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
The Genesis:3 Project
It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days Genesis 50:3
The end of an era. It’s a cliché that is trotted out with every sports retirement, business shuttering or celebrity death. Yet there are some occasions that validate the cliché.
I had that sense when the spacecraft Cassini vaporized in the atmosphere of Saturn a couple of weeks ago. It was launched in 1997, having been initiated as a project ten years earlier. Technologically primitive by today’s standards, huge in comparison to the drones that we navigate with our cell phones, incredibly limited next to the Mars rovers, this elegantly lumbering exploratory vessel boldly went where no one had gone before.
The photos alone take your breath away. Our earth, a blue dot against the black sky, rests dimly beyond the plane of the rings of Saturn. Geysers spew from one of Saturn’s many moons in silhouette against the distant sun. The largest moon, Titan, seemingly threaded on the edge of the rings against the backdrop of the pastel planet.
The scientific information is mind-boggling. While much of it sounds to science amateurs like me to be nothing more than answers for trivia night (“What is the length of a day on Saturn?”), the facts about Saturn’s gaseous bulk, the discovery of additional moons invisible to the most powerful earth-bound telescopes and the definitive examination of the rings continue our search of understanding of what makes up our corner of the galaxy and, by extension, what makes up us. And back at mission control, twenty years of math and physics were tested and refined to pilot and operate the ship from distances so great they need their own language to describe.
Cassini’s last moments may have been its most incredible. Sent on its final mission into the atmosphere of Saturn, it sent back data that will, as one scientist said, launch a thousand PhDs. And then, incinerated so as not to pollute the pristine moons that may be hospitable to life, it went silent.
If I am a little awestruck, a little bit of a Cassini fanboy, it is at least in part because the team that was Cassini touched my heart as much as the voyage excited my imagination. Project Scientist Linda Spilker was there from the beginning at the Jet Propulsion Lab. She dated, married and raised her family along with the ship. One of the engineers named his daughter Phoebe after one of the moons. The talented singers among the mission team serenaded their colleagues with parodies of show tunes and popular music about the expedition. People cried at the last transmission.
But (so far) two gorgeous insights have moved me the most. Science planner Jo Pitesky updated President John F. Kennedy’s vision when she said, “She’s us. We can’t go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there.” Cassini extended not only our reach, but our dreams.
And program manager Earl Maize melded science and theology (well, for me) when he described Cassini’s ultimate demise. The ship did not crash into Saturn. First of all, there does not seem to be anything solid for it to hit. But the atmosphere of the huge planet vaporized the carefully constructed spacecraft. Within seconds, Cassini the alien explorer and Saturn the object of its exploration were indistinguishable one from the other. Describing what would happen, Maize said, “It will become part of Saturn.”
When Joseph died, it was the end of an era. Though most of the children of Jacob barely knew him, he had been their inadvertent explorer, carrying hopes and desires they themselves did not yet realize. His presence in Egypt was the precursor to the formation of their future selves, the vehicle to the next iteration of the People Israel that Joseph’s brothers could not imagine. They cried at his last transmission.
Hundreds of years later, Joseph’s bones left Egypt with his distant descendants. By then, even with the embalming expertise of the Egyptian artisans, everything about him was vaporized, save the detritus of leathered skin and brittle bones. But also by then, legends were told and children were named and music was composed.
Joseph had become a part of those generations.
NOTE: Fifty explorations of my own, each one beginning with the third verse of the consecutive chapters of Genesis. Thanks for coming along for any part of the ride. After a brief hiatus, I will be back for another forty episodes of the Exodus:5 Project.
The Genesis:3 Project
Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Genesis 49:3
My friend Rachel Laser spent some years as Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. When she told me she was leaving that position to devote some of her considerable energies to talking about privilege among Jews, I remember my head cocking and my eye squinting as I tried to come up with a response. What came out of my mouth, at least initially, was the same kind of noise I often hear when someone discovers that I am a rabbi. “Hmmm!”
Privilege has been in the news, part of the zeitgeist, the subject of contrition by some and scorn by others. I got the concept right away, if for no other reason that the types of conversations I have learned that people of color have with their children were never part of my upbringing. Yes, we got the talks about prejudice and Nazis, but the kind of anti-semitism I experienced most of my life was primarily inconvenient and laughable. A good scrubbing takes most paint and markers off any wall. (I did, however, manage genuine shock and outrage.) Understanding, however, is only intellectual.
