Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? Genesis 14:3
The Genesis:3 Project
All of them joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea. Genesis 14:3
WAR (hunh, yeah) what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’. Say it again.
Edwin Starr made his mark on the pop charts during the Vietnam War with this anthem that decried “the destruction of innocent lives.”
I think that the people who initiate wars would lay claim to them being necessary, even if they are evil. And certainly those who are the intended victims of violent aggression would contest the premise that refraining from war would prevent the destruction of innocent lives.
Yet, in one of those occasional circumstances in which translation adds to understanding rather than confusion, this verse comes in the middle of the description of the first war recorded in the Bible. And though the proper Hebrew name for the aquatic landmark literally translates as “the sea of salt,” we in the English-speaking world call it the Dead Sea.
The description of the war is a complete jumble. A bunch of kings from a bunch of places fight a bunch of other kings from a bunch of other places, the purpose of which seems to be to put down or to succeed in a rebellion of unknown purpose and take the booty of the losers for their own. In the process, one of the few details we learn is that some of the combatants fall into tar pits, presumably to their deaths, which may be part of the reason that the Sea of Salt is known in English as the Dead Sea.
Within two generations war had become common enough that every segment of the saga of the Israelites includes at least the threat of one, though they all seem to have some identifiable purpose. But bad boys with their bad toys seem to be interested in doing harm to each other before the technology becomes an instrument of considered foreign policy.
I used to be far more convinced of the unethical nature of war when it was my backside on the line. While Edwin Starr was singing, I was becoming eligible for the draft. I knew I had four years respite thanks to a student deferment, but by the middle of my sophomore year, it became pretty evident that four years wouldn’t be enough.
I have done some brave things in my life, I am sure, but serving in the military was not one of them. I was scared silly of getting killed, and even my devotion to the values of our country was not enough to get me to pledge my own life, fortune and sacred honor to provide for the common defense.
I saw how easy it was for a disagreement to escalate into violence just the other day. I was at an outdoor press conference – one of the responses of choice to the flow of executive orders coming from the brand-new administration. I was at the microphone (which was very temperamental) when a guy on a bicycle with two bullhorns stopped about twenty yards away and started haranguing people walking on the sidewalk. It had something to do with God; we were in front of a church, so it wasn’t all that surprising. But a very gentle man I know walked over to ask him to stop. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the cyclist answered him through the bullhorn, so I presume it had something to do with respect and various aspects of the First Amendment.
The gentle man was persistent, and at one point put out his hand. I don’t know if it was meant to initiate a handshake or to just create a moment of connection. But Mr. Bicycle switched bullhorns and began to broadcast dire warnings about what would happen if he laid a hand on him.
Even at a distance, I could see the gentle man lose his gentleness. The fight-or-flight instinct tensed his body and he took a stance that revealed that his gentleness had been cultivated after some experience as a less-than-gentle man.
At that point, the press conference ended, and along with it the challenges being hurled at us through Mr. Megaphone. Gentleness settled again over my champion.
But it was that simple. A stranger yelling nonsense at a good guy through a bullhorn was almost enough to escalate into battle.
I have to think that if I had been conscripted after my college years my own amygdala would have given me the courage I couldn’t find in the calm of the campus. The jury is out on the question of whether that is a good thing. It is a Sam Peckinpah dilemma.
But I sure want someone in charge of deciding whether to go to war who has cultivated a proclivity to avoid it rather than a willingness to be goaded into it because of a perceived slight. I don’t want someone to send innocent lives into battle because he is in a snit over some perceived offense. I want a guy who can recognize when it’s not worth it anymore and has the courage to walk away instead of creating a complete jumble just to satisfy himself. Because that’s the kind of war that is definitely good for absolutely nothin’.
Say it again.
SAFE AT HOME Genesis 13:3
The Genesis:3 Project
And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai. Genesis 13:3
My family came from a number of different places in Ukraine. Their cities and villages of origin are now almost completely without Jews; some of them migrated to the United States and elsewhere, some of them were murdered by the Nazis; some of them were assimilated or dispersed by the Soviets; some of them made their way to Israel.
My Judaism came from those places as well. That may seem self-evident, but it is important to mention separately. While the broad strokes of Jewish life are common to all expressions of the tradition, the local customs that influenced families and communities are as different as the recipes that reached the dinner table in Lvov, Budapest, Zagreb and Frankfort (never mind Turin, Baghdad, Marrakesh and Aden).
When my grandparents were born, most of them here in the United States, their parents were attached to the synagogues that tried to preserve that old-country Judaism. The rabbis were European-trained and sent to the wilds of America. Some of those synagogues are still around, even if the membership no longer traces itself back to the homeland. (One such synagogue in Chicago originally served the people – “anshe” -- of the town of Motele, pronounced “mo-teh-leh.” My brother called it the “Anshe Motel.”)
