with death and offering comfort. Newtown might present a moment of change for this culture.
You are not alone in your grief Newtown. Our world, too, has been torn apart. All across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. (full text here)
The “Comforter in Chief” has enlisted us in the work of consolation. As we as a nation struggle to answer this call, we would be wise to take some cures from Jewish sources, renowned for their unique approach to mourning and loss, and the emphasis given to its importance. Indeed the Talmud describes the work of comforting as the most sacred of acts:
Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina taught:
What is meant by the passage, "You shall walk after the Lord, your God" (Deut. 13:5)?
Is it possible for a human being to 'walk after' the Divine Presence, about which it is written: "The Lord, your God, is a consuming fire" (Deut.4:24)?
Rather what it means is: Follow the actions of the Holy Blessed One. Just as God comforted the grieving…
so you too – comfort the grieving.
Talmud Bavli Sotah 14b
ואמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מאי דכתיב "אחרי ה' אלהיכם תלכו"? וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה? והלא כבר נאמר "כי ה' אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא ?! אלא הלך אחר מדותיו של הקב"ה -
מה הוא מלביש ערומים... אף אתה הלבש ערומים.
הקב"ה ביקר חולים... אף אתה בקר חולים
הקב"ה ניחם אבלים, דכתיב  "ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו [וישב יצחק עם באר לחי ראי] - אף אתה נחם אבלים.
בבלי סוטה יד:
If there is an action that feels like walking after consuming fire, it is the act of entering the home of a bereaved family with the charge of offering consolation. Indeed, the art of comforting has become a lost art: many refrain from other people’s suffering, as if their loss is contagious. Perhaps standing by their abyss threatens to rip open an abyss of our own. I’d suggest this hesitancy stems in an expectation of  ourselves to “fix their problem” or “heal their wounds” – an impossibly high bar. America’s culture of the “denial of death” and addiction to heroism (as Ernest Becker described it) makes us want to “solve” their crisis, instead of simply help them soak up the pain. True comforting, on the other hand, is a much more modest act, eminently human and yet touching upon the divine.
Psychologists Haim Omer and Nahi Alon suggest that the very framework of comforting is to be distinguished from a framework of “control” and “healing”. Healing assumes the ability to become whole again, to regain control. Comfort, on the other hand, is not found in regaining wholeness, but in accepting a “tragic reframe” – that the world is not perfect and wholeness is not achievable. Where there is life, there is distress and lack of full control. In lieu of complete healing, comforting works towards acceptance and the creation of communities of compassion and relief.
This reframe, which might sound “un-American” in its anti-heroism, is fitting for our times and specifically to the tenure of President Obama. In the recent campaign, Obama positioned himself as the “imperfect President”, promising to “push forward in a tough world” rather than offering a vision of victory and control. This might seem too dark for some. I personally find it to be courageously modest, humanely optimistic, and a useful frame for working in a complex world.
The “tragic reframe” of comforting comes to the fore in a Talmudic story about Resh Lakish and his assistant, who seek to console a friend who lost an infant son. As the assistant fumbles for words, Resh Lakish instructs him to say five blessings: start with the deceased, continue with the God who revives all life and add a blessing for the mourners. It doesn’t stop there: Resh Lakish continues with a blessing for those who have come to comfort the mourners  - highlighting the importance of this role. Finally he offers a blessing for the entire community. This week these ancient words feel eerily appropriate:
Concerning the mourners, he said: Our brethren, who are worn out, who are crushed by this bereavement, set your heart to consider this: This it is that stands for ever, it is a path from the six days of creation. Many have drunk, many will drink. As the first ones have drunk, so will the last ones drink. Our brothers, may the Lord of consolation comfort you.
Blessed be He who comforts the mourners.  ברוך אתה מנחם אבלים.
Concerning those who comfort the mourners he said: Our brethren, bestowers of lovingkindnesses, children of bestowers of lovingkindnesses, who hold fast to the covenant of Abraham our father. Our brothers, may the Lord of recompense pay you your reward. Blessed are You who pays recompense. ברוך אתה משלם הגמול
Concerning the entire community he said: Master of the worlds! Redeem, save, deliver and help Your people Israel – from illness and from the sword, from preying and from drought, and from the mildew, and from all kinds of calamities that  break forth and come into the world. Before we call, You answer us.
Blessed are You who stops the plague. ברוך אתה עוצר המגפה
The order of these blessings suggest the concentric circles of mourning. To the mourners, crushed by their bereavement, comfort is offered through presence, shouldering their burden, and reminding of the “tragic reframe” of mortality that faces us all (“many have drunk, many will drink”). Around those mourners we create a community of comforters, a community of lovingkindedness.
Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver II
Having said something about our responsibility to comfort the mourners, we must expand our view to the entire community, and to the plague of violence which haunts our society. The tragic reframe does not imply passivity, the opposite is true: we must fight the plague with all the powers at our disposal. Whether the solution is more “sword” control, or better services for the ill, we must do everything we can to stop this plague, and we cannot quit until we create a community where lovingkindedness, and not violence, are the rule of the land.
Alongside this subdued comfort, we still hold on to our messianic dreams. When raising a mourner from Shiva, the following verse is said. Messianic in its focus, this verse speaks to the day when the “tragic reframe” can be relinquished, and all plagues will be brought to an end. The time is not nigh, but we continue to work towards it nonetheless, every day:
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי ה' דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל פָּנִים
“Death will be vanquished forever, and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces”
(Isaiah 25:8)
May God wipe away tears from all faces, soon. In the meantime, it is up to us.
In memory of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Origin of Fire: Between Prometheus and the Talmud

