Monday, October 31, 2022

Noah, Jonah, and Life After Catastrophe


The stories of Jonah and Noah are deeply intertwined. The very name “Jonah” itself suggests a link; Jonah in Hebrew is “Yonah,” or dove, which is the type of bird that Noah sent out of the ark to see whether the flood was over. Thematically, there are contrasts and parallels. Noah is commanded by God to take refuge in a boat, as protection from God’s wrath; Jonah defies God’s command by fleeing in a boat from God’s mercy. There are multiple other similarities, including how characters offer sacrifices after being saved, the counting of forty days to destruction, and how gardening takes center stage at the end of the story. It is clear that the Book of Jonah is meant to be read with the story of Noah in mind.


What is the meaning of these literary connections? At first glance, Jonah is the anti-NoahNoah is devout, while Jonah flees God’s calling; Jonah is even willing to sacrifice his life to defy God. Noah saves a remnant of a world from destruction; and although Jonah does save Nineveh in the end, he makes it clear that he would prefer Nineveh to be destroyed. Noah saves a menagerie of living beings by bringing them on his ark, while Jonah endangers an entire boat full of sailors with his presence; the boat is only safe after Jonah is cast into the sea.


Jonah could be dismissed as a rogue prophet who has turned his back on God and man; and the Book of Jonah is merely a repetition of the story of Noah, a reminder that the way of destruction is not the way of God.


This interpretation misunderstands Jonah’s motives. Jonah is actually a prophet of justice who finds inspiration in the story of the flood, when a world of wickedness was washed away. Jonah is principled in his desire to punish the evil-doers and to segregate the righteous from the unworthy. The flood, he believes, is the best blueprint for a human future.


But Jonah is not a reactionary who conveniently forgets the end of the flood story; he knows that after the flood God promises that “never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood,” and designates the rainbow as the symbol that “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” However, Jonah understands this divine promise as a concession to reality, a pragmatic necessity, to prevent the world from being destroyed on a regular basis. As Don Isaac Abravanel puts it, without God’s forbearance, “it would be necessary to have a flood every year, even perhaps every month,” due to humanity’s sins. God’s covenant of the rainbow does not undermine the importance of justice.


Jonah offers a clear answer to one of the most difficult questions in the Noah narrative: What was the purpose of the flood? God sent the flood because “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) Yet, after the flood, the Torah explains that the reason why there will never be another flood is because “every inclination of the human heart is evil” (Genesis 8:24). The identical rationale is given for why God brought the flood, and why He promises never to repeat the flood! If humanity is equally evil both before and after the flood, what exactly did the flood accomplish?


Jonah would answer that the flood is a constant reminder to humanity that we are fundamentally unworthy. Even if God can’t destroy the world again, we need to recognize that this is merely a loophole, letting humanity off the hook from a punishment they actually deserve.


Similarly, the rainbow can be seen as a reminder of man’s utter inadequacy. The Talmud (Ketubot 77b) explains that there were no rainbows during the lifetimes of exceptionally righteous rabbis. Rainbows are evidence of humanity’s abiding guilt; they would disappear when the merit of a great rabbi tipped the scales in favor of humanity. In other words, we are all just a rainbow away from oblivion.


This is why Jonah finds God’s command to save Nineveh both unbelievable and unpalatable. Why save the wicked from destruction? If it weren’t for technical problems, destruction would and should be the norm. It is worth noting that Nineveh is built by Nimrod, the grandson of Ham, who is cursed and rejected by NoahJonah may be following in Noah’s footsteps by rejecting the wicked descendants of Ham, while at the same time, fleeing to Tarshish, the city built by the descendant of Noah’s blessed son Jephet. Jonah can very well claim that he is carrying on Noah’s legacy, cursing the wicked while blessing the good.


