Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Good News about Being Part of our Jewish Community is We are Part of a Family… The Bad News About Being Part…

So, you know the one about six, or is it seven, degrees of separation… and we are all connected? I find that in the Jewish community, there’s really no more than 2 ½ degrees of separation, maybe three is a stretch … we really are all part of one huge family. We love each other and we fight with each other; we nurture each other and we destroy each other; we support each other and we hurt each other …. And so it goes. So as we continue to learn and look at these Parshiot of the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit, we realize that we and our own family constellations fit right in.

In this week’s Parsha, Toldot, we have parental and sibling dissention, parental favoritism, tricking one’s only brother, fighting over family resources, and so on…. Just like in real life. But of course, this is real life, as we understand it. So, why is it that we begin our Torah reading cycle with all of these wonderful examples of complete family discord, including fratricide, sending part of the family off forever, not treating all members of the family equally, and so on? Keep in mind that we haven’t gotten to that idea of given your favorite son a beautiful coat or selling your brother to the Ishmaelites yet. Actually I think one of the most compelling lessons here is that after reminding ourselves of these chapters in our history, we go home and kiss our children and hug our spouses and say, “Hmmm, my family is actually great!” in many cases.

I really do believe that as humans, we are all fallible and have our weaknesses, our preferences, and our challenges. This is certainly true in the family, the most basic of all social units. The Torah is putting a mirror in front of us and asking that we carefully consider how we treat each other and how honorable we are within our family units. What does one parent do when they have information that the other parent does not, for example, about their children?

Consider the following text from Toldot:

כב וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה: כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גֹייִם֙ [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר: כד וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ יָמֶ֖יהָ לָלֶ֑דֶת וְהִנֵּ֥ה תוֹמִ֖ם בְּבִטְנָֽהּ:

And the children struggled inside Rivkah and she asked, “If this is to be so, why am I in such a state?” She went to ask G-d what was going on. And G-d said to her, “There are two nations in your belly and two peoples will come from within you; one will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger one. Her days of pregnancy were fulfilled, Rivkah gave birth and here there were twins in her belly. [Bereshit 25: 22 – 24]

There is much written by the commentaries on what is going on here, with this discussion between Rivkah and G-d. After all, the story that is introduced by this text is in serious need of explaining! Of course, as the boys grow, Yaakov and Esau “have their issues” and on two separate occasions, Yaakov does indeed get, dare we say steal or take under questionable circumstances, the right to the family inheritance, so to speak. Not only that, but both Rivkah and Yitzchak are involved in the family drama, in which a very old and blind, so we are told, Yitzchak is tricked and each parent does have their favorite, Yitzchak bonding with he-man Esau and Rivkah preferring the quieter and calmer studious Yaakov. Now the commentaries definitely work overtime to protect Rivkah and Yaakov, claiming that Esau is really this horrible person.

On this one, I will agree with Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and so many others who say that to make Esau the awful terrible bad guy and Yaakov the innocent angel might really be to miss the point of the story. We are NOT perfect, we are NOT always acting correctly, and G-d knows (no disrespect intended) we do NOT all get along all of the time. But we are all still members of the larger family … as Jews and as human beings.

So, maybe the lesson here is really to note that as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in To Heal a Fractured World, we are here to try to fix and put back in order that which we throw into chaos as a result of our actions. This is the nature of human beings. G-d did not, according to Sacks, create a perfect world, precisely because G-d wants us to be partners with G-d in trying to improve and make the world a better place. When we look at these families, we see real people with real problems and making real attempts to right the real wrongs that ensue. Is not that the stuff of human nature?

So, G-d tells Rivkah what is going to happen. Why does G-d do this? If you think about this, Rivkah is being put in a rather uncomfortable position knowing this information. So, what parent does not understand looking at their children and noticing that one has abilities that the other does not have, that one is more talented, more good-natured and so on? This is in fact the nature of being individuals – we know that as no two snowflakes are alike, to be sure no two people are alike, EVEN identical twins (and this I know to be true from experience as a mother of twins that we believe are genetically identical).

