Friday, November 4, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


After two failed attempts at directing humanity to a life of holiness and goodness, God, in this week's parsha, begins the grand experiment that will be the narrative of the entire Torah and the story of the People of Israel.   With the generations of Adam, God stepped back to see if human beings, having chosen to "know good and evil," to think and choose for themselves, could choose for themselves a life of holiness.  The answer was a resounding "no": "And God saw that great was the evil of man on the earth, and all the thoughts of his heart were only evil, the entire day."  (Breishit 6:5).   So God tried again with Noach, introducing two key concepts: commandment and covenant.  Now, with greater direction, with commandments about structuring a just society, and with a formalization of the relationship, a covenant, there was hope that human beings could stay within the straight and narrow.   But human beings, with their unrestrained ambition, their drive for power and fame, failed God once again: "Come, let us make for ourselves a city, with a tower whose head is in the sky, and make for ourselves a name..." (Breishit 11:4).

How can humankind be redeemed?  How can they be directed to a life of doing what is morally right and what is right in the eyes of God?   The answer is to start small.  God takes God's universalist goals - and shrinks them down, engages in tzimtzum, and begins with one family, one person: Avraham.   Through a special relationship with this one person, with his family and his descendants, with an expansion of the commandments and an intensification of the covenant, will God's name and God's path be known to the world.   Abraham will lead by his example, his children will become a "light unto the nations," and the world will - in the end of time - turn to God and be redeemed.  " All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Breishit 12:3).

There is a risk with this strategy, however.  For it is possible that this selection, this chosenness, will lead this Chosen People to devalue and dismiss the rest of humankind that is not so chosen.   There is a risk that chosenness will lead to sanctimony and self-satisfaction, rather than to obligation and mission.   So God doesn't choose just anybody.  God chooses someone who has a powerful universalist impulse, someone who is always looking to, and calling out to, the larger world.  God chooses Avraham.  "... and he proclaimed the name of God" (Breishit 12:8), "... and he proclaimed the name of God" (13:4), "and he planted there an orchard and he proclaimed the name of God, Lord of the Universe" (21:33).   Avraham talked about God to anyone and to everyone, spreading the message, and hopefully - bit by bit - transforming the world.    This was a man who could be chosen, a man whose chosenness would heighten his sense of mission, who chosenness could transform not just him, but the world.

God's work, however, was not done.  For while Abraham had the right universalist streak, he needed to himself learn the importance of tzimtzum.  He needed to understand the importance of a particularist focus, so as not to repeat the failed universalist attempt of the generations of Noach.  For if the audience is too big, the message gets lost.  If the teachings and traditions are not taught in the context of a family, so that they can be preserved, treasured and passed down from generation to generation, then they will not survive.  Avraham was a charismatic leader and teacher, a person who attracted hundreds of followers.   But one generation later, in the life of Yitzchak, all the followers have fallen away.  When the charismatic leader dies, how will his teachings and his message survive?   How does the message moved beyond charisma and become lasting?  By being institutionalized - in a religion, in a country, or - in this case - in a family and a People.  A strong family, with a sense of tradition, values, and cohesion, will keep the path alive from generation to generation:  "For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his house after him to observe the way of God, to do justice and righteousness." (Breishit 18:19).  The way of God is passed down "after him" through "his children and his house."  This is why he was chosen, and this is what he must do, focus - at least for the time being - not on saving the world, but on educating his family.

God knows that this will be a learning curve for Avraham, so when God first calls Avraham, he plays to his strengths.  "Go from your land... And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great... and all the nations of the Earth will be blessed on account of you." (Breishit 12:2-3).  There is no mention of children, of family, only the promise of greatness, of fame, of becoming (through his followers?  through conquest?) a great nation.    Avraham's greatness and fame will allow him to spread the name of God, and is perfectly fitting to his strength as a charismatic leader, and this command and this promise, so resonant with Avraham's personality, motivate him to leave his home, to risk all, to serve God and to save humankind.   Now he must learn about family.

