Why Is Creation Messy?

Image: Watercolor in bright colors, very messy. Artist: Prawny at Pixabay.

I received a wonderful question yesterday from Channah Yael and her Chavrusot, and thought that today would be a very appropriate day to answer it:

Why did Hashem create life to be messy?
G-d could have done it any way. Why this way?
What purpose does messiness have in our lives
and in the great plan of Creation?

The world is indeed messy. It is deeply distressing sometimes to see how messy it is. This morning I read an article in the Wall Street Journal,  The Children of the Opioid Crisis, about children who grow up with a single parent addicted to opioid drugs. My heart ached as I read about little ones who are traumatized by what they have seen and heard. Even the more fortunate among them – those who have relatives who can step in and care for them – suffer dreadful after effects of physical hunger and neglect.  I want to howl to heaven, Eicha?! – How?! – How can the Holy One allow such suffering of innocents?

So I look to the Torah and our tradition for answers. One answer is that the Holy One created us b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

God said, “Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:26.

Then, curiously, this is reinforced by repetition in the next verse:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God created God them; male and female created them. – Genesis 1:27

So the Holy One created each of us, male and female, with the ability – and perhaps the responsibility – to “rule” our fellow creatures. One aspect of this is our intelligence. Another aspect of it is our ability to make choices. We have free will: the ability to choose between two or more possibilities. This concept is so important that the Torah repeats it immediately: we are made in the image of God, all of us; we have certain godlike aspects.

That was at Creation. The Torah does not immediately make clear what God hoped to see after giving humanity this property, but it does go on with the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, followed at length by other choices human beings made, many of them destructive choices.

Eventually, the Holy One gave Torah to us, to inform our choices. (e.g. “Choose life!” – Deuteronomy 30:19) We are still free to make choices. Sometimes we choose what we think is best, only to discover that it did not lead where we hoped. Sometimes we are selfish in our choices, and choose what we want because we want it. Sometimes we are not sure what to do, and make no decision, and that, too, is a choice.

There are other parts of creation that do not have choices, and those are messy too. The laws of nature are immutable, and sometimes result in pain and sorrow: I drop a can of soup, and smash my foot. The soup can and the planet Earth obey the law of gravity. My foot, which got in between them, absorbs the force with predictable results. Even the orderly parts of creation can be messy when they collide!

Our godlike power to make choices makes creation messy. The fixed laws of nature make things messy, too.

I suppose that the great Oneness we call God could have existed alone in splendor, its ruach Elohim [spirit/wind of God] blowing over the tohu v’vohu [chaos]. However, God chose (there’s that word again!) to separate light from darkness and create the world we know. God chose a messy world.

One of the quirks of the literary style of Torah is that it seldom tells us much about motivation. We are left to draw our own conclusions about them most of the time. So here are my conclusions:

I think it is safe to conclude that God did not want a doll house. God did not create a static world in which nothing bad ever happens. The closest thing to that is Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and even there, the messiness was baked in: human beings had free will.

What I learn from this is that messiness itself is holy, created by God. This messiness inherent to the world is often a puzzle for us to solve. We have been given intellects and hearts to use in solving these puzzles.

Back to those poor children in the Wall Street Journal article: they are innocents who are suffering from the addiction of their parents. Perhaps the parents made bad choices. Perhaps they didn’t: they got hooked on drugs that they had previously needed for an injury. Either way, parents suffer, children suffer, the grandparents who take them in suffer, and society suffers in many different ways. It is up to me, as an observant Jew, to ask what I can do to alleviate the suffering, all the while understanding that I cannot “fix” some things about it. I can only embrace the suffering human beings, acknowledge their suffering, and do what little I can about for them.

Even for the person on the street, someone who may be an addict, whose story I do not know, there are things I can do. I can acknowledge their humanity by treating them as human beings. I can, if I choose (!) give them choices in the form of money: money they may choose to spend well or poorly. I cannot save them. What I can do is recognize what we have in common: we are human, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, and sometimes we suffer.

I believe that it is when I personally make the choice to embrace those suffering people, despite the discomfort that makes them seem alien to me, that I can approach the holiness God hopes for me. And when we do it corporately, as Am Yisrael, we fulfill our destiny as a people.