Despites Jonah’s own views on the subject, it is love that stands at the center of the eponymous Book of Jonah. It explains that God cares about every living being, and doesn’t want another flood. When Jonah continues to protest God’s mercy even after the people of Nineveh repent, God responds by saying: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). It is with these words that the book ends.


Two perspectives arise regarding the flood. One is that the destruction of the world is a reminder that man is always skating on thin ice, one rainbow away from catastrophe; the flood is a symbol of human failure. The second is that the flood is a cataclysm that leaves God crying out “never again,” pained at the destruction of His beloved creatures; the aftermath of the flood is a testament to God’s love for all living beings. The Book of Jonah gives voice to both alternatives, because both have a place in the Jewish tradition. And echoes of this theological tug of war are ever present in Jewish texts, but this debate became far more significant a generation ago.


After the Holocaust, the Jewish world grappled with how to make theological sense of an overwhelming catastrophe. The Holocaust raises painful questions: How can we reconcile our belief in God with the brutal murder of even one innocent child, let alone a million and a half? How do we remain loyal to our covenant with God after such a horrible destruction? And above all, where was God?


There is much to write about this, but allow me to focus just a bit on the final question. Some see the Holocaust as very much a part of divine Providence, a catastrophe intended as a divine admonition to change course; in other words, the Holocaust was part of God's plan. Others make the argument that God was in hiding, to allow history to proceed, perhaps to allow for absolute free will. But the answer that interests me most is this: God was there with the Jews, crying alongside them.


Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, lived his final years in the Warsaw Ghetto. He left behind a series of sermons that were hidden in milk bottles right before he was deported, and found in the ruins of the Ghetto after the war; they were later published under the title Aish Kodesh. In 1942, as the persecutions were becoming even more horrible, he offered several sermons on the same theme: God is crying alongside us. In February, he said this in a sermon: "Now the Jew, who is tormented by his afflictions, thinks that he alone suffers, as if all his personal afflictions and those of all Israel do not affect God above…scripture states however, that ‘in all their troubles He was troubled’ (Isaiah 63:9) … Our sacred literature tells us that when a Jew is afflicted, God, blessed be He, suffers, so to speak, much more than the person does." In another sermon from July, the Rebbe said: "How can we lift ourselves up at least a little bit in the face of the terrifying reports, both old and new, which tear us to bits and crush our hearts? With the knowledge that we are not alone in our sufferings, but that He, blessed be He, endures it with us, as the Book of Psalms states, 'I am with him in his trouble.’" The Piaseczner Rebbe looks for God in the Warsaw Ghetto, and finds Him crying with His beloved children.


This view raises more theological questions than it may answer. Does God have emotions? Is God powerless in the face of evil? Yet despite these obvious issues, the Piaseczner Rebbe’s interpretation retains an intense attractiveness, the distinctiveness of words that carry a profound truth. He is reminding us about God's call at the end of the Book of Jonah, and that out of catastrophe, there is a thin, small voice calling out, telling us that we should be looking for love, and only love.


Even before the war, this idea was a foundation of the Piaseczner Rebbe’s teachings. One of the best known stories about the Piaseczner Rebbe was told by Shlomo Carlebach. He had met a streetcleaner in Tel Aviv, who as a child, had been a student in the Rebbe’s cheder in Piaseczno. The man had lost all of his family in the Holocaust, and was a hunchback due to the beatings he had received in Aushwitz. Carlebach asked him what he remembered about the Piaseczner Rebbe. The man, after some prodding, related that the Rebbe would eat the Shabbat meals with the children, and at each meal would repeat: “Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” The man related that so many times he had given up on life, and then he would hear his teacher’s voice call out, “Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” And so in Auschwitz, he would do favors; in Tel Aviv, he would do favors. This teaching kept him alive.


And this is the ultimate lesson of the Book of Jonah and the story of Noah: Remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. It is this love that keeps the world going.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Creation of Failure


How do we tell the story of failure?