Much more recently, I wound up teaching myself an inadvertent lesson. Speaking on a panel about Jews in America for a leadership cohort of Asian-Americans, I answered a question about how Asians could begin to replicate the success of Jews in politics and policy deliberation. I replied that Jews have two advantages over Asians.
The first is that we have a signature issue. While we are concerned about many things, when a non-Jewish public figure hears “Jews” the next thought is “Israel.” Not every Jew has Israel front and center, and even among those who do, there is a gamut of interests in the subject. But “owning” an issue helps to define us as a constituency. Asians are so diverse in their countries and cultures of origin, their religions and their political concerns that they are rarely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a voting bloc.
The second is that we can pass as white. Maybe we are white, at least culturally, but what most people mean by “white” is not merely Caucasian. We have more in common, slogans aside, with Black Lives Matter than with white supremacists, but even in my Jew-fro days, nobody mistook me for African American.
And here I stumble on the Biblical verse in question simply by the accident of choosing to comment on the third verse of each chapter of Genesis. I never took it out of its context, the long recitation of blessings Jacob offers to his sons. Standing alone, however, it speaks to me differently, especially as a first-born son myself.
If you are not the first-born in your family, you know the impact of this deeply-ingrained preference in our families. I don’t believe that a first-born is better-loved, but a first-born is differently loved. For parents, the very first indications of success at any stage of life is how that first child is doing. I am aware that every practical lesson I learned as a father has been taught to me by my eldest – and that our younger children benefited from the mistakes she endured. I have also felt the expectations of achievement and responsibility placed on my own life, and the conviction that my younger siblings got off easier because of them.
None of it is earned or deserved. It is a function of what today we call privilege. Its origins are in incidental but deeply ingrained “blessings” that are canonized in our sacred literature.
When we are struggling with the notions of privilege, which so often feel like an accusation, it is helpful to have a point of reference. Not everyone will absorb the importance of the advantages that having lighter skin or presumed benefits or justified faith in rights and protections. For most people of privilege, that’s what we call “normal.” But everyone is or isn’t a first-born and is conscious of the differences – without presumed prejudice – that the accident of position bestows on that child from birth to, well, to always.
To deny it is to lose an opportunity to balance the scales at least a little bit. The first-born needs to step back a little to make for peaceful relationships.
But if denial is missed opportunity, pretending it is meaningful in this day and age is cruel and ignorant. And that’s why this point of reference is so important. White people know privilege in American society, and in that regard, most Jews are white. If we are exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor, it must be earned, not presumed, and not at the expense of those whose circumstances of birth put them inherently behind.
The Genesis:3 Project
And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, Genesis 48:3
A couple of years ago in these columns, I wrote about the last years of my grandmother’s life. My father’s mom had descended into dementia and then declining physical health. I was barely a rabbi at the time and I was asked to eulogize her; I spoke about the city of Luz, a town relocated when the Israelites entered Canaan, as a reward to the woman who assisted the Israelites, Rahab.
Luz, says a story from the tradition, was unique in that the Angel of Death had no dominion there. When old people wanted to die, they had to step outside the walls of the city. And I noted that although “Luz” means “almond” in Hebrew, it means “light” in Spanish. When old people wanted to die, they stepped outside the light.
Last week I had the opportunity to hear (and meet) one of my heroes – Dr. Atul Gawande. His book Being Mortal ought to be required reading, less for the answers he offers (though they are great) than for the questions he asks. In short, as a surgeon he has admiration for the advances in medicine that put more sophisticated and effective technology at our disposal. As a member of the human family and a (recently bereaved) son, he wonders whether the purpose of that technology is getting lost in our celebration of it.
Last week I also connected with another physician-thinker, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel. (It was his birthday – he turned 60, which is significant, as you will see.) More than any public figure, Zeke has been considering the resources we invest in extraordinary medical treatments. Like me, he agrees that faced with a specific case, there is no price that can be put on a human life. But he also believes that there are resources that can do greater good for more people than the “extraordinary means” used to preserve a single life that will shortly ebb away.
Zeke’s courage in raising the questions as part of a broader discussion of health care in the country earned him a certain scorn from some segments of the “religious right.” And he got a lot of grief from me when he declared that when he reaches the age of 70 his instructions to his health care providers will be to dispense with expensive tests and treatments. Hence, my birthday wishes for many healthy decades.
