Archives for October 2015

Torah Reflections – October 25-31, 2015

Vayeira
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

A Place of Great Evil

In this week’s Torah portion we encounter a place of great evil: Sodom and Gomorrah. And God, in our story, has resolved to destroy both cities. It seems that, together with the Babel episode just a few chapters earlier, God has something against humans dwelling in cities. I suspect that, for the agrarian people of the Torah—composed mostly of shepherds and farmers—the fortified cities of their enemies represented all that was evil in the world.

God has heard the wickedness and sinfulness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and He is about to come down to wipe these cities from the face of the earth. But in this case, God isn’t sure how to proceed, mindful that He is of Abraham’s anticipated reaction. God’s Self talk in this passage is remarkable:

Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? […] For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, to do what is right and just… [Gen. 18:17-19]

In a surprising expression of openness, God ends up sharing His plan with Abraham—including him in the decision process—with the full knowledge that he might argue against His plan to destroy the cities, which, it turns out, Abraham forcefully do. Abraham’s plea, on the surface level, might appear to be on behalf of the few righteous people that might still live in Sodom or Gomorrah. At a deeper level, however, it is a plea on God’s behalf and on behalf of humanity as a whole. Abraham harangues God:

“Heaven forbid! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” [Gen. 18:25]

The Midrash (the homiletic Torah commentary) translates Abraham’s words to be saying: “The judge of the whole earth shall not do justice — if it is a world You want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice You want, then a world is impossible.” (Bereshit Rabbah 49:20). Abraham seems to be arguing with God that a world of absolutes is not achievable in the dualistic relative plane of creation; that if absolute justice is what God intends for His world then He will continue to destroy it time and again. A degree of compassion, of loving-kindness, chesed in Hebrew, is what is needed in this relative plane to balance out justice, for a world to be sustainable. Abraham, in the Kabbalistic tradition is the one who embodies these energies of compassion and loving-kindness. He is the biblical character whose name is associated with the Sephirah of chesed on the mystical Tree of Life.

And so perhaps this passage in our Torah portion is there to remind us that, despite what the world is telling us—and what our ego is prone to believe—there is no absolute evil in the world. In the moments when we find ourselves rendering (absolute) judgments about who we are, who others are, and how things should be, we, like God in our Torah portion, might be best advised to consult our inner Abraham before giving voice to our destructive wrath.

Torah Reflections October 11-17, 2015

Noah

Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Noah: A Righteous Man in His Generation?

There is a thought-provoking Midrash about Noah from this week’s Torah portion that details a debate between two rabbis as to why the biblical author begins with introducing Noah as “a righteous man in his generation.” [Gen. 6:9] Why, the rabbis ask, insist on specifying “in his generation?”

 Rabbi Yehudah said: Only in his generation was he a righteous man [by comparison]; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted… Rabbi Nechemiah said: If he was righteous even in his generation, how much more so [had he lived] in the age of Moses.

[Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX, 9]

We recall from Noah’s story that—in his generation—corruption, violence and lawlessness reigned supreme in the world, which prompted God to decide to wipe the human race from the face of the earth through a great flood. Compared to the rest of humanity, the Torah tells us that Noah was a “tzadik:” the embodiment of justice. He was “tamim:” wholehearted, innocent and humble. His name itself means peaceful, quiescent, and equanimous. Our text goes so far as to specify that “Noah walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] This is who Noah was, so God spared him.

At first sight, one would be tempted to side with Rabbi Nechemiah in his assessment of Noah’s righteousness. We see in our time, with our generation wrestling still with corruption, violence and lawlessness, that the voice of the just is drowned by the cacophony of mind-numbing distraction that overwhelms us. In a highly materialistic world, surrounded on all sides by a culture of greed that relentlessly tugs at our ego to get more, be more, have more, regardless of the hurt and the devastation that come in the wake of our race to self-destruction, who has the capacity to remain impervious? When the world around offers us a non-stop whirlwind of diversion, it takes a virtually inhuman feat of character to stay untouched, quiescent and equanimous; to stave off those influences and preserve one’s integrity, ethics and authenticity.

But Rabbi Yehudah’s argument is just as legitimate. For even when Noah was the quintessential personification of justice, humility, peace and equanimity, he lacked a certain quality that would allow him to stand with the likes of Moses or the prophet Samuel. Yes, Noah “walked with God;” but for Rabbi Yehudah he did so a little too blindly. To understand why, we need to look back at our story. Right after we are introduced to Noah, we immediately see God openly telling him of His genocidal plan. He at once orders Noah to build an ark and tells him precisely how to do it. He commands him to take on board the precious cargo He specifies, giving him the most detailed instructions. God is clearly in charge, controlling every aspect of the project. Noah isn’t even the one to shut the door of the ark once the waters begin to rise; God does! We read, time and again, that “Noah did just as God had commanded him: that is what he did.” [Gen. 6:22] Even when he knows with certainty that the waters have receded and that it would be safe to leave the ark, Noah waits for God to order him out. Noah displays a total lack of initiative, and his silence his deafening. He quiescently obeys. And that is Rabbi Yehudah’s point; Moses and Samuel would never have remained silent in the face of God’s declaration of intentions. They would have stood up to God, challenged Him, and forcefully argued with Him to spare the lives of millions. What good does it do to reach the spiritual heights that Noah reached if it doesn’t infuse a way of being in the world that is fiercely compassionate, uncompromisingly loving and caring? Spirituality cannot exist in a vacuum, certainly not in our generation. It has to translate into concrete actions to benefit others, heal the planet, and support the stirring of a transformed dreamer, dreaming a different dream for our world.