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
And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)
The first thing God creates is not light. The first thing God creates is creating. And the way God creates creating is by speaking.
We know a little too much about vocal cords and sound waves and anthropomorphism to be swept away by this simple assertion – my guess is you read it as I do, as a metaphor – but please suspend your sacred skepticism for a moment to consider the implications of this lesson. And bear with me if I seem to be very literal for a paragraph or two.
A thought pops into God’s head – perhaps randomly, perhaps after much reflection. “Let there be light.” God being God, why must that thought be translated into words? Isn’t the intention to create light (whatever that is in an unformed void) in the mind of the Divine sufficient?
Apparently not. The thought that rattles around inside, a sort of wishful thinking, has no creative power. In order for light to exist, it must escape from that private realm of consideration and be set free. When God speaks, “light” is no longer just an idea. It is a reality. As the early-morning prayer affirms, God spoke and the world became.
Mystics, charlatans and entertainers have been trying to capture that power since, I would guess, the sixth day of God chattering. “I will create as I speak,” goes the declaration or, in Aramaic, “Abra-cadabra.” Spells and incantations, the secret syllables revealed, were supposed to be able to turn a man into a newt. (He got better.) Chants could impact inanimate objects – you know someone, maybe yourself, who has stood over a telephone and begged it to “ring, ring, ring.” Maybe yelling “hey, batter batter” at the ballpark will subtly encourage a decision at the plate, but yelling it at the television, um, won’t.
The attempt to out-God God with spoken magic is the stuff of fantasy. The ancient brass lamp imprisons a genie who can turn three wishes into reality, and just by saying it, it happens. We know it’s not true.
But we overlook that the creative power of speech is part of the image of God in which we are formed. The thoughts that rattle around in our brains have no creative power (though it is delicious to consider what the internal landscape of God's musings are, given what our daydreams produce). But let them loose and, like the first light on the first day, they create a new reality.
At their most magnificent, our words are transformative. You remember the lecture your heard or the play you saw that changed your heart. You can recall the excitement in your life when you shared an insight with a friend or mentor. And you remember at least one time that your world was an unformed void and a kind word let there be light.
At their worst, our words are agents of destruction. You have heard in these immediate times how words that describe a dystopian vision of Mexicans or Muslims have created fear and loathing where none existed. You can recall a time when someone's cruel assessment of your appearance stripped away your sense of self. And you remember at least one time when your world of light became an unformed void with an utterance: we need some time apart; the diagnosis isn't good; I regret to inform you...
I am as guilty as anyone of squandering this creative power. Every word creates a world, some for better, some for worse. Being careless or profligate with our creative power is as troubling as promiscuity or bullying. But when that idea in your head is just the thing that is needed to dissipate the darkness in your world or in the life of a friend...abracadabra.
When I looked at the last section of the Torah around this time last year, I noticed that one piece of language connected the story of Moses’s death with the beginning of Abraham’s saga. “Be a blessing,” God told Abram. “This is the blessing,” said the narrator of Moses’s last words.
Now I notice something else. Almost as early as Abraham becomes a blessing, he acquires the reputation that will name his offspring: the Hebrew. The first use of that word with Abram is in Genesis 12:6. He has just left his land, his family and his home to “traverse” (avar) the land. The wandering that begins with Abraham’s father a few verses earlier becomes the story of this nomadic people – settling for a while here or there, landing as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and wandering for another generation or two until the very end of Torah.
The last great traverser of the Torah is Moses. And in the dramatic death scene that is Deuteronomy 34, he stands atop a mountain with a view of the land that Abraham himself traversed. The very last words God speaks to Moses are, “you shall not traverse.” In a liberal pun, “you are not the Hebrew [any more].”
It’s a fancy word, traverse. It is usually understood to mean “cross over,” a definitively forward motion, though, ironically, the same root also means “past,” the time we have left behind. I have always been struck by the poignancy of Moses looking at the destination of his life and being denied the opportunity to enter. Indeed, the early rabbis imagined all sorts of attempts by Moses to persuade God to let him in, even rallying the earth and sky and angels to his cause. It doesn’t work. No traversing. No crossing over. No bringing forward what is left behind.