My grandparents were entirely Americanized by the time I knew them. My father’s father died long before I was born, but he was already a Yankee, without accent or old-country affectations. My other three grandparents were as committed to the stuff of Jewish America -- bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, the Democratic Party -- as they were to the newer versions of Jewish life.
But their rabbis were still tied in many ways to the European orthodoxy in which they were trained. The rabbis themselves were Americanized, but they brought with them the sensibilities inculcated by their teachers. That life was rooted in a place that existed only as memory for their communities. Within a generation or so, memory was all that was left for anyone.
I am not denigrating the preservation of tradition and custom. On the contrary, I have long believed that you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been. But I do know that the Ukrainian town of Mozir is no more my home town than Guadalajara.
Some of my fellow Jews have attempted to transplant the old country to the new land as a way to honor their rabbinic forebears. They have adopted the clothing styles of a time past and even reconstructed buildings no longer standing in the original location. I remember sharing a meal with a new recruit to one such community; before he ritually washed his hands, he let the water run long until it was a cold as could be because “that’s how it was done originally.” I reminded him that we no longer draw water from deep wells and that they did not have the luxury of hot water on demand. No matter.
The verse above describes Abram’s return to the homestead he created for his clan. He had been wandering after a sojourn to Egypt and eventually made his way back “to the place where his tent had been formerly.” Abram had lived a long life in Ur and Haran (his “old country”), but they were not where home was.
Namira Islam is an activist to bring an end to racism, especially as it is expressed in her Muslim tradition. I first met her when she was named recipient of a peace award from the El-Hibri Foundation. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized the gifts that an American consciousness has given to Muslims in this country. Speaking to the questions I address in this column, she quoted her imam as saying “Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised.”
I think that message is exceptionally important to people whose time in a new place – maybe the United States – is shorter than longer-term residents. But it is just as true for those people who are heirs to the legacies of people who came before. Abram figured it out, and so should we.
Outside of the American context of my writing, I acknowledge that this is a strongly Zionist message for many Jews. Many see the place their grandchildren will be raised as the Jewish national homeland. It is a powerful and authentic draw for me and so many others.
But for now and for the generation ahead, my American home is where I live and where I expect my grandchildren will be raised. It is incumbent on me to make the United States feel like home to everyone who has invested their future here, traveling in stages to the place where, like my ancestors, they have pitched their tents.
The Genesis:3 Project
I will bless those who bless you; those who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth will be blessed. Genesis 12:3
I have had the good fortune to know some extraordinary people in my lifetime. By that statement, I mean to say these individuals are possessed of qualities that make it feel like a privilege to be considered any measure of a friend. The most precious gift we can bestow is our affection – it is an affirmation of the worth in our eyes of the other person.
Some few of these folks are public figures and most of them are very private figures. What they have in common is that they themselves do not believe that there is anything special about their fondness. They share it freely because they recognize something worthwhile in the object of their appreciation.
They are in contrast to bully boys and mean girls who pass judgment on whether someone is worthy of being included among their friends. That is to say, what makes them extraordinary is not that they like me. (If anything, it calls their judgment into question!) What makes them extraordinary is their openness to others as they are.
Sometimes you can catch a glimmer of that quality in small acts. A friend of mine holds a position of prestige and authority. I find myself in early-morning meetings with him with some frequency. Inevitably, he needs a second cup of tea during the course of the conversation. He never fails to ask the people on either side of him if he can get them a refill as well. It is a small thing that affirms the needs of others and makes him a servant of his respect for them. When I notice his name in public reports, I always hear, “Can I get you something” as part of his ethos.
Sometimes you can catch that quality on large display. Another friend of mine never begins a conversation without asking after the state of my soul. I admit to a certain embarrassment that I have not been able to cultivate this gentle concern as part of my daily encounters, but even when I don’t feel like giving her an answer, I am moved by every opportunity to respond. She is someone who has lived in modest privilege and with her share of troubles, but she leans into a generous nature by her genuine concern for others.
Truthfully, I have known people whose circumstances are similar to these two friends who have not cultivated such extraordinary qualities. I can afford to be less specific by simply saying that they consistently put their own needs ahead of the needs of others – not so unusual – but have convinced themselves in the process that they are entirely justified. What moves them from tolerable to insufferable is their sense of entitlement.