In 1923, Franz Kafka and his companion, Dora Diamant, went for a walk in Berlin. While out, they met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told the girl not to worry, because the doll had actually gone away on a trip; in fact, the doll had written her a letter. When the girl asked for the letter, Kafka explained that he didn't have it with him, but that if she would return the next day, he would bring it to her.

And so it began. For three weeks, Kafka would compose letters from the doll to the girl, to keep her informed about the doll’s “travels.” Dora Diamant explained that Kafka gave these letters the same attention he gave to his other literary works. But then came the question: How would Kafka end this story, and bring the letter writing to a close? Dora told the French essayist Marthe Robert that Kafka “married off” the doll: He (Kafka) searched about for a long time and finally decided to have the doll marry. He first described the young man, the engagement. . . , the preparations for the wedding, then in great detail, the newlyweds' house. Having moved away with her husband, the doll could no longer write or visit the little girl. And finally, after the letters concluded, Kafka made sure that the little girl received a present of a new doll.

This fascinating story contrasts sharply with the bleak, pessimistic character of much of Kafka’s writing. But it offers a powerful example of the mindset needed to find a way forward when everything seems to have come to an end. And at some point in life, all of us are searching for our missing doll.


Mindsets stand at the center of a critical debate regarding this week’s Torah reading. The Tanakh begins with a debacle. Adam and Eve, in their first hours, violate the one and only commandment they are given, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Because of this transgression, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to lives filled with death, disease, and difficulty.

This story of sin and expulsion appears to be an absolute tragedy. Humanity is cast out of a utopia into an unmapped reality, left only with dreams of a paradise lost.

Some took up the quest to return to paradise. Brendan of Clonfert, a 6th century Irish monk, gathered 16 fellow monks on a boating expedition to search for the Garden of Eden. (They may have discovered Newfoundland instead.) Who wouldn’t want to escape this vale of tears?

Others took an exceptionally pessimistic reading of this text. The Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo sees this “original sin” as something that taints all of humanity. The sin of Adam and Eve is hereditary, and every person is cursed from birth. Augustine asserts that “no one is free from sin in (God’s) sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is but a single day.” Since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, human nature is so badly corrupted that every baby is a born sinner.  

It is important to emphasize that Augustine sees free will itself as suspicious, something that can lead to disobedience. He writes that even before the sin, man should not have exercised his free will. Obedience to God, not autonomy, could have been Adam's true glory: "...since man has been naturally so created that it is advantageous for him to be submissive, but disastrous for him to follow his own will...

Augustine lobbied hard for his view to be adopted by the church; there is a rich history of the political intrigues he undertook to promote his view of original sin. Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine’s who championed free will, was condemned and banished by the church; and to this day, Augustine’s view has remained dominant within most Christian denominations, and has had a profound influence on Western thought.

In Jewish theology, free will is a foundation of faith; the 613 commandments are meaningless unless a person can choose whether or not to do them. And because of this, many Jewish thinkers take great exception to the idea of “original sin.” In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that “The dogma of original sin is a most regrettable error of an alien faith…to say that because of “original sin” sinfulness is innate in man, that man has lost the ability to be good and is now compelled to sin – these are notions against which Judaism raises its most vigorous protest.…To this day, every newborn infant emerges from God’s hand in purity, as did Adam in his time; every child comes into the world as pure as an angel, to live and become a man. This is one of the cardinal points in the Torah of Israel and in Jewish life….Man as an individual and mankind as a whole can, at any time, return to God and to Paradise on earth.” The sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden are tragic failures, but they don’t define humanity.

All of the above describes a fairly straightforward debate: Can humanity overcome this initial sin? One side maintains that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge fatally corrupted humanity forever; the other says that each human being is born innocent, and has complete free will. Failure can always be overcome.

But what if failure is part of the plan? There is a fascinating third view, that says the sin of the Tree of Knowledge was actually what God wanted to happen. 