Back to our story! As this drama continues, we find Yitzchak believing that Yaakov is Esau and yet, maybe not really so much… Note that the text says:

יח וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־אָבִ֖יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֑י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הִנֶּ֔נִּי מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה בְּנִֽי: יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־אָבִ֗יו אָֽנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י קוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י בַּֽעֲב֖וּר תְּבָֽרֲכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ: כ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶל־בְּנ֔וֹ מַה־זֶּ֛ה מִהַ֥רְתָּ לִמְצֹ֖א בְּנִ֑י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י הִקְרָ֛ה יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְפָנָֽי: כא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽל־יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב גְּשָׁה־נָּ֥א וַֽאֲמֻֽשְׁךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י הַֽאַתָּ֥ה זֶ֛ה בְּנִ֥י עֵשָׂ֖ו אִם־לֹֽא: כב וַיִּגַּ֧שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיְמֻשֵּׁ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו:

And [Yaakov] came to his father and said, “My Father.” And [Yitzchak] said “Here I am; who are you my son?” Yaakov answers his father, “I am Esau, your first born, I did what you told me to; now get up please and eat from the meet that I have brought and give me the blessing of your soul.” And Yitzchak said to his son “How is it that you have hurried to do all of this, my son?” Yaakov answered “Because the Lord your G-d has allowed this to happen.” Yitzchak said to Yaakov, “Come close to me so I can feel you, my son and tell if you are really Esau of not.” Yaakov approached Yitzchak his father and he felt him and said “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esau.” [Bereshit 27: 18 – 22]

Now, it is so clear in this narrative before confronting any commentary that Yitzchak is really sensing that something is not quite right. He asks how “Yaakov” was able to do everything he asked so quickly. Of course the answer is Rivkah overheard (or was this part of G-d’s staging?) Yitzchak ask Esau to go and get and prepare for him the food. Then Yitzchak senses that this is not Esau, for the voice belongs to Yaakov. And so the story continues with deception, plotting and a series of mishaps leading all the way to the point when Yaakov supposedly receives the blessing intended for Esau. Was this really the case, or could this be an example of “Man plans, G-d laughs.” There are so many other explanations, including the notion that we each have our mission to fulfill and our purpose – that is we have our part to play in the family to which we belong.

To be sure, exactly what G-d had revealed to Rivkah in the beginning of the Parsha does transpire but not without fall out. Clearly, there are bad feelings that will continue through this generation and into the next ones from this dysfunctional family unit. This too seems all too real to us. We need to paint each other in black (bad and evil) or white (good and pure) tones. But wait…. Is this really the point? Or, alternatively, perhaps the point is as the Gemara teaches, no one person is wholly good or wholly bad. We all have good and bad within us, different perspectives, different goals, different talents, and different ways of playing our journeys on this earth. The question is to what extent can we, as members of this large Jewish family, agree to disagree and come to an understanding that there is room for all of us and the purposes we are each here to fulfill? Once we figure this out, maybe we will find the good news of being part of the family!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Testing, Testing... The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part Two

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof! צדק צדק תרדף

Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue! With these words, the prophet reminds us through the ages of our existence of what it is that Judaism and Jewish observance is to bring us to in our own lives. Social justice is the way of Jewish living and observance according to many, in spite of what we may too often observe around us. Our family has identified an important Rav of our choosing in Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, for his consistent emphasis of this very point. He continues to articulate that to be a religious Jew, a Shomer Mitzvot, it is not a question of whether or not one is concerned about the well being of those around him; rather, we are metzuvim, that is commanded, to be so involved. As I have often said, how can I accept the Mitzvah of Shiluach Kan and not show love and concern for my neighbor, notwithstanding those who hold by the notion that we are to send the mother bird from the nest precisely because G-d told us to and not out of any sense of compassion. I prefer to read this teaching as G-d commands us to be compassionate, so that we will not decide not to be so! How can I be so particular about what goes in my mouth in observing the laws of Kashrut and not be as meticulous about what comes out of my mouth in my speech and observe the laws connected to Shmirat HaLashon, guarding my language, in my attempt to build relationships and community while healing the world in a real and tangible manner.