And so Avraham's own tzimtzum begins.  He must first learn to reorder his own family structure.  For when he first follows God's command, Lot is an equal member of the household alongside Sara, perhaps even more important than she: "And Avraham went as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him" (12:4).  Even when Sara is mentioned in this journey, it is not with any more prominence than Lot: "And Avraham took Sarei his wife and Lot his nephew..." (12:5).  It seems that Avraham, childless with a barren wife at the age of 75, had not really imagined that he would have his own children, and that Lot - whose father had died - had become Avraham's intended heir.  This will need to be realigned.  So it is, after the event with Sara in Egypt, and after being lectured to by Pharaoh about the importance of one's wife, that Sarei has moved to the center, and Lot to the periphery: "And Avraham went up from Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that they had and (then) Lot with him, towards the Negev" (13:2).  [This insight is taken from Leon Kass' wonderful book "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis".]   It is thus also soon after this, that he and Lot part ways, and that - after giving up on Lot as an heir  - God promises him, unambiguously, a multitude of children (21:22).  He - Abraham - is not to spread out everywhere.  He is to invest in family and it is his children who will spread out across the world.

This pulling back from the entire world to focus on family, this tzimtzum which comes with chosenness and covenant, is perhaps central to the sign of the covenant - the brit milah.  The circumcision of the male organ as a sign of Jewish identity, a sign of a covenantal relationship with God, is often understood as representing a life of holiness, a life of control over one's lusts and desires.  Another symbolism, however, may be at play.  For the male desire to spread one's seeparallels the desire of a charismatic leader to spread his name and his fame throughout the world, to inseminate people's minds and souls with his teachings.   However, such literal spreading of one's seed is destructive to the structure of a family - witness the prior story of Hagar and Yishmael - and such a spreading of one's message is often doomed to failure, for it lacks the structure to ensure its survival.  Avraham is thus told that to be in a covenant with God is to pull back, to control one's more universalist or omnivorous desires.  Avraham must focus and invest in family, in his wife Sara, and in the son that will be born - as he is now told - from her.  

Avraham is to take his passion, his ambition, his desire to spread God's word to the entire world; and limit it, direct it, harness it.  In doing so, it will become all the more potent.  By keeping the covenant, by treasuring the unique relationship that his children will have with God and that he, then, must have with his family, he will succeed in teaching God's path so that it will be kept, treasured, and passed down, until the time when it - never having lost its original universalist impulse  - can finally spread throughout the world.  It will be the success of God's third and final attempt to redeem the world, a universalist goal achieved through particularist means: the covenant of Avraham becoming the covenant of all humankind.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

In the daf yomi this week, the Gemara - in the middle of a discussion about the impurity of animals, and the different components of their bodies - turned to a fascinating conversation about the diversity of the animals of creation, and the phenomenon of animals that are the product of cross-breeding:

When R. Akiva read this verse he used to say: 'How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!' (Tehilim 104:24).   Thou hast creatures that live in the sea and Thou hast creatures that live upon the dry land; if those of the sea were to come up upon the dry land they would straightway die, and if those of the dry land were to go down into the sea they would straightway die... How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!'...

Rav Huna ben Torta said: I once went to a gathering (or 'a forest') and saw a snake wrapped round a toad; after some days there came forth an 'arod  (a poisonous reptile) from between them. When I came before R. Simeon the pious, [and related this to him,] he said to me: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: They have produced a new creature which I had not created into my world, I too will bring upon them a creature which I had not created in my world [and which causes much damage and suffering].

(Hullin 127a)

R. Akiva's statement is quizzical.   Why is God's greatness manifest in the limited capacity of a sea creature to live on the earth and vice-versa?  Would it not show greater power of God had God created sea-creatures so they could also live on the land?  The point seems to be, that there is a beauty in the diversity.  There is a beauty in the fact that not all things are the same.  That there are some creatures that are only sea creatures, and some animals that are only land animals.    Beyond that, there is a rightness, a fittingness, to the fact that creatures are adapted to their specific environment.   There is a beauty to the order of the world - a world in which there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

This then leads to the counter example of Rav Huna ben Torta.  Rav Huna witnessed what could happen when someone tries to tamper with the ordered world that God has created.  When animals that were not mean to crossbreed are crossbred, disorder and danger will result.   We must keep God's world with the order with which it was created.