Hanukkah 2012 | Rabbi Mishael Zion Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City 

If New York City has a holy of holies, a symbolic heart to the entire project, it is Rockefeller Center’s statue of Prometheus. In shimmering gold he rises, holding the fire stolen from the Gods, while tourists twirl around him on the ice-skating rink. Above the statue a quote from Aeschylus reads: 'Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.'

Prometheus is on my mind this weekend, for on Saturday night many Jews will be performing two of our best fire rituals: Havdalah and Chanukah candle-lighting, raising questions about the meaning and origin of fire in human civilization. In the game of comparative civilizations, the myths about the origin of fire are a telling intersection for the Greek and the Talmudic. Each myth tells a different story not only of our past, but of our modern future as well.

Prometheus was commissioned for the Center’s 1931 opening since he symbolizes the epitome of classical (Protestant) Modernism: a sound belief in the extraordinary powers of Man (to develop science and technology, build skyscrapers, trains, airplanes and bombs), and a hatred of tyrannical Gods (or traditional authority, the Catholic church, the Monarchy). For young Modernists seeking to remove the yoke of a cold and cruel religion that seemed determined to keep them shackled to the past rather than move forward, Prometheus  was the hero, having redeemed humanity from their dependence on God by stealing fire from Zeus. To the Romantic mind, Prometheus was the creator of a new race of people, unafraid to rebel against the Gods, as Goethe describes in his poem, Prometheus, written the same year as the French Revolution:

Shroud your heaven, Zeus,
With cloudy vapours,
And do as you will, like the boy
That beheads thistles,
With oak-trees and mountain-tops;
You must my Earth
Now abandon to me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
Whose glow
You begrudge me.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, Gods!
You are barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations
Your Majesty
Would starve, were
Not children and beggars
Hopeful fools.  […]

I should honour you? For what?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And the eternal Fate,
My masters and yours? […]

Here I sit, forming people
In my image;
A race, to be like me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and delight themselves,
And to mock you –
As I do!
I wonder if Prometheus, watching the millions of Holiday shoppers mill about him at 49thand 5th Avenue, feels pride in the race he formed “to enjoy and delight themselves, and to mock you - as I do!”