In Rabbi Sacks’ wonderful book, To Heal A Fractured World (United States: Schocken Books, 2005), this is a theme that resonates. He presents the notion that instead of seeing Judaism as a religion of pure obedience and submission to the will of G-d, we as human beings, and specifically as Jews, should take the charge of choosing to act in such a way as to emulate G-d who shows such just behaviors. He quotes one of my favorite texts of Gemara from Sotah 14 a(p. 46), that explains as follows in teaching how we emulate G-d and bring G-d into this world through such actions:

R. Hamma son of R. Haninah said, What does it mean in the Torah when it says “You shall walk after the Lord your G-d? (Devarim 13:5)” How is it possible for a human being to walk after G-d? Doesn’t the Torah say, “The Lord your G-d is a consuming fire? (Devarim 4:24)” Rather, this means, “you should emulate the attributes of the Holy One Blessed is G-d.” Just as G-d clothes the naked, as it says, “And G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them (Bereshit 3:21)”; you too shall clothe the naked. Just as G-d visits the sick when “G-d appeared to Avram by Elonei Mamre (Bereshit 18:1)”, you too shall visit the sick. Just as G-d comforts the mourners as when “After the death of Avraham, G-d blessed his son Yitzchak (Bereshit 25:11),” so you too shall comfort mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be G-d buries the dead as when “G-d buried Moshe in the valley (Devarim 34:6),” you shall also bury your dead.

I have taught this text so many times to so many groups because I believe it captures the most fundamental of underlying principles that motivates G-d to give us a system of mitzvot to structure our lives as well as the most profound reason for us to follow them.

We call Avraham our father, as Avraham Aveinu. Why this appellation? To be sure many reasons are given. I always point to the following text from Bereshit 18: 18 – 19 as the reason, in which G-d makes a promise and gives the reason for the promise.

יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ: יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָֹה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו:

Avraham will be a great and mighty nation and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. Because it is known that he will command his children and the members of his household after him, and they will guard and observe the ways of G-d, to do deeds of righteousness and justice in order that G-d will fulfill all that G-d has said on behalf of Avraham.

The people that come from Avraham and the generations afterwards, the Jewish people, if you will, earn the blessing that is given to Avraham precisely because they are to follow Avraham’s ways of Tzedakah u’Mishpat, welcoming guests as Avraham did, and doing so many other things as G-d does as indicated above. These are deeds of Social Justice.

Years ago, as a fun diversion, I along with a group of colleagues took a silly scan of our religious beliefs on some computer program. We answered a group of questions about belief in G-d, understandings of the beginnings of our Universe as we know it, ritual observances and practices concerning how we feel about the people around us and social justice. Upon completing this comical survey (which actually was not so bad, as computer surveys go), a group of us who are clearly in the Orthoprax/Orthodox range were identified as 100% Reform Jews. We were fascinated by this phenomenon and compared our answers to those amongst us who were “correctly” identified as Orthodox. What was the difference? It was so clear – those of us who were “liberal” (which I question in and of itself regarding what was the criteria that led to this identity) believed in the rights of others, social justice and our responsibility to be concerned for all of those in the family of humanity. Now, a flip computer program can identify me however it wants; I promise I will not lose sleep over this. The problem is that many people in our own community of Shomrei Mitzvot do so as well. This is what keeps me from getting needed sleep at night.