There was a time for the people to be wanderers, but as they prepared to re-enter the land first promised to Abraham, the time to wander was over – it was past. The experts who had guided the people through their journeys had to give way to a new kind of leader. The forefathers and foremothers took the Hebrews in, around and through Canaan, eventually settling in a place of exile in Egypt. Moses led them out of Egypt and through forty years’ traversing. The person who had become the very model of “successful wandering” -- including his own transformation from Egyptian to Midianite to Israelite -- was absolutely the wrong person to plant roots. We were to be Hebrews no more.
On the day we read this last chapter of our early history, we do two things. We begin the story all over again, starting with the prehistory of the original Hebrew, and we then we pick up the next chapter of the story of the Torah in which Joshua leads us into the place where our saga started and then, after a long interruption, began again back where we started. This annual rehearsal of our story serves to remind us that history in general – not just for the Jews – repeats itself and progresses simultaneously and thus paradoxically. Every season, maybe every day, we have to ask ourselves if we are going to return to the past (avar) as if nothing before us had transpired, or if we will traverse with the leadership of the day one last time into tomorrow.
When reading the Bible it is possible to do both. When living a life, not so much.
I am not a lawyer (as will be evident in a moment), but it seems to me that the modern analog of this dilemma plays out whenever there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States. We discuss
passionately whether we should select someone willing to go back to where we started – with the intent of the original authors – to traverse the ground before us or whether the same material must be understood in the context of the journey thus far completed. In some ways, especially philosophically, we can have it both ways. But life-on-the-ground demands that we decide between two ideas: things were meant to be a certain way or things are meant to change.
If you know me at all, it will not surprise you that I am a proponent of the latter, both Biblically and constitutionally. But as a rabbi of certain background – Conservative Judaism, aptly named for perhaps the first time in my career in this context – I want to remember lovingly the wanderings of our youth, when the purpose was clear and simple. We just wanted to get back where we started to build an ideal society in the land of promise/the Promised Land.
If the successes and failures of our Hebrewing had been comprehensive, then the next chapters would have been uneventful and today we’d be blissful tribal members harvesting milk and honey. And if the Constitution had been perfected in its original form or since, we would want a sage technician to answer our ultimate legal questions.
But it is not merely praise of the man that the Torah ends with the declaration that answer our ultimate legal questionsontext --there has not arisen another Moses among us. He was the right person to get us back where we started. Then it was time to move on.
I don’t know God’s will, and neither do you. We have the Torah, Christians have the Gospels, Muslims have the Qur’an, Hindus have the Vedas, Latter Day Saints have the Book of Mormon, etc. They may reveal some aspect of the Divine in the context of those who already (or are persuaded to) believe, but that’s not the same thing.
“Will” is something fluid, and it relates to circumstance. “Will” does not exist independent of experience. “Will” is intention, and intention is an internal process that cannot be identified without the specific participation of the intender.
I know that there are people who disagree with me entirely. One segment of them – not the only one, by the way – attributes God’s will to all sorts of nonsense, including sports victories, political candidates, hurricanes and achievement awards in various entertainment categories. Crapola. Maybe God wanted you to win that Oscar® and maybe God wanted that hurricane to aim for Mar-a-Lago or maybe God doesn’t care about any of it. The point is, you don’t know.
Anyone who claims to know God’s will in such circumstances is guilty of confusing personal opinion with God’s intention. And, with all due respect, that’s blasphemy to a believer and evidence to a non-believer.
I have been guilty of this hubris too many times. It occurs when I stand graveside and, as the casket is lowered or the earth is replaced, I recite the traditional words of the devotional hymn Tzidduk HaDin, roughly paraphrased as “This is God’s will.” It begins with Deuteronomy 32:4. “The Rock, whose work is perfect and whose every way is just, is a faithful God without deceit, just and upstanding indeed.”
To be fair, the poem is more comforting in its entirety than this introductory line makes it sound. I am attached to it because of sentiments that occur part-way through like “God forbid that You wipe out our remembrance” (more a prayer than a statement). But having watched the terminus of long fulfilling lives and truncated lives of undeserved suffering in the same open ground, I am always jarred to recite these traditional words: The Rock, whose work is perfect. The only people who want to believe that it is God’s will that their loved one died are those who refuse to believe that it is God’s will that they suffered beforehand.