This theme echoes the first chapter of Breishit that we just read recently.  God created plants, trees, and animals, li'minah, "to their kind".  The implication of the verse is that the distinctions between the different species of plants and animals should be preserved, that they should remain "to their kind."    The later Torah prohibition of kilayim, the cross-breeding animals and plants and the wearing of shatnez - a combination of wool (from the animal world) and linen (from the plant world) - are apparently a concretization of this principle.  Such is the opinion of many modern scholars (see, for example, Mary Douglas' book, Purity and Danger) and such, certainly, is the opinion of Ramban:

The reason for [the prohibition of] kilayim is that God has created different species in the world, among all living things - plants, and animals - and has given them the ability to reproduce, so that these species should continue to exist as long as God desires that the world continues to exist.  And God decreed that this ability should be "according to their kind" - and that they should never change, as it says regarding all of them, "to their kind."... One who cross-breeds two different species, changes and weakens the forces of Creation, acting as if he things that God had not done a good enough job completing the world, and he - this person! - wants to "help" God in God's creation, to add some new creation...

(Ramban, Commentary to Torah, VaYikra 19:19)

There is a problem with this approach, however.  Ramban's words, taken literally, indicate that it is not our job to improve the world.  But isn't a major teaching of our tradition that it is exactly our job to do so?  It is true that the Torah states that God placed Adam in the garden "to work it and to protect it" - not to change it.  But God also commanded the first humans, in the opening chapter of Breishit - to "fill the Earth and subdue it"!   In fact, there are those who, in interpreting the verse "For on that (seventh) day God rested from all his work which God had created to make" interpret the last infinitive phrase "to make" to refer to humans - God has created the world, and it is now our responsibility to continue to make it.   Indeed, no one has every suggested that Judaism favors anything like a Quietist theology.   We are not only commanded to rest on Shabbat, we are also told, or perhaps commanded, that "six days you shall work".   The famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus regarding the need for Brit Milah makes this point explicitly.  God gave us wheat, not bread.  God gave us the human, we are to work to make him - ourselves -better.  (Tanchuma, Tazria, 8).  The real question is - when has the "subduing" gone too far?  When must it give way to "protecting"?

These questions have a contemporary relevance when one thinks about new technologies such as genetic engineering and cloning.  Is this "subduing" or is this violating the ordering of God's world?  Is this continuing creation, or is this saying to God that we need to do God one better?  Although genetic engineering is not prohibited in the Torah, those who speak about following Torah values and not just Torah law, should apply those values to this case.  Or perhaps not.  For - as we mentioned above - there are other values at stake, saving lives and healing disease chief among them.  Maybe the potential for such benefit should outweigh.

One way to look at this is through the lens of "saying to God that the creation needs improvement." Certainly some who are involved in the field may be arrogant or feel God-like, being able to manipulate nature to such a degree, but that danger is present in every field.   Should we not have surgeons, because some may, in their life-saving roles, feel God-like and arrogant?  

The better way to evaluate this is to look at the result.  If the result is beneficial, then we are doing our job of working with God's world to make it better.   If the result is destructive, then we have gone too far.  The problem is that it is often hard to predict what the result will be, or often there will be both positive and negative outcomes.  Should we pursue such a path or not?

The passage quoted above from Hullin indicates that, at least when it comes to tampering with the basic categories of nature (more of an issue for genetic engineering than for cloning), we should not pursue such a path.    However, there is another Gemara.  In Pesachim (54a) we read the following:

It was taught, R. Yossi said: Two things He decided to create on the eve of the Sabbath, but they were not created until the termination of the Sabbath, and at the termination of the Sabbath the Holy One, blessed be He, inspired Adam with knowledge of a kind similar to Divine [knowledge], and he procured two stones and rubbed them on each other, and fire issued from them; he [Adam] also took two [heterogeneous] animals and crossed them, and from them came forth the mule.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The mule came into existence in the days of Anah, for it is said, This is the Anah who found the mules in the wilderness. Those who interpret symbolically used to say: Anah was unfit (the child of an incestuous relationship), therefore he brought unfit [animals] into the world.

Here we see the two approaches juxtaposed.  Rav Shimon ben Gamliel reflects the approach of Hullin - such cross-breeding was wrong, and the result is a bad thing.  Rebbe Yossi, however, sees it as part of God's plan, and a product of human intelligence and creativity.  Like fire, which was fundamental in the creating of early human society, the mule was a tremendous boon to humankind as a hearty beast of burden.  This is the role of human beings, to partner with God, to create something from nothing.  To make fire from stones, and a mule from a horse and a donkey.