So, thank you Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for supporting my family and our understanding that aiding prisoners as they come back out into the world after serving their sentences as our daughter Rachie is presently doing in New Orleans is part of our imperative to repair the world and free prisoners as Shomrei Mitzvot. Working to provide medical care to underserved populations as our daughter Talie plans to do even if it means not living where there is a critical mass of observant Jews is because of what she has taken on as a responsibility along with strict observance of Kashrut, Shabbat, Tziniut, and so much else.

We have taught our children to live in the ways of Avraham Aveinu, welcoming all guests into our home and lives, fighting for injustices in poorly equipped societies and so much else. These are the lessons of our father, Avraham and G-d, whom he taught us to serve.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Testing, Testing …. The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part One

Years ago, I was home in the middle of the day and watched one of the larger society’s “Gedolei HaDor,” Oprah Winfrey on television. She was engaged in a conversation with Scott Peck (Think Zelig Pliskin’s alter ego as a Protestant!) and told the following story about a recurring dream she had. She talked about how she would be flying close to the ground in these dreams and would fly by young children. As she passed each young child, she would ask “How are you today?” Each of these children responded in turn, “That is the wrong question to ask. You should ask me what I was sent here to teach you today.” I love this story, for the message is so powerful for each of us. We know so many stories, including the many we read in the Torah, Talmud and so many other places. We often worry about the credibility of the details – that is how the story came to be. I often think, as in the vignette above, we should be asking ourselves what the story comes to teach us. Here is the universal and timeless meaning of these stories, not the details of their plausibility but the largess of their lessons!

So it is with the stories and tests of Avraham Aveinu. So many experiences with so many lessons to teach us! Avraham Aveinu clearly has his rightful place in the history of the world as the first monotheist, according to so many. As Jews, we speak of him as our first father. As human beings, there are so many lessons of humanity that Avraham teaches us – it is these lessons that he comes to teach us that are the subject of this writing today and the next one to be posted. Today, we will focus on some of the lessons that Avraham teaches us with regard to family relationships and yielding to the desires and destinies of others.

In Chapter 13, we read of Avraham’s negotiations with Lot when they come with their abundant property and have to determine where they will dwell in the land to which they have come. Quickly enough, we note that there is a conflict, as will naturally happen amongst real people in the real world.

We read as follows in Bereshit 13: 6 – 11 as follows:

ו וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו: ז וַֽיְהִי־רִ֗יב בֵּ֚ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵֽה־אַבְרָ֔ם וּבֵ֖ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵה־ל֑וֹט ...ח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־ל֗וֹט אַל־נָ֨א תְהִ֤י מְרִיבָה֙ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֔ךָ וּבֵ֥ין רֹעַ֖י וּבֵ֣ין רֹעֶ֑יךָ כִּֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֥ים אַחִ֖ים אֲנָֽחְנוּ: ט הֲלֹ֤א כָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הִפָּ֥רֶד נָ֖א מֵֽעָלָ֑י אִם־הַשְּׂמֹ֣אל וְאֵימִ֔נָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִ֖ין וְאַשְׂמְאִֽילָה: י וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה כְּגַן־יְהוָֹה֙ כְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בֹּֽאֲכָ֖ה צֹֽעַר: יא וַיִּבְחַר־ל֣וֹ ל֗וֹט אֵ֚ת כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּסַּ֥ע ל֖וֹט מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַיִּפָּ֣רְד֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ מֵעַ֥ל אָחִֽיו:

The land could not support the shepherds, flocks and belongings of Lot and Avraham for they both had so much; they were not able to dwell together. There was a quarrel between Avram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds…. Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no fighting between our groups as we are related. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate, if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” Lot raised his eyes and saw the Jordan valley; it looked like the garden of G-d, like the land of Mitzrayim. Lot chose for himself all of the plain of Jordan and he went eastward; they separated from each other. (Translations in these postings are inexact and reflect spirit of story for our purposes.)