The troupe of fire as humanity’s steal, technology being a rebellion against the Gods, is widespread in human civilizations. From the Rig Veda, through Hebrew Apocalyptic texts (in the Book of Enoch the rebellious angel Azazel teaches humans how to make fire) and through to
 Native American tales, the origin of fire is always rooted in theft and in rebellion against God. As a modern Jew and a Zionist, I am deeply indebted to the rebellious spirit of modernism which brought about science, urbanism, Zionism. Indeed, if God is like the God of Goethe and Prometheus, I too would be rebelling.

The Talmud, however, has its own myth about the creation of Fire, and it tells a very different story about God and man. It too begins with God preventing a fire from human beings - that initial light which God created on the first day. Seeing the evil generations that were to reign on his earth in the future, God “concealed it until the future to come,” labeling it the “Or haGanuz”, “Concealed Light”.  But when God took Divine light away, he also presented Humanity with the ability to create our own light:

“The Fire” – Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the first day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday night. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree – the snake will come and bite me!”
Said Rabbi Levi: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: בורא מאורי האש – “the creator of fire”.
Shmuel said: Therefor we say the blessing for fire on Motzaei Shabbat – because that is the origin of its creation.

Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachot 8:5
האש - רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון.  שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת.  [...]
כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני.  אמר רבי לוי באותו שעה זימן הקב"ה שני רעפין והקישן זה לזה ויצא מהן האור הדא הוא דכתיב (שם) ולילה אור בעדני ובירך עליה בורא מאורי האש.  שמואל אמר לפיכך מברכין על האש במוצאי שבתות שהיא תחילת ברייתה.

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות דף ס,ב פרק ח הלכה ה


This is the tale of the first Motzaei Shabbat, and we re-eanct this drama every time we perform Havdallah. As the “divine light” of Shabbat is taken away from us, and the darkness of mundane time returns, we accept anew the gift of fire.  This gift is described as given by God exactly in order to “still the tears… of the anguished” and to “soften the sufferings of the burdened”. True, God does not shine the “Or haganuz” and redeem the world of all darkness. It might have something to do with His desire to await Humanity overcoming its evil inclinations. But instead of severing ties with the world, God gives us the tools to survive and flourish as we try to mend our ways.

As we come together to light Hanukah candles in the darkest moment of the year, we celebrate this partnership between God and Man, blessing the God who created fire and gave it to us in our hardest moment; God who commanded us to light candles.  As opposed to the Gods of Idolatry, Judaism purports a covenant, an on-going, mutual relationship between the creator and the creatures. We are not in competition, but in cooperation, and God is invested in our technological advancements – as long as they benefit the project of creation. Hanukkah – and the other seasonal festivals of light – come at the darkest time of the year, when we feel most acutely the cold shoulder of this world. It is precisely at this time that we embrace fire – not as a sign of human rebellion but as a sign of the partnership we have with creation (and for some of us, with the Creator). This partnership can be defined thus: When the world is dark, we must shine forth.

One final point: The laws of Hanukkah make it clear that this requirement is not simply an internal act – finding light within ourselves – but rather a responsibility to light the public square: We light Hannukah candles in the window and outside the door, to shine not our own home (in fact, this light cannot be used by us!), but to light the public thoroughfare. In this way, that illustrious tree above Prometheus has it right: in the darkest of months, make the public square shine!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Yaakov and Urban Theory: On Having It All

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | VaYishlach 2012

A city! It is the grip of man upon nature.
It is a human operation directed against nature, a human organism both for protection and for work.
It is a creation.
   Le CorbusierThe City of Tomorrow and it Planning, 1929

Randomly, in the middle of the parsha, a city suddenly appears. Israelites in the Torah are nomads, shepherds – not city-folk. The city is mentioned only twice before Yaakov, both in unflattering circumstances, yet Yaacov, having made peace with his brother Esav, decides to reside in a city:

And Yaakov came home, whole,
to the city of Shekhem,
Which is in the land of Canaan,
On his homecoming from the country of Aram;
And he encamped facing the city.
(Genesis 33:18)
 וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן,
בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם;
וַיִּחַן אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.
בראשית לג:יח

Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Theorist of the Modern City
Living through an age where rapid shifts in technology are changing the way we understand the world and understand ourselves, I find myself returning to that previous era of technological advancement, the Industrial age and the urban revolution. The theorists of the modern city – like Le Corbusier quoted above – capture the experience of modernity that the city created for its inhabitants, a vision that for all our “post-“ness and virtuality many of us still imbibe on a daily basis. In Yaakov I hope to find a role model for someone who lived through the cravings of modernity, and yet was able to redeem them, if for only a brief moment.The manifestos of the Modernist project read much like an entrance into young Yaakov’s psyche. The city suits Yaakov, for his personality is the epitome of the modern city: mobility, efficiency, entrepreneurship, growth and work. Lots of work. Yaakov was always “too big for this town,” rushing to the next achievement. This “forward-looking” vision is captured by Le Corbusier in the following passage, where he contrasts (modern) Man with (medieval) pack-donkey:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.
The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.
Man governs his feelings by his reason; he keeps his feelings and his instincts in check, subordinating them to the aim he has in view. His experience is born of work; man works in order that he may not perish. In order that production may be possible, a line of conduct is essential, the laws of experience must be obeyed. Man must consider the result in advance.
But the pack-donkey thinks of nothing at all, except what will save himself trouble.  
(The City of Tomorrow and it Planning , pg. 6)

Yaakov is purposeful, rational and directed. His brother, Esav, like Le Corbusier’s pack-donkey, is meandering on the path of least resistance in his thuggish “give-me-soup-now” lifestyle. The pack-donkey represents for Le Corbusier the winding alleys of the European medieval town with its unplanned sprawl. Those meandering pathways of the pre-modern age are contrasted with the efficient, congested, forward-looking, over-worked and hyper-planned modern city of Man, with their grids, tunnels and highways. The message is clear: be a man!
When Le Corbusier describes “A city! It is the grip of man upon nature. It is a human operation directed against nature…the dramatic entrance of baby Yaakov into the world comes to mind: gripping his brother’s heel. From the very moment of his birth he is defying natural order, and thus receives his name: “Yaakov/Heel-Holder”. This is the promise of the city: constant upward mobility, a constant nature-defying rise higher and higher, further uptown and further up to the top floors of the skyscraper. There is always someone to compete with as you attempt to ascend the ladder of success.
But with Yaakov it becomes pathological. He cannot find satisfaction in what he has: be it being second born, or having Leah, or living with Lavan. This happens because he seems to lack an authentic core: there is no “there there”. Yaakov’s essence does not belong to him, but to the person ahead of him, whose heel he is trying to grab. Yaakov’s MO is one of avoidance and manipulation rather than confrontation. He bribes and parries instead of facing the music. Yaakov learns his lesson: Lavan and his daughters teach him a thing or two about trickery and impersonation. But nothing much changes until the night in which Yaakov stops running and scheming and – scared out of his wits from having to confront his brother – Yaakov confronts “a man”. He only has himself, and that is enough. He confronts, until his own leg is held. In that moment, Yaakov receives a new name: “Not as Yaakov/Heel-Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as Yisrael/God-Fighter, for you have fought with God and men and have prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29-30). Having confronted, Yaakov can own his own story.
The proof that Mr. Heel-Sneak found fulfillment comes in contrast to his brother Esav. As they fight about giving eachother gifts and tokens of blessing, these two now wealthy men disclose their own self perception, as the 16th Century Polish Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Leczyca, author of the Kli Yakar, explains:

“And Esav said: I have much” – meaning I have much but not all, but Yaakov said: “God has shown me favor – I have all”.
For some people despite having all the gold and silver in the world still feel as if they are lacking, and they have much but are not satisfied, …and others even the small amount in their hand is sufficient and they are happy in their share, feeling that they have all. (Kli Yakar to 33:9)
ויאמר עשו יש לי רב - שמע רב אבל לא כל, ויעקב אמר כי חנני אלהים וכי יש לי כל, לפי שהרשעים אע"פ שיש להם כל כסף וזהב שבעולם מ"מ נראה להם שעדיין הם חסרים, ויש להם רב אבל לא כל צרכם, ...והצדיקים בהפך זה כי אפילו אם יש מעט בידם הם מסתפקים בו ושמחים בחלקם, ונראה כאלו יש להם כל.