So what's the resolution?  Is there a way to bring these two approaches together?  Maharal in his work Be'er HaGolah (Be'er 2) discusses this possibility.   Siding with the approach of R. Yossi, and seeing the mule as a boon to society, asks why the Jews were commanded against cross-breeding.  Don't we see the good that can result?  He answers: the way of the Torah is distinct from the way of completing (!) the world.  What does this mean?  Why would the Torah prevent us - at least Jews - from completing the world in this way? 

The answer may be, that there are two competing values here.  Yes, the world needs completion, but there are dangers when we tamper too much with the basic building blocks of creation.  We cannot engage in such behavior completely unrestrained.  How do we fulfill both "subdue it" and "protect it" - by recognizing that when manipulate it at such a fundamental level, that there are dangers that we must be cautious of.  By Jews keeping the mitzvah of kilayim, this concern is kept alive and this value is - hopefully - attended to.  The mitzvah of kilayim doesn't address non-Jews, and it doesn't address genetic engineering.      But it reminds us that sometimes tampering can be disruptive and destructive.  So as we proceed into this brave new world, we do so with the responsibility that comes with knowing that while we are commanded to subdue the Earth, to improve the world, to save lives and to heal disease, we are also commanded to protect it, to be aware that our creations are not good in themselves - even fire can be destructive! - and that we must create, but we must do so responsibly.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Learning continued apace, as year 1-2 students, and the Beit Midrash students, delved deeper into their respective mesekhtot - Pesachim for years 1 and 2, and Kesuvos for Beit Midrash.  The year 3 and 4 students who are in the Educators track continued their learning of the first chapter of Baba Metzia, and their reflection -  to a smaller extent in shiur with Rabbi Katz and to a much larger extent in a pedagogy class on Wednesday evening with Ruth Fagen - on the pedagogy of teaching Gemara.   The integration of the morning learning with the evening pedagogy is unique to Jewish educator training programs, and is already proving to be a highly effective and anchored method of teaching these critical skills.

Students from years 3 and 4 who are learning Hilkhot Niddah moved this week from the sugya of chumrah di'Rebbe Zeira, and the requirement of 7 days post-bleeding, to the other requirements around the period of shiva ni'kiyyim, the seven "clean" or "white" days.   All year 3 and 4 students continued learning aspects of Brit Milah - perfectly timed for this week's parsha - in the afternoons, from its halakhot, to aspects of officiating, and to pastoral issues.  Students also took classes in more general pastoral aspects around early childhood.   Second year students continued their chaplaincy internship on Monday afternoons, and heard another wonderful class on Wednesday given - via Skype - by our musmach Rabbi Jason Weiner (YCT 2006), Senior Rabbi at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, LA on the topic of Jewish Chaplaincy and Bikkur Cholim.  Rabbi Weiner's erudition, experience and wisdom were a tremendous gift to the students, and we look forward to hearing another class from him again next week.

A couple of Mazal Tovs are in order.  First, Mazal Tov to Rabbi Zev (YCT 2006) and Chani Farber on the birth of a baby girl last week.  Geffen Farber was named this week, and we wish Abba and Ima and the whole family much joy and nachas.  She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'Chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!

And a big Mazal Tov to Gabe Greenberg (class of 2012) and Abby Streusand who were married in Baltimore this last Sunday.  The wedding took place on the grounds of a farmhouse near the Pearlstone center, where - as participants and leaders in Pearstone's Kayyam Farm - Gabe and Abby first met.   The setting was beautiful and so fitting, and Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Katz and I, together with a group of YCT students, were thrilled to be there and to be able to dance at the wedding and to rejoice with the couple.  It was also true nachas to see Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein (YCT 2010) co-officiate the wedding together with Gabe's Grandfather.    Gabe and Abby returned to New York this week, and on Thursday the students of the yeshiva held a beautiful sheva brakhot for them, with words from Aaron Lerner, and with an exquisite presentation arranged by Allison Batalion.   We are thrilled to welcome Abby into our family!  Shetizku livnot bayit ne'eman bi'Yisrael!