I hear a lot of people invoke the verse from Genesis above as they discuss their relationship with Jews, the Jewish people or the State of Israel. They are of the belief that an incantation of support for the (Jewish) children of Abraham is a road to personal blessing. Often, they invoke this verse against political opponents to suggest that God intervenes in directly in public policy debates. They misunderstand, in my opinion, the mantle bestowed upon Abram (later Abraham) in this encounter. He is commanded “to be a blessing.” Before those who bless become blessed and those who curse become cursed, the man himself has some consequential work to do. Being a blessing – as opposed to reciting a blessing or acting out a blessing – means cultivating qualities of respect, compassion and attention to the needs of others. It is the work of a lifetime, and it is not easy to achieve.
Our public landscape is littered right now with claimants to entitlements. From what I hear, the infection has spread to the private sector and, more alarming, the micro-communities in which we live. An acquaintance used the excuse of New Year greetings to taunt me about “failed Democratic presidents.” The next president, who will apparently repair the damage of his predecessors, began by publicly shaming and excluding a news network for reporting a story he believes to be fake. These small and large examples do not encourage blessed behavior in others, never mind the elevation “to be a blessing.”
To be a blessing is to encourage others to emulate your example and thus share in the spiritual satisfaction. To be a blessing means that those who reject your kindnesses will themselves encourage rejection of their own example.
And, honestly, that’s the meaning of the end of the verse. That’s how it can be that through Abram – or any other embodiment of blessing – all people come to be blessed.
They said one to the other, “Let’s make bricks and bake them solid.” And they had bricks for stone and tar for mortar. Genesis 11:3
New technology is always a mixed blessing. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it does not limit the use of the invention to take care of mom. In addition to the need technology addresses, two things are certain: it will be used for purposes other than intended, and some segment of the population will oppose it altogether.
The ancient Babylonians did not have the stone quarries of lands to their west. At some point, they invented a technique for makes bricks out of the abundant mud and secured them to each other with the tar that bubbled up from the oil deposits underground. The report in this section of Genesis begins with a kind of surprise and wonder at the innovation (and explains, in Hebrew, how certain words came to their meanings). But this new technology leads the residents of Babel to overreach, and they are punished with a “confusion of languages” (babble?). The technology meant to unite them leads to their undoing.
In fact, a Jewish story contends that they were so enamored of the literal heights to which they could scale that if a worker on the tower fell and was killed, nobody paid any attention. But if a brick dropped, a wail went out at the delayed progress. Where was Samuel Gompers when he was needed?
Throughout history, this tension between technological innovation and the belief that things are just fine the way they are is dependable. When writing began to replace oral tradition, there was resistance. When the printing press began to replace the scribe, there was alarm. When digital publishing began to replace paper, there was a sense of doom.
And, frankly, the predictions of the nay-sayers were correct. The flexibility of an oral tradition disappeared when the authorized version appeared. A person could sit alone in his or her home and come up with any interpretation of a document when the authorized versions were widely available. The accessibility of wide distribution without significant cost or skill has allowed quantity to overwhelm quality.
And throughout history, technological innovation has served both a higher purpose and baser motivations. Atomic energy, automated factories, broadcasting and recording, social media and so many other creations large and small have enhanced the quality of life and threatened not just its quality but even its existence at the same time. Technology is neutral; its use is not.
And that is the point, I think, of this fantastical little story about how different languages came to be. It isn't about the technology of brick-making and masonry. It is about what people do with it. Even way back whenever, people recognized the absurdity of building a stairway to heaven. The punishment meted out to the people attempting the Tower of Babel was a caution about human behavior, not about the technology.
The misuse of technology is very much on our minds these days as well. Either Russians or some social recluse with a laptop supposedly messed with our elections. Emails may have caused the political downfall of one candidate, just as lurid photos caused the downfall of another. 140-character bons mots convey the opinions and priorities of the next leader of the free world instead of considered and informed statements.
I get an email almost every day from an organization that believes the most dangerous people in the world are young Muslim men with access to the internet. A compassionate and exceedingly wise teacher of mine is being bullied by comments from people who consider his compassion to be a form of betrayal. And a friend and rabbinic colleague who fled the stress of toxic face-to-face interactions in order to live a quieter life in big sky country has been subjected to disdain, harassment and endangerment because of the electronic reach of a malicious bigot who no longer has to rely on a mimeograph machine and the US Postal Service.
These things are not the fault of technology any more than the bricks were at fault for the decisions of the bricklayers. These technologies – all of them – were invented for the benefit of our world. The people who misuse them are the one who squander the gifts.
One of my favorite jokes is about a woman who pokes and prods every orifice of a fresh roaster before handing it back to the butcher. "I don't like it," she says. He replies, "Lady, could you pass a test like that?"
So before you get too smug about your use of technology, check the history of your browsing.