Notice the nature of the conflict resolution that Avraham uses. He puts the decision to be made in front of Lot in order to preserve whatever he can in the relationship. According to the text, their relationship is clearly not close and does not seem to be amenable to healing, but nonetheless, Avraham does not want to do anything to exacerbate what is probably not a comfortable situation. He acquiesces to what Lot chooses and this is a gift that Avraham gives to Lot. How many of us find that there are opportunities in our own lives to act in such a way? It is difficult to be sure, and while we are not told how Avraham must have felt in this situation, we can probably imagine, one human being to another, one Jew to another, one monotheist to another.

Later in the story of Avraham’s life, we read about his and Sarah’s attempts to have a child and the need for Avraham to have a son to inherit the legacy of his father. An earlier stage of this odyssey is reported in Chapter 15: 1-5:

א אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּֽחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָֽנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָֽרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד: ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִֹה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר: ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֔ם הֵ֣ן לִ֔י לֹ֥א נָתַ֖תָּה זָ֑רַע וְהִנֵּ֥ה בֶן־בֵּיתִ֖י יוֹרֵ֥שׁ אֹתִֽי: ד וְהִנֵּ֨ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹ֤ה אֵלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א יִירָֽשְׁךָ֖ זֶ֑ה כִּי־אִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵצֵ֣א מִמֵּעֶ֔יךָ ה֖וּא יִֽירָשֶֽׁךָ: ה וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ:

Afterwards, the word of G-d came to Avram in a vision saying, “Don’t be afraid, Avram, I will guard you and your reward will be great. Avram says, “My Lord, what can you give me as I will die without children? I guess my steward will be my heir.” G-d replies, “No, that one will not inherit from you but it will be a child that comes from you who will inherit your legacy.” G-d takes Avram outside and says, “Look at the heavens and count the stars; just as you can’t count them, you will not be able to count all those that come from you.”

At this point, G-d promises Avram (he is not yet Avraham) a great deal! Now as the story unfolds, the words of the promise become more plausible. First Avram has a son, Yishmael through his wife’s handmaid Hagar, and then a son, Yitzchak, through Sarah, his wife. As we know all too well, there is contention in this household (which I suspect we can understand as well – now that’s a blended family!) and Avraham will have to use his skills of negotiation to keep whatever semblance of peace possible in his family. Here again, he will yield to others – To Sarah in decisions she will make regarding Hagar, to his faith in G-d regarding how the members of his family will carry on and certainly in the unfolding of Akedat Yitzchak.

In these instances, Avraham may not come across as the strongest advocate for those for whom we might think he should advocate. Why is that? Many people have a problem with this. I think it goes back to the promise that G-d makes to Avraham and the resulting faith that Avraham will have in G-d that will lead him to an understanding that different people – even those of his household – will have different destinies, some of which may be connected to his life experience and some of which may not. Allow us to imagine the pain that Avram the man must have felt regarding having to say goodbye to a son and his mother, and then to be ready to sacrifice another son, as well as understand the potential ramifications this event may have for his wife and her well being.

Again, the details of what happened may not be as much the point as is the lesson that these things happen and yielding to the destiny and goals of others may sometimes be the best we can do. In drivers’ education, new drivers are taught that when one skids in a car, the natural inclination is to turn the wheel against the skid – to fight it with everything you have. Yet, in reality the safest thing to do is to go in the direction of the skid – to accept it and work through it. This is one of the lessons that Avraham may come to teach us today. And there are others…… to be continued!

Monday, November 2, 2009

More on Gemara's First Lesson, G-d's Plane, and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

More on Gemara’s First Lesson, G-d’s Plane, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

So, how do we speak about G-d’s plane/ realm and G-d’s reality and that of the humanity of which we are part? How do we step outside of chronology when we are trying ever so hard to discern what G-d is, how G-d decides, and the impact of G-d’s actions on us, as part of humanity? This is the impossible stuff of which my Tenth Grade Jewish Studies course at a local Jewish day school is composed. This entry is actually dedicated to all of my wonderful students from this course and others with whom I have journeyed and vexed regarding these issues through the years.

