Friday, January 11, 2008

In the Museum of Science and Wonders

“…in all the signs and the wonders…and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror…” (Deuteronomy 34:11-12)

I turned a corner and suddenly came upon a small gang of wild turkeys, milling around on the sidewalk of Longwood Avenue. Presumably (when the capability of rational presumption returned to me) they had wandered up from the ribbon of wooded land that lines the Green Line rail tracks. Anyhow and in the first place, there they were: a quite sufficient instance of ‘Arov, wild beasts where we least expect them, incongruously stirred into the mix of daily life. I can still summon up the sudden feeling of acid shock in my legs, an instinctual, if absurd fight-or-flight reaction. I flew – or, at least, I stood stock still and then gave them a wide berth. (Why did the domesticated chicken cross the road?) Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, after all, once testified about a tarnegol who was put to death in Jerusalem for pecking a child to death (Mishnah, Eduyot 6:1) . These were fearsome fowl. I had to wonder whether turkeys ever seemed so dragon-like to people who lived on this land when it was not built up with mortar, tar and concrete – whether these dinosaur legs and burnished coats of brown and bourbon banded feathers ever turned the thoughts of hardier New England folk to mythical creatures. Farley Mowatt, some forty years ago, predicted that within two centuries there might be no wild animal left along the eastern seaboard bigger than a breadbox. In a world all too like that prophecy, these birds were something of a miracle.

Does the river have to stink and run with blood, must disease rain from sooty skies, and genetically confused frogs, with the last salentian articulacy of oddly numbered legs, crawl out of their polluted waters and die where we can see them; must we – God forbid – lose our own firstborn before we come to acknowledge the wonder of our world and respect our fellow beings? Will there come a day when the proper function of a kidney seems like the wildest fairytale from a mythic past? Is miracle the altering of nature or the drawing of a shining circle of attention around it?

I want to build a museum of science and wonders – a place from which visitors would come away thunderstruck, slack-jawed at the overwhelming elegance of the staggeringly improbable on scales huge and miniscule, where visitors could see the miraculous at every focal distance of the eye. I want to build a Museum of Science and Wonders, and then I remember – we live in it. Just look.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

More on Shemot - Torah and the World to Come

Written in the Wake of the Assasination of Benazir Bhutto

“And Moses said to the evildoer, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’” (Exodus 2:13)

As we turn from the primordial stories of Genesis to the narrative of our receiving the Law in Exodus, it is worth noting two seemingly contradictory ideas that come to us through tradition concerning the permanence or impermanence of Torah.

Rav Yosef teaches: “Mitzvot will be nullified in the time to come.” (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 61a) That is, in the World to Come, there will be no commandments. It is true that, in a seeming move of ultimate rabbinic chutzpah, there are those who suggest that certain injunctions of the sages, like Purim and Chanukah, will remain in place even in the World to Come; and, perhaps in a nod to something enduring about human nature, Rabbi Eliezer adds that the prescription of Yom Kippur, too, will never disappear. (Yalkut Shimoni, Ester 944) Otherwise, though, many of our ancient rabbis seem to foresee that Torah as we know it will dissolve in the ideal future.

On the other hand, God says through Jeremiah, “Were it not for my Covenant, day and night, I would not have set the rules of heaven and earth.” (Jeremiah 33:25) Torah is essential to the fabric of the cosmos. According to the first Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah, “God looked into the Torah and created the world” – thus Torah must extend to every thing and there should never be a time or place where Torah cannot be discovered and realized. The Zohar looks at “Were it not for my Covenant day and night,” and says, “Heaven and earth and all their powers stand on this yesod, on this Foundational Covenant.” (Zohar, Va-Yeshev 1:189b)

So unless we imagine the very sky and ground dissolving in the World to Come – and rabbinic sages tend not to imagine this – how can we say that “Commandments will be nullified in the time to come?” What kind of perfected world can this time to come be, if the essence of it is that we can do and say and imbibe every impure and unruly thing? Can we wrong each other with impunity in the World to Come? Should we believe that we are striving through Torah to bedlam, just waiting for the yoke of commandments to be lifted from our necks?

Hasidic tradition attributes an effort to reconcile these contrary ideas – that “commandments will be nullified in the time to come,” on the one hand, and that the cosmos depends on Torah, on the other hand – to the Ba’al Shem Tov. Reportedly, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that there will be no commandments in the world to come because, in that time, Torah will be intrinsic to humanity – not just ‘second nature’ to us, but, we might say, our first nature. There will be no commandments in the world to come because, in that time, Torah will not be experienced as statutes imposed from outside, against our inclinations. In the world to come, Torah will be the inclination of our hearts.

We see it foreshadowed in the story of Moses and the two Israelites he sees fighting with one another. Moses asks the abuser, “Why would you do this to your friend?” That is, even before Sinai, Moses feels in his heart exactly what Hillel will later articulate as the essence of Torah: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Moses’ question is not, “Why would you disobey a rule set upon you?” but “Why would it be in your heart to act in so destructive a way, a way that points in the opposite direction from redemption?” Moses intuits in his heart what is right, and from his lips springs the Torah of the moment. Heaven and earth stand on such a foundation – or, as the proverb has it, “Tzadik yesod olam”“The righteous person is a foundation throughout all time and space.” (Proverbs 10:25)

Perhaps a world is coming in which the impulses of our hearts and a world-sustaining Torah will coincide. Meanwhile, the word of God is, for us, as the haftarah of Shemot says, “Tzav la-tzav, tzav la-tzav, kav la-kav, kav la-kav, ze’eir sham, ze’eir sham” “Law by law, law by law, line by line, line by line, a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:10) – things we tell ourselves we should do, and only sometimes listen.

Al Gore said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “The future is knocking at our door right now. Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: "What were you thinking?” or “Why didn't you act? " Meanwhile, we go on acting in a way about which Moses might well ask, “Why would you do this to your friend?” “So today,” Gore said, “we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount.” We do similar things in other realms of action, too, dumping toxic deeds into our environment as though the world were an endlessly resilient buffer capable of absorbing every wrong, or as though a perfect world-to-be might come, in any case, and lift the burden of conscience from our necks. It isn’t coming – not that way.

Perhaps a time will come when the Torah of our hearts and the governance of our hands will coincide for good. Meanwhile, the word of God is, for us, as Jeremiah says, “Tzav la-tzav, tzav la-tzav, kav la-kav, kav la-kav, ze’eir sham, ze’eir sham” “Law by law, law by law, line by line, line by line, a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:13) – a Torah we hear outside ourselves, and only sometimes one that impels us from within.

May truth grow from the earth; may an expansive Torah flourish from our hearts; and may it be our will and God’s that 2008 – and what is left of 5768 – be for us and all the world an end to the narrowness of our minds and the destructiveness of our actions, and may it be the inception of a world that is coming.