I want to howl “Eicha!?” to the God who made the world this way. Ultimately I do not and cannot understand. But in the moment, I have choices. I have things to do.

 

 

 

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“And Yitro heard” – Midrash

Image: Postage Stamp, Israel, 1060: The Tomb of Yitro, WikimediaIsraeli postage stamp catalog, Catalog Number: 219

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1

This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love.  One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ

And Yitro heard

The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it?  The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:

Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!

Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!

Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?

Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!)  – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!

The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.

The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.

Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.

For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.

It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.

I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.

What Will Sustain Us?

Jewish history is long and it is full of ups and downs. Our individual lifespans are very short. We can take both good news and bad too much to heart, not seeing the long view.

There is a story about a man who found a horse. His neighbors said, “Oh, what good luck!” but the wise man shrugged. His son rode the horse, and fell off and broke his leg. His neighbors said, “Oh, what bad luck!” but the wise man just shrugged. The army came through town, drafting all the young men, but they didn’t want the young man with the broken leg, and the neighbors said…. you get the point. What looks to be bad luck may be good, and what looks to be good luck may not be so great in the long run. Over the very long run, who knows?

Given that we cannot really tell what is good luck and what is bad luck much of the time, how can we make judgements?

Jewish tradition teaches us that what matters is how we conduct ourselves, no matter what the situation. Torah is often translated “Law” but what it really means is “Teaching.” Studying Torah is how we learn how to behave.

We need Torah when times are good because it is easy to fall into bad habits when times are easy. We need Torah when times are bad, because it is hard to be a good person when goodness is punished, and hard to behave rightly when people are hateful to us.

We are living in challenging times on many levels:

The State of Israel is facing decisions about its future: will it recognize all Jews, or only one interpretation of Judaism? How will it deal with women, and with religious minorities? How will it address the situation with the Palestinians? Will there be one State of Israel, or a Jewish state and a Palestinian state?

American Jews also face challenges. How will we behave when many Americans are hostile to minorities and immigrants? How will we behave under a government whose values are different from ours? How will we behave as Jews, towards other Jews who have different values?

In all these cases, Torah – not just the scroll itself, but the broader body of its learning and interpretation – Torah can sustain us as we navigate these challenges. The study of Torah is a great mitzvah, a sacred obligation, because it leads to all other mitzvot. (Kiddushin 40b)

As we say in the service for reading the Torah:

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it. – Mishkan T’filah, p 374.

Absence or Presence?

Image: Corncob with kernels and empty spaces. Photo by MarcPascual/Pixabay.

Is Judaism an absence or a presence in your life?

For some people who grow up Jewish, Judaism is mostly about what Jews don’t do:

  • Don’t turn on the TV on Shabbes
  • Don’t date non-Jewish boys
  • Don’t eat pork or shellfish
  • Don’t have a Christmas tree
  • Don’t sing Christmas carols
  • Don’t celebrate Easter
  • Don’t go in a church, ever, even to a friend’s wedding
  • Don’t, don’t, don’t

It all adds up to “we are different, and not in a happy way.”

Many of us feel a need for connection to a tradition, something larger and older than ourselves. The obvious choice is the tradition of our youth, but when that was all “don’t’s,” or when it was used to make us feel bad about ourselves, it can take a lot of courage to explore it anew.

Judaism is more than “don’t’s.” It is an ancient tradition offering meaning and joy as well as connection to other Jews. It connects us to Jews in the present, but also to those of the past and those yet to come. Jews today “tend the flame” for Jews in the future.

Judaism offers us:

  • The joy of Shabbat, every week.
  • A year rich with holidays that speak to every human emotion
  • A winter festival of light
  • A spring festival of new life and hope
  • A summer festival of wisdom and plenty
  • A fall renewal of the spirit
  • Freedom to ask questions
  • Ethics without dogma
  • A framework for making sense of the world.

If you grew up feeling that Judaism was about deprivation and “don’t’s,” I hope that you will find the courage to ask questions and look deeper. There are many ways to be Jewish, and if the one you learned as a child was unsatisfying, know that it isn’t the only way.

 

 

Judaism and Pregnancy

Image: A pregnant woman by the sea. Photo by pexels/pixabay.

When I wrote about Hasidah and Jewish infertility support recently, I realized I’d never written about Jewish pregnancy. There are a few Jewish customs which may seem odd to those outside our community.