But whether the reason for critiquing the efforts we expend derives from a love for greater humanity (the Emanuel approach) or a love for the autonomy of the patient (the Gawande approach), the questions that are raised fly in the face of a central tenet of Judaism and, in most readings, Christianity.
What does life represent? Is it something vouchsafed to humanity to protect and preserve in the aggregate? Is it the “possession” of the individual body that contains it? Is it the realm of God which must be preserved lest we usurp the divine prerogative?
Nothing will agitate someone who believes that life is God’s domain alone than suggesting that we mortals can decide “who shall live and who shall die.” That agitation may be focused on reproductive choice, criminal sanctions, euthanasia or the conduct of war, but it stems from a deep belief that life is sacred and therefore not for the human taking. (BTW, not all such people put God in the equation.)
But it is hard to argue with Atul Gawande’s statement, “People have priorities in life other than living long.” I know it myself; in thinking about my own wishes, I would much rather forego debilitating treatments if they rob me of my ability to enjoy the company of those I love and, in the process, leave them remembering me in some spiral of misery. My attitude is a quantum shift for me; I once told my wife that if I got sick, she could sell the farm to keep me alive.
The decision to relinquish extraordinary treatments, which amounts to passive self-eradication, might be made for reasons admirable, shameful or morally neutral. A great deal of debate has taken place (and will continue) on which of those judgmental adjectives pertains to any given individual.
But both as a matter of personal choice (Gawande) and public policy (Ezekiel) – and even for those of us like me who take an approach more influenced by theology – what is undeniable is the insight offered by a young woman named Sarah who received Atul Gawande’s full endorsement when she suggested, “you can’t decide what kind of health care you want if you don’t know what kind of life you want.”
I hope that the nature of life in Luz – city, orchard or light – will come clear to me and be for a blessing before my time comes to step out.
NOTE: You may be noticing that there are 50 chapters in Genesis and we are getting very near the end. After a brief hiatus, the Genesis:3 Project will become the Exodus:5 Project. And from there? We’ll see.
The Genesis:3 Project
Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. Genesis 47:3
I live near Washington, DC, and I work in the city, overwhelmingly with people in government. When I meet someone for the first time, I rarely escape from the conversation without the question “what do you do?” Sometimes I am the one asking it, but mostly it is asked of me. (The subtle ones say, “Do you have a card?”)
When the word “rabbi” creeps into the answer, the combination of eyebrow raising and noise indicating interest, surprise or disapproval provides the only entertainment in the exchange. I almost always wish I still had the sarcastic bent to say, “I play the concertina, I tend the garden, I scuba dive” or any of the other activities my friends can claim.
Israelis like to make fun of Americans for this tendency to define a new acquaintance by their job. They claim to be much more interested in who a person is than in what a person does. Are you Ashkenazi or Sefardi? Are you religious or secular? Are you a member of my political party or an enemy of the state? Are you from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheva or Miami? Those kinds of things.
Of course, even the question “who are you” is fraught with peril in some societies. In hierarchal societies with some genetic or economic caste system, interaction with someone outside your group can carry a stigma.
But “what do you do?” is, as you can see, as old as the Bible. The answer that the brothers offer to Pharaoh, who seems as awkward in social situations as I feel, is not quite the one Joseph suggested they use. Shepherds, it seems, were anathema to the Egyptians. Joseph suggested that they claim to be cattle ranchers, a more acceptable position of higher prestige.
And perhaps that illustrates what is wrong with the question. In our time, we are too familiar with the tendency to inflate a resume or embellish a title. Roseanne Barr used “domestic goddess” for laughs, but almost every day we hear of someone who claimed a college degree that was never earned, boasted of a job that was never held, invented an award that was never received. Depending on who is asking the question, the circumstances and the desired outcome, the temptation is to stretch the facts (or invent them) to curry favor with the company the individual wishes to keep.
That seems especially true when seeking benefits that come with closeness to power or with seeking the power itself. If the answer to “what do you do” is “I make money to spend,” the truth is less appealing than, “I create jobs, I build buildings, and I give away millions of dollars to people in need.”
The sons of Jacob may have been startled into their truthfulness or they may have decided that their proclivity to prevaricate had reached its limit. At the moment, it resulted in the best possible outcome: a means of support and enough land to establish themselves as a community. But answering the question truthfully also provided Pharaoh with another insight about the clan. They were people of honor and integrity, willing to own not only what they do (the DC standard), but who they are (the Jerusalem standard).
And when you have the honest answers to those questions, you have the basis for building an honest relationship.