The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeshev 4) says so explicitly, and reports that Adam complained to God that sin was merely a ruse to throw him out of the Garden of Eden. Eden was always a way-station, and Adam and Eve were never meant to live there.

Bezalel Safran has argued persuasively that the Ramban saw the sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden as preordained, and notes that the Ramban makes several baffling comments about this passage that can only be understood in this manner.

The Ramban says Adam and Eve were created to be perfect, and had no free will; they would have done what was good automatically. This explanation is baffling for two reasons; one, it denies free will, which as already mentioned, is a fundamental belief of Judaism. Second, if Adam and Eve had no free will and could only do what was good, how did they sin by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

The only possible answer is that God programmed the initial sin of Adam and Eve, so they could acquire free will by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The Ramban drops several other hints to this effect. One significant hint has to do with the aftermath of the sin. It says that “Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.” The Ramban quotes the Midrash, which explains that the divine presence was leaving, in response to the sin. Remarkably, the Ramban offers the opposite explanation; God was arriving to speak to Adam and Eve because of the sin! But why would two sinners be deserving of experiencing a special revelation?

These unusual comments, when pieced together, offer a very different interpretation of this passage. Adam and Eve were created perfect, and could have remained so. But only imperfect people can transform and grow; only with failure could Adam and Eve actually experience life.

And that is why God had to create failure. In order to enter the drama of history, with all of its imperfections, Adam and Eve would have to leave paradise.

The Ramban’s view is the polar opposite of Augustine’s theory of “original sin.” Augustine sees the fall of man as final and fatal, a curse from which humanity can never recover. The Ramban says that, on the contrary, it was God who forced humanity to fail, to leave behind perfection; it was God who engineered this sin, and opened the door for free will and personal growth. Our exit from paradise, as painful as it may be, was part of God’s plan, and allows us to live an authentic life. 

What I find most compelling about this debate is that it represents two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. The mindset of Augustine’s view, which sees humanity as fundamentally broken, is so different from the Ramban, who sees this sin as the foundation of spiritual growth.

Mindsets determine how we react when we are broken and imagine ourselves to be beyond repair, when paradise has suddenly disappeared. To see the world as fundamentally corrupt leads to a pessimistic mindset and a passive acceptance that little can be done.

But the Ramban offers us a different mindset. Failure is woven into the very fabric of our reality; but that is very much a part of the plan. It is left to us to find a way to overcome failure. Even after the doll is gone, we must find a way to write a new story, and search for new beginnings.

Friday, October 07, 2022

Redemption In Slow Motion


Anatoly and Avital Scharansky, Prisoner of Zion, phoning from Air Terminal, Ben Gurion, To

President Ronald Regan to express gratitude for his part in Anatoly’s release.

On July 4th, 1974, Anatoly Sharansky and Natalia Stieglitz got married in a friend’s apartment in Moscow. Both planned to move to Israel; but Stieglitz had to to leave immediately because she had an exit visa that would expire the next day. Sharansky hoped to receive a visa soon thereafter. And so Anatoly went with Natalia to the airport, where they pledged to each other: “Next year in Jerusalem."


After that, life changed dramatically for both of them. Anatoly, who was soon known by his Hebrew name Natan, was refused an exit visa and eventually arrested, spending 9 years in prison. Natalia, or Avital, led a worldwide campaign for Natan’s release. After 12 years apart, the United States secured Natan’s release in a spy exchange; and on February 11th, 1986, Natan was finally reunited with Avital. When he first saw her, Natan made reference to that promise they had made 12 years before, and said to Avital: Silchi li she'icharti k'zat, "Sorry I’m a little late."

Redemption isn’t always on time. Jews prayed for “next year in Jerusalem” for 1,900 years of exile; but even when we knew it would take quite a bit longer, we sang the song anyway. Big dreams are often a little late.


At first glance, Sukkot commemorates a non-event: after the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews spent 40 years in the desert, dwelling in huts. Why is this celebrated with a holiday?