A few things to know:

What to say: Do not say “mazal tov” or “congratulations” until the baby is safely born! Instead say, “B’sha’ah tovah” (b-shah-AH toe-VAH) to the parents until that time. It means, “In a good hour” which means, “May everything go well.” You can also say, “Wonderful! I’m happy for you.”

About gifts: Many Jewish families do not collect things for the baby in the home of the parents-to-be. While some will tell you this is about “tempting the evil eye” or some such, it has practical implications as well, since there are no guarantees about pregnancy. Ask what the family is doing about gifts, and follow their lead.

About the name: It is an old Jewish tradition to keep the name of an infant private until the bris or naming (usually at eight days.) If they seem coy about telling you the names they’ve picked out, it’s because they are observing that custom.

Good books about Judaism and new babies:

Anita Diamant, The New Jewish Baby Book also How to Raise a Jewish Child

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November MSSW, Jewish Spiritual Parenting

A Mensch in Election Season

Image: “2016 Election,” flag background. Art by MIH83 on pixabay.com.

In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch. – Pirkei Avot 2:5

A mensch is a decent human being, someone with integrity and a heart. The Hebrew in this ancient saying translates as “man,” but I find that mensch is a better translation. The general idea is, when everyone else is misbehaving, be a decent person.

I’ve written little about the current U.S. election on this blog. My topic here is “Basic Judaism” and I mostly try to stick to it. I certainly have opinions about the election, which I look forward to expressing on the mail-in ballot resting on my table as I type this. However, there are things that I feel I must say:

Hateful language is wrong, no matter how correct we believe our opinion to be. Hateful language takes many forms. Any time we choose to see another human being as less human than ourselves, we stray into the territory of hate. If we vocalize that belief, it’s hate speech.

It’s fine to disagree; Jewish tradition has long supported the idea that it is in disagreement that we often can find our way toward the truth. The sages spoke of “an argument for the sake of heaven” – one like that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who argued in the academy but who respected one another in the street and in their homes. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to “crush” the other but to find a way towards a future that will serve all of us.

“They started it” is not a good excuse on a playground. It doesn’t wash for adults. “They are just as bad” isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out.

How can we be menschen?  Here are some ideas:

  1. We can listen more than we speak.
  2. When the discussion falls below our standards, we can raise it up by asking questions that focus on values: “Why is this so important to you?”
  3. We can seek common ground: what do we share?
  4. We can vote for candidates who have behaved like menschen, in our opinion.
  5. We can refrain from spiteful language and behavior.
  6. We can be very careful about the stories we pass along via speech and social media: what’s the source? Does this really need to be passed along?
  7. We can be supportive of others who are trying to be constructive, even if we don’t agree with them about everything.
  8. If we hear someone else indulging in hate speech, we can challenge it effectively.

This has been a strange, horrible election cycle. As individuals, it is tempting to despair.

At times like these I look to the wisdom of the rabbis, and this quote from Shammai comes to mind:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant face.” – Pirkei Avot 1:15

  • Make your Torah fixed – Don’t lose your grip on Torah!
  • say little and do much – Listen more, speak less. Do good deeds. VOTE!
  • Receive every person with a pleasant face – Give everyone a chance to be a mensch, too.

May we survive this season, and move into better times as soon as possible!

6 ways to become an informed voter

If you haven’t discovered Rabbi Rosove’s blog yet, I recommend it highly. I also recommend passing this particular column around to friends who may or may not know how to get ready for an election.

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

My son, Daniel, has written a blog on behalf of “MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger” that he calls “6 ways to become an informed voter.”

Though the election campaign has not focused on the issue of hunger insecurity in America, it is a significant issue affecting millions of Americans, nevertheless.

Daniel (who handles all grants and grantees for MAZON) has written an important piece that I recommend you read. You can find it here:

  http://mazon.org/inside-mazon/6-ways-to-become-an-informed-voter

In his blog, among other things, he notes:

The freedom to vote is a fundamental political right. Elections and voting matter. The American Jewish community has always been civically involved. In the 2012 U.S. election, Jewish voter registration rates topped roughly 90%, compared to 74% in the general public. Our community also has unique power based on where we live. While the American Jewish population only makes up 2% of the general…

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