And, too, generations of devoted Jews before me have recited this hymn at the grave. I remain enough of a traditionalist not to cast aside the custom of our forbearers out of my own discomfort. Plus, truth be told, I count on people either not entirely understanding what I said or being caught up in their bereavement at that moment rather than looking to enter a theological disputation.
And maybe I can justify it by saying death’s inevitability is part of the divine plan and therefore it is death itself which seems to us to be God’s will, not so much this particular death. Maybe.
Yet if, at this most irreversible of moments, we really dare not claim to know God’s will, then how much the more so when the facts are not in. Sexual orientation? The age of the universe? Competing claims to parcels of land? Gender roles? Infertility? Disability? To assign these circumstances to God’s will is to close off the possibility of human understanding. To reduce the answer to any question to “it’s God’s will” is to delegitimize the question itself.
What separates me from the non-believer, the disbeliever or the atheist? Quite simply, I do not deny that there is such a thing as God’s will. I have merely arrived at the conclusion that I don’t know it. And neither do you.
Ironically, this little bit of humility is tremendously liberating. It means that the best I can do is my best, not some bar set by others that I must clear. Billions of my sisters and brothers have struggled to know what is unknowable, and in solidarity with them, I struggle as well.
But anyone who looks you in the eye and says he or she knows God’s will is just plain wrong. It is the Rock whose work is perfect. Not me, not you, not them.
The challenges of wartime are not just military. If a country is to succeed in its mission, the citizenry must be mobilized in support. As hokey as it may sound, that includes the willingness of entertainers to build the morale of the troops on the battlefront. The careers of performers from Bob Hope to Jon Stewart have included extensive tours of the front lines. Certain kinds of exhibitionism – pin-ups, stage strutting and suggestive repartee – were excused in front of the troops in a way that would never be tolerated for family entertainment. And the movies celebrated their own with films like “White Christmas” and “For the Boys.”
One of the performers who risked her safety to entertain the troops was Jane Froman, a very popular singer of the 1930s-1950s. She barely survived a plane crash in Portugal while on a USO tour in 1943, but she came through multiple surgeries and continued to perform in spite of disabling injury and pain. The story of her life was made into a movie called “With a Song in My Heart.” Rodgers and Hart wrote the music and lyrics, including the title song. It is a lush celebration of the love that wells up within when “I behold your adorable face,” “I’m touching your hand” and “at the sound of your voice.”
I have a point, I promise.
The last thing Moses does before he climbs to the top of Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land and then die is to recite a song. The word for song in Hebrew – shira – is also the word for poem, so I cannot tell you whether Moses declaimed or sang this set of words. But God gave him the instruction to teach the Israelites the song (Deuteronomy 31:19), to “put it in their mouths.” In other words, make them memorize it.
The purpose is ingenious. There will come a time, says God, when the people will forget their commitments and turn away from God. But if they have memorized this song (which, no surprise, is about God’s faithfulness and Israel’s lack thereof), then it will serve as a corrective and they will be able to return to the right path.
The men and women who defend our country have no such song in their mouths to recite, and the entertainers who travel to distant shores to perform for them are not singing Rodgers and Hart ballads to remind them of the love that sustains them. But that’s not to say they don’t need something to keep them grounded. In fact, that’s not to say that those of us who have not invested part or all of our lives in military service don’t need something to keep us grounded.
That song needs to be both inspirational and comprehensible. We have a national anthem that is some of the former and little of the latter. As Albert Brooks said a generation ago, you never hear anyone walking down the street and signing “The Star Spangled Banner” to themselves. Without a renewed song in our hearts and mouths, the inspiring words that form our national foundation will become nonsense syllables – “e plebneesta” -- that let our warriors and our citizens slide into meaningless conflict. *
Here is what I am hoping. There are few opportunities after November 8 for the lame-duck President of the United States to address the people. But I hope he does it. Our defenders need to be inspired. The citizens who are rushing to separate corners need to come together. We need a song to be put in our mouths and one to reside in our hearts.
I know some of you don’t like this guy. I know some of you think he can do no wrong. But here is what is true about President Barack Obama: he has served honorably and without a whiff of personal scandal, unless you count the cigarettes he had to sneak while he was trying to quit. And he, like Moses, knows how to sing a swan song.
*”The Omega Glory,” Star Trek 2:23