Perhaps the best way to understand Sukkot is to compare it to Pesach. The Talmud (Sukkah 27a) notices, and derives halakhic practice, from the unusual symmetry between the two holidays; both are a week long, and both begin on the 15th of the month exactly six months apart.


Thematically, there is much in common between the two holidays. On Pesach, the central ritual is the Korban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice, which symbolizes the protection God gave the Jewish homes on the night of the Exodus; the Sukkah commemorates the protection God gave the Jews while camped in tents during the years of the desert.


In both holidays, the theme of protection is combined with a memory of the difficulty and adversity. On Pesach, it is remembered through the bitter herbs, which are eaten together with the Korban Pesach; even on the very night of redemption, the years of slavery are not forgotten. On Sukkot, the tent, which symbolizes protection, is specifically built as a diraat aray, a flimsy, temporary structure; God may have protected the Jews in the desert, but they were at the same time homeless and vulnerable. Both Pesach and Sukkot connect us to the ups and downs of redemption, to moments of distress and deliverance at one time.


But the analogy between Pesach and Sukkot ends with Matzah. This quickly baked bread is all about “chipazon”, hurry, a redemption so rapid that one leaves the house in surprise, grabbing some unbaked dough on the way out the door.


Matzah offers a vision of instant redemption; doors fling open, seas split, former slaves march forward to freedom. Everything moves at lightning speed. By contrast, Sukkot is about a point in history when things more or less stood still. For forty years, day in and day out, the Jews lived in the same tents, with the same food, and the same complaints. Only at the very end, after barely crawling through the desert, do they finally arrive at the doorstep of the promised land. Sukkot commemorates a redemption that moves at a snail’s pace.


Pesach is a story made for the silver screen, with high drama and a conclusion that is miraculous. Sukkot, on the other hand, seems to be a celebration of tedium, of forty years when not much happened. And the question remains: What exactly are we celebrating on Sukkot?


Redemption is a topic fraught with preconceptions. Our default is to expect the most of redemption; it should be immediate, transformative and astonishing, a moment of clear divine intervention. If the Messiah doesn’t ride in on a white donkey, it’s not a true redemption.


When the Zionist movement arose, some Orthodox Jews adopted an anti-Zionist stance. One of the arguments they used against Zionism is that it runs counter to a passage in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) that (according to a manuscript cited in Rashi) says that the Jews should not “push forward the redemption.” This is seen as a prohibition against the Jewish people taking redemption into their own hands, as they are obligated to wait for the Messiah.


From this perspective, any attempt to create a Jewish State before the arrival of the Messiah is a fraud and a heresy. Every redemption should be absolute. When the Messiah comes it will feel like Pesach, with a new Moshe and many miracles.


But other Rabbis had a very different perspective on Zionism. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, who was an early 19th century proponent of the return to Zion, pointed out that the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:1) states that “such is the redemption of Israel, at first it is bit by bit, and as it proceeds, it gets larger and larger.” These religious Zionists saw the hand of God in every step forward. Because of this, they could appreciate the contribution of unusual heroes; Rav Kook famously said that when the young secular Zionist pioneers played sports to strengthen their bodies, their exercise was as holy as reciting Psalms. Their newfound strength would build a new country. A slow motion redemption doesn’t follow the ordinary script, with ordinary heroes.


And this is exactly what we are celebrating on Sukkot. What the early Zionist rabbis are describing in their writings is precisely what Sukkot commemorates: a redemption that comes bit by bit, one which is halting, imperfect and and at times confusing. On Sukkot, the distance between one step and the next on the road to redemption is measured in years, not feet.


As we approach the 75-year-anniversary of the State of Israel, we can say that what we have seen is a Sukkot-type redemption. On a daily basis, Israel is imperfect and tests our patience; but when we see it in the context of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, we recognize that it is miraculous.


Sometimes redemption arrives a bit late. Sukkot reminds us that we need to cherish every step on the road to redemption.