I’d suggest that this paradigm shift, from having “much” to attaining “all” is played out in Yaakov’s action in the city of Shechem: he is drawn to the city, but also keeps a distance, remaining "encamped facing the city".
We are a long way away from Le Corbusier’s wide-eyed modernism. The time of mere accumulation as a sign of advancement is gone. We no longer have the privilege of the illusion of “progress”, or even the comfort of the superiority of rational behavior. Many people would give their “all” for the privilege of some meandering. Yet as we live our lives in cities designed according to Le Corbusier’s guidelines, constantly moving from one place to the next, purposeful, productive, achieving, grabbing the heel of the next challenge and moving on up in our search for “much” - we must also work in some distance and perspective. As we ponder how our surroundings shape our self-understanding, we would be wise to make sure we not only take advantage of “the city”, but also take the time to “encamp facing the city”, as Yaakov did. From that encampment we might be able to recall that it is not about the game of “much”, it is about holding on to the “all”, and working from there.

Shabbat Shalom,

P.S. This paradigm shift, from having “much” to attaining “all” is played out in Yaakov’s action in the city of Shechem. What actions? While the Torah merely says that he “encamped by the city”, the Talmud, unsatisfied with these parking directions, re-reads this text as a moment of urban leadership. Understanding the term “and he encamped” – ויחן – as referring to חן – grace – the Rabbis re-read Yaakov as giving grace to the city:

"And he showed grace to the city":
Rav said: He established (tikken) coinage for them.
Shmuel said: He established (tikken) markets for them.
Rabbi Yohanan said: He established (tikken) bathhouses for them.­

Talmud Bavli Shabbat 34a (for the context of this quote, in the beloved Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, see below)
"ויחן את פני העיר" –
אמר רב: מטבע תיקן להם.
ושמואל אמר: שווקים תיקן להם.
ורבי יוחנן אמר: מרחצאות תיקן להם.

בבלי שבת לד.

Yaakov is described here as a great urban planner, the establisher of the efficient, safe and clean urban dwelling: currency, commerce and hygiene. Upon arriving at the city of Shekhem, Yaakov embraces his new identity as Yisrael. His shift from “much” to “all” is not a satiated rejection of capitalism, but rather an embrace of regulation. He doesn’t deny the city, rather he seeks to establish in it, establishing being the opposite of pathological competing. He seeks structure, not opportunism. He regulates rather than undermine. He encourages transparency and cleanliness instead of murkiness. These are the actions of one who has “all”.
The midrash about establishing markets and coins becomes a paradigm for “tikkun” in the Talmud. This midrash is quoted in the heart of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Cave story. Two striking aspects to this quote: Yaakov is described as establishing the three things which at the beginning of the story, the Romans are described as doing (with apologies to Monty Python): “How pleasant are the acts of this nation: They established (tiknu) markets! They established bathhouses! They established bridges!” Moreover, when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai learns his lesson and leaves the cave, he says: “Since a miracle occurred for me,  I will go and fix some-thing, like our ancestor did,” referring to Yaakov. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Working Through Banishment: “And Yaakov Left Beer Sheva”