My latest venture into wonderful fictional releases from everyday life and reality has been the reading of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I note this fascination with how we speak of reality and experience it if the chronology of time as we know it and depend upon as much as we do on gravity to keep us in this time and space is not a given. That is to say, it is the age old problem of “proving” that such and such happened at a given moment given the records of time we hold. In this book, one of the main characters, a man by the name of Henry DeTamble, is an involuntary time traveler, who pops into places and spaces both in his past and in his future, disappearing and reappearing in his present. Of course, everyone with whom he has contact and thinks of him in real time (that is the given date and numbers on a clock as we collectively experience them) do not understand this aberrant behavior in which he is here one moment, gone the next and then reappears. Further, he has the ability to be in separate places simultaneously as he lives both in real time and time travels.

As I read about his adventures, the frustration of his wife Clare and the few people that were “in the loop” regarding his time travel problems, I could not help traveling a bit myself back to the many classes I have shared with my wonderful tenth graders, trying to figure out the intersection and interfacing of G-d-Time and our Real Time. What if we were to think about our time as within the human plane and of G-d’s time as wholly different? This would definitely remove the need we seem to have to account for every second of G-d’s time, which seems rather presumptuous to me at any rate.

During much of the story, other characters try to reconceptualize their own role and define their part in relationships with Henry and to better understand his reality. In so doing, individuals are forced to reconsider their own understanding of time and choices that they make. That is to say, Henry as an adult pops back to his earlier years and then when he reaches certain stages in real time; he already knows what has happened. For example he appears as an adult to his future wife when she is just a child and then she grows up, has these memories of the man who will be her husband, but he has not experienced them yet. This does not make what has happened any less real to her. People who find themselves in his orbit are constantly wondering if they and their experiences are real and if they are making choices in their lives if Henry, who has popped back from their future, already knows what those choices are.

So, as I read this and better understand the rhythm of what is happening I return to my own musings about how we relate to G-d and how G-d is very real in our lives, even if not physically present. How can this be? Of course, this challenge is far more formidable when speaking about G-d and us, given that it is not the stuff of a fictional tale, but explanations and components of our thinking that we are dedicated to understanding and upon which so much depends. When Moshe Rabbeinu asks how he should explain G-d to others, G-d responds to him “Tell them I was, I am and I will be.” That is to say, G-d is not trapped in chronological time. We use the words omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent when we speak of G-d. What we need to remember is that these words as descriptors function outside of the chronology that speaks of such things as last year, tomorrow or yesterday. While we need these time frames as parameters in which we act, G-d ACTS AND FUNCTIONS outside of them, yet we have ongoing relationships with G-d.

In the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, G-d speaks to Avram and tells him to leave all that he knows and understands, in time and space. G-d speaks in the future, explaining to Avram that G-d will show him the land, will make of Avram a great and numerous nation, and so forth. G-d speaks of a future that G-d knows and Avram needs to accept all of this on faith – a much easier concept in a good book of fiction than in a reality that is so fundamental to our faith and belief in G-d and understanding of history. This future-speak is continued through this Parsha and those to come. G-d knows and sees the future and reports it; the person in question must base their faith on its happening upon their relationship to G-d. In Pirke Avot, we read as follows:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה
“All is revealed and known to G-d AND permission is given to man to choose”

We are being given the formula for how this works in this short text, and yes, the explanation includes components not in the actual text per se, but is intended to be contextually helpful. So, back to those planes…. G-d functions on a plane in which there is not human linked chronology and not limited by physicality. Humanity on the other hand cannot function without these elements. So, G-d knows within G-d’s context and we decide within ours. We are constantly taking huge leaps of faith as did Avram/Avraham in his life and it is the taking of these leaps that we show and live our faith in G-d. While it is so difficult to imagine a time traveling human being, we also have difficulty thinking of G-d outside of these constraints. Yet, this is exactly what we must do in better understanding our relationship to G-d and G-d’s relationship to us.