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | VaYetze 2012

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey…
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.
(Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy 1863-1933, Alexandria)
There are some weeks I’d rather the parsha wouldn’t mimic life quite so closely.
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה  – “And Yaakov went out from Beer Sheva, walking towards Haran”.
As I think of Yaakov, banished from his home, fleeing a murderous brother, it seems that all around me banishment has taken place these past few weeks.
My sister left her home in Beer Sheva last week as missiles were being shot at her hometown, her three children in tow. Leaving for what they thought would be a brief respite in Jerusalem, they watched as the IDF retaliated and 1500 missiles were shot by Hamas at everywhere from Beer Sheva to Tel Aviv.
From the safety of my home on the Upper West Side, I finally reconnected this week with our building’s doorman, Van, who was banished from his home in Coney Island by an 11-foot wall of water. His elderly mom and he take refuge in Long Island as they figure out if their wet and rotting home is still livable.
From Coney Island to Beer Sheva, from Kiryat Malachi to Gaza City, people have been banished from their homes or found their homes under attack these past few weeks. Without comparing suffering or drawing moral equivalencies, it has undoubtedly been a month of too many Yaakov’s banished from their homes and regular routines, wondering how they will ever return.
As Yaakov goes to bed on that first night of banishment, he is doubtful that he will ever be able to return. But as Prof. Vanessa Ochs pointed out this summer, Yaakov curiously collects stones, marking his spot and turning his forced destiny into a stage for symbolic action. That night, in Yaakov’s moment of trauma and tragedy, revelation happens. Having lost the horizontal relationships of his family, Yaakov receives the option of a vertical relationship, in the image of the angels ascending and descending from a ladder. The trauma becomes a source of creativity; the banishment gives birth to revelation; his ritual creates the space for inspiration.

400 years ago two crazy Kabbalists decided to go on a self-imposed banishment. They began taking walks outside the city, rambling through the hillsides of Tsfat, in search of the Shekhina. Refugees from Spain’s 1492 expulsion of the Jews, they were working through their own trauma by connecting to a metaphysical one. Inspired by the idea that the Shekhina, God’s spiritual feminine presence in this world, is herself in exile, they attempted to channel her banishment in their own bodies.
What is most fascinating about this strange ritual of theirs is that they were not seeking psychological health – they were seeking revelation. Not grand revelation, but rather the elusive taste of the “hidush” – that moment of intellectual and spiritual innovation so craved by creative minds the world over. They recorded their hidushim (innovations) in a book they called “The Book of Banishment”, Sefer Gerushin. The entries start like this:
“On the year of 5308, Friday the 6th of Shvat, we banished ourselves in the banishment of the King and Queen, rambling until the abandoned Beit Midrash in Navoria, and there I innovated this thought…”
“On the 15 of Shvat, we banished ourselves, my teacher and I on our own. And the words of Torah were shining forth from us, and the words spilled forth of their own accord, and we were discussing the verse “I will show you wonders as grand as on the days of the exodus from Egypt (Micah 7).”
“These and other innovations we said there, too many to put to print, all gifts of her Majesty to those who are banished and staggering with her.”

The friends were Rabbi Moshe Kordovero (author of the definitive introduction to Kabbalah), and Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz (the author of L’cha Dodi among others). Where political action was not at hand, these Kabbalists developed spiritual rituals that allowed them to redeem themselves from being passive pawns of history. In the face of trauma, they created contained rituals of self-imposed trauma, as a method of transcending their earthly bonds, seeking inspiration and connection in an alienated world.
As Prof. Haviva Pedaya, who wrote a book on these rituals of banishment, points out, the original ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat is in itself a ritual of self-banishment. Elkabetz and his friends would leave town before Shabbat, banishing themselves in order to find the banished Shekhina in the fields. They would there “receive her face” – Kabbalat Shabbat – and invite her in: בואי כלה, בואי כלה – “Come bride!” Bringing her in requires banishing ourselves for a moment.
Turning the tables on history, Kabbalists saw their own exile merely as the human reflection of a far greater reality: the Shekhina – mother – has been banished from her home. Since she is in exile, the whole world is in exile. But their real innovation was that human beings have a role to play in this divine drama: We – her children – most follow mother in her banishment. In so doing, we become privy to that “grand connection” of divinity which is the source of all inspiration:

And permission was granted to those souls who were banished from their place, following the Blessed Holy One and his Shekhina, to nest in this connection; for of this it is said: “As a bird wanders from her nest - so a person wanders from his place” – and there is no bird but the Shekhina, and the person who wanders is the righteous one who is banished and wandering like the Shekhina, of which it is said “And the Dove found no place to rest”. (Tiqqunei Zohar, Introduction)

Like Noah’s dove after the deluge, those who survive trauma have no dry land on which to rest their feet. While the logical thing to do would be to wait for dry land to appear, some in fact seek out the banishment, imposing it upon themselves. Psychologically it is a way of “working through” trauma. But where psychologists seek the water of health, Kabbalists seek the fire of hidush. The Ari called it: “connection within exile” להתחבר בגלות. Trauma itself becomes the gateway for inspiration.
We live in a very different world today. Our psychological “working through” seems far removed from spiritual innovation. We have political means to change history, and physical means to fight our destiny. We no longer need to flee physics for metaphysics. But brokenness still abounds, and whether it is be because of the woes of war and natural disaster, or the pain of personal tragedy and loss, we still often find ourselves like Noah’s dove, like the Shekhina, flapping our tired wings with no place to rest. In those moments, the image of two friends rambling through the hills of Tsfat, embodying the tragedy of the world on one hand, and seeking innovation therein at the same time, might seem a meager consolation. But the sparks of one of their hidushim might one day redeem the world.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sandy and the Flooded Home: Heroic Avraham and Average Lot

To the speedy recovery of homes, families and utilities
in the wake of superstorm Sandy
Après le dèluge, after the natural disaster, begins the race among readers of holy texts to say something stupid regarding the “reason” for the suffering. This is especially tempting when the weekly Torah portion, VaYera, is the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Personally, and at the urging of Maimonides (Guide 3:11), I find such explanations to be a desecration of God’s name.
Yet at the same time, reading the events of the week into the parsha in search of insight is one of the most important Jewish past-times, a way of fulfilling בכל יום יהיו בעיניך כחדשים– “each day, let the words be new in your eyes”. A delicate reading, searching scripture not for “why” but rather for “what now?” and “why am I feeling this way?”, is a more appropriate way to seek relevance in Torah. What happens when we read the “text” created by the events of this week in light of this week’s Parasha?
Without much more than a “trick or treat” knock at our door, Sandy’s waters and winds have rushed in, knocking out power, flooding homes, making cars float, shutting down mobility and washing people’s lives and belongings away.  Whether experiencing the flood firsthand or merely watching from afar, the images that have entered our screens and imaginations ignite one of the deepest human anxieties: that of the permeable home.
Union Beach, New Jersey, October 31 2012
Like a child obsessively building sand castles and moats on the beach only to see them washed away by the ocean, we spend our lives striving to create a protected space in which the waters of the world will not be able to wash over us. We call that protected space “home”, as Maya Angelou put it, that “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
For many it is only behind safe boundaries, inside the impermeable home (or in America, inside our car), that we can be ourselves. Nothing awakens the anxiety of permeability more than the image of waters seeping through homes. We feel penetrated and debased, and could easily turn inwards, shutting out all that washes over us.
Parashat VaYera is itself an exploration of the question of the impermeable home, in part through the idea of hospitality which weaves through the parasha. When a few angels come to visit Abraham and then his nephew Lot, we are exposed to two very different modes of hospitality. Comparing these two descriptions of hospitality (Bereishit 18:1-8 and 19:1-17) makes for a fascinating comparison. Lot – living in the soon-to-be destroyed city of Sodom – seems to be a most proper host, surrounded by evil men. His hosting is a very structured one, all about the dichotomy of in/out, culminating in a telling pageant around the door to the house ensues – the very symbol of the permeable home. He is clearly during the right things within a very clear structure.
Avraham on the other hand practices a “radical hospitality”. Old (and midrashically recovering from penal surgery) Avraham is described as “running” to bring food for his guests. There is no exploration of doors and boundaries here. In fact, there is no “in” – Avraham lives in an open tent. The midrash describes Avraham and Sara’s tent as open “to all four winds”, seeking to welcome guests regardless of where they come from. Far from a detail of nomadic architecture, Avraham’s tent has become the metaphor for Jewish hospitality and inclusivity. Avraham epitomizes this heroic unbounded existence.
Heroes often grab all of the attention, making the rest of us look bad. Caught between the heroic Avraham and the evil people of Sodom, how are we to carve a path for the rest of us? A mishna in Pirkei Avot explores this tension between the heroic, the evil and the average:
There are four characteristics in people:
One who says: “Mine is yours and yours is mine” – is an am haaretz (ignorant).
“Mine is yours, and yours is yours” – is a hassid (pious).
“Yours is mine, and mine is mine” is a rasha (evil).
“Mine is mine, and yours is yours” – this is the average characteristic.
And some say: this is the characteristic of Sodom.
Mishna Pirkei Avot 5:10 (rearranged slightly…)
ארבע מידות באדם
האומר שלי שלך, ושלך שלי - עם הארץ
שלי שלך, ושלך שלך - חסיד
שלך שלי, ושלי שלי - רשע.
שלי שלי, ושלך שלך - זו מידה בינונית;
ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדום

The first few categories are intuitive: the boor who doesn’t understand ownership and the evil one who claims ownership of all to himself. The hassid is reminiscent of our Abrahamic hero, self-effacing in favor of the other: the mishna commends him, but does not seem to expect this of the rest of us.
It is the last category which generates some debate: “Mine is mine, and yours is yours”. For the first opinion in the mishna – this is simply being normal. Deriving from a similar place as the anxiety of the permeable home, one can understand the need to “own that which is yours”. We like our personal space, in fact we need it in order to be generous to others – some would content. This middle path is not necessarily selfish; having a strong awareness of the boundary between self and other does not preclude Lot-style hospitality.
Rabbiner M A Amiel
in Tel Aviv
Yet for the opposing opinion “this is the characteristic of Sodom”. It is in this very average behavior that the seed of the most reprehensible evil lies. A hair-breadth separates the “normal” boundary of “mine and yours”, and a Soddom type existence of “homo, homini lupus”. But where does that difference lie? Rabbi Moshe Amiel, the 20th century Rabbi of Antwerp and of pre-state Tel Aviv suggests the following creative reading of this mishna, using the innocuous “one who says” and “some say” to make a point:
A society where each individual (“one who says”) says “that which is mine is mine”, and everyone simply provides for their own home, is a society of “average” qualities. […]
If however “some say” – in plural: if this basic selfishness becomes the quality of the entire society, then this is “the characteristic of Sodom”. (R. Moshe Avigdor Amiel, 1883-1946)

For Rav Amiel, what is understandable on an individual level – perhaps even necessary – cannot be contained on a community or government level. Institutionalized selfishness has a name: Sodom.
On any given day, New York City seems to be the city which perhaps best epitomizes “what is mine is mine, what is yours is yours”. Cramming yourself into a subway in rush hour is an exercise in having total boundaries with no dividing space. There is much generosity in the city, but it is usually of the Lot-type, strengthening the social structure, a far cry from Avraham’s open tent.
In light of a deluge on homes and boundaries, one could expect society to give in to its anxiety and build even stronger boundaries. In many ways, the social structure is playing out more powerfully than ever in light of Superstorm Sandy. But as is often the case when society faces its fragility head on, we are also seeing a coming together which is most exhilarating. In seeing that גורל אחד לכולנו – “we are all of one fate” – people have been transcending the usual boundaries, those walls and islands we create around ourselves. Victor Turner described this feeling as “communitas”, the receding of boundaries of self, status and society and creation of a feeling of togetherness. Avraham’s hospitality is communitas to the extreme, totally transcending the boundaries between self and other. But communitas develops quickly even among Average Joe’s and Jane’s if faced with the right circumstances.
Sandy’s waters seem to have a sobering effect on our individualistic tendencies. For a moment, we are willing to be more generous with our boundaries. As the waters which made our homes permeable have washed through boundaries and undermined structure, so too people take less heed of impermeable boundaries. It is an opportunity for us to re-jigger our place on the spectrum between Lot and Avraham, to go beyond our average towards the heroic. In the coming days, as the waters and images of Sandy recede, society will probably revert back to the “average” of Lot. Structure will return, and with it the usual boundaries. But as we experience and discuss the events of this week, we should work in more of that Abrahamic anti-structure heroism into our average lives.

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | VaYera 2012