Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's It All About ?

Many many years ago, probably before most of the readers of the blog were born, there was a popular movie of the 60's called "Alfie". The movie told the story of an aimless young man who goes about flitting from one woman to another, with little care and no committment.He lives life from one moment to the next, with no purpose nor direction save to follow his pleasures. He is not a bad sort of person. In fact he is very nice. He just seems to see the world as a place to get his needs met and pursue desires as they become available. There was a song by the same name as the movie which was equally popular in its day. The opening lyrics went "What's it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live...and are we meant to take more than we give?"

This week we read the parsha of Noach which predictably tells the story of the deluge and G-d's destruction of His world. After, the world begins again with Noach and his children, a new start with new hope. Why did G-d need to bring His first effort to a close? The Torah is clear that the people and the world they inhabitted became corrupt. The Talmudic sages taught us that people were steeped in idolatry, promiscuity and theivery. The implication is that humanity as a whole was invested in a life of sin. The deluge was then a punishment to a wayward civilization and a condemnation of their lifestyle.

The problem with that approach is how can the generation of the flood be taken to task and punished when they were never given commandmants regarding acceptable behavior?
The Noachide Laws, the seven commandments given to non-Jews to observe, including the prohibition of idolatry, thievery and sexual promiscuity, was given to the descendants of Noach, and not prior generations. How then could Noach's generation, while admittedly guilty of extreme moral lapses be punished without first being commanded and warned of the consequences of the partiucular sins ?

The Torah tells us that G-d informed Noach of the impending devestation. He did so in the following words " ....the end of all flesh has come before me, because the world is full of violence, therefore I will destroy them and all the land". Nowhere does G-d say that the flood was to be a punishment. Rather G-d said "the end of all flesh has come before me". The implication here is that the world reached its own end. Moreover the word used by the Torah over and over in these verses is in Hebrew "hashchata" or corruption. Earlier it said "G-d saw the land and behold is was 'nishchata' corrupt". G-d does not say here the world was evil, though it was. Its condemnations was because it was corrupt. By corrupt we mean to say that its purposes were compromised. It could not become what it was meant to be.

The upshot of all we have been pointing out is that indeed the world of Noach was not destroyed as a punishment for sin. It was not really destroyed. Rather the purpose of life is growth and becoming. When that no longer became possible because of the wayward behaviors of humanity the end of the world was inevitable. The world's corruption brought about its termination. It could not exist devoid of its 'tachlis', purpose. G-d needed to be 'mashchit', meaning perform an act of corruption to rectify the corrupted, inorder to restore the possibility of a world where growth and spiritual becoming is possible.

Every person, according to our sages, is a miniature world. The message here for us is compelling. We, like the world itself, exist inorder to grow and become. Stagnation occurrs in life. We all go through periods where we get stuck. But our overall ambition needs to be centered on growing and becoming. Else we have no claim to exist in this world. Its not enough to be good. We must be forever striving to be better. Its not enough to be without sin. We need to be driven to become holy.
Unless we are working on ourselves and all the time our life has no purpose. Just as Noach's world, when it lost its purpose lost its claim on existence, our life too needs its purpose to continue. And the purpose of our life and indeed the world as a whole is spiritual growth and becoming.

Any person who says "I have reached a place in life where I am satisfied with myself", or who lives with that attitude whether they actually say it or not, no matter how good they are, puts their existance in jeopardy. Its not that they are bad. On the contrary, they may have a great place instore for themselves in the world to come. But if you've stopped growing and becoming you can't claim a ticket to a seat in this world. The ride for you is over.

"What's it all about Alfie, or Yankey or Sruley or Rachel or whomever? It is about becoming and growing. Each day, each experience, each encounter offers us a chance to grow. All we need is to be open and meet the moment mindful of our agenda.
The new year has begun. Lets get to it!

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 17, 2011

Between Men and Women

This Shabbat we begin the Torah anew and with it we tell the story of the first couple and their early days on this planet. Even then men and women had their struggles. We read of the forbidden fruit and that Chava, the first woman, ate and then gave her husband, Adam to eat in defiance of G-d's command. When G-d challenges them to explain their sinful behavior, Adam immediately blames Chava saying "the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me of the fruit and I ate". Even then male-female relationships were complex, oscillating between love and hate, acceptance and disdain. And why not, in creating Chava G-d said "I will make for him an 'ezer knegdo', a helpmate opposite him." Yes men and women help each other. And yes, they are in many ways opposites. It is only in knowing both, that our spouse is indeed our partner, and that s/he is very much unlike us, that their can be any hope for a good union.

Lets explore this fascinating story of the sin of the forbidden fruit a bit further to see just how different male and female can be. When the serpent tries to entice Chava to eat the fruit,Chava tells him that the fruit is forbidden. She says to him, "Even though G-d told us that we may eat the fruit of all the trees of the garden, He forbade us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or even to touch it". The Sages of the Talmud point out that Chava added a restriction G-d never spoke. She added a prohibition to touch the tree. Nowhere do we find G-d forbade touching the tree. That added restriction, the rabbis point out, served to cause her downfall. The serpent seized the moment and pushed her into the tree. She saw that nothing happened as a consequence. She then concluded, if touching engendered no harm why should eating, since both were equally forbidden. The Sages discern from here that " all who add (meaning they embellish a prohibition) only serve in actuality to lesson its impact.

The question that leaps out at us is how is it that Chava added what G-d did not say? And if she did of her own, then how could she be deceived into believing that touching should have the same consequence as eating?

Many a commentary points out that Chava never heard directly from G-d the prohibition of eating from the fruit of the tree. She got her information from Adam.
It may well be that in telling her of G-d's rule he added the injunction, that G-d forbade touch as well. He did not trust his wife not to sin. He thought if he added a safeguard, prohibiting touch, it would serve to protect her from the real sin of eating from the tree.

Men and women often struggle to trust each other. They note the differences between themselves and their partner in temperament, personality, and life priorities. In not trusting its not uncommon for one to take added precaution with the other, to share truths in a less open way, for fear real honesty will cause a problem. Husbands and wives often hold back from each other or embellish to minimize what they fear will be the other's reaction or follow-up behavior.
From the story of Adam and Chava the Sages warned us, "Sometimes adding can turn out to be be subtracting". Though different than us, we need to risk in trusting our partner. There is no other option!

But there is more here than that. One great Bible commentary argues that Chava, in only hearing G-d's command from Adam, misinterpreted what G-d was actually saying.
She thought the ban on eating from the tree was not because of the impact eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would have on them. Oh no, she thought the basis for the mitzvah not to eat of the tree was to protect the tree! Thinking that the prohibition was given to protect the tree, it was perfectly logical for her to infer that touching could be as consequential to the tree as eating the fruit. After-all it was not eating the fruit that mattered. To protect the tree, meant not taking from it. Touching then should have a similar deleterious consequence. And hence when the serpent pushed her into the tree and nothing bad happened to the tree she figured it was all okay.

Adam and Chava heard the same charge. Yet each heard in it something different. Adam heard in it a call to protect himself from eating that which G-d deemed detrimental to him. Chava heard a call to care for others, in this case the tree. Women and men hear things differently, even when the same words are used. Carl Jung wrote of masculine and feminine energy and how different they are. Masculine energy, typically dominant in men, is more linear, rational, valuing form, and practical, more focused on 'truth', and the right. Feminine energy, more often dominant in women is more metaphorical, spiritual, non-linear, relational, about persons rather than objective truth. It prioritizes peace and harmony over doing the right!

In marriages we see these differences between men and women all the time. Often they struggle to understand each other. A woman lives closer to her feelings. Whats true for her might seem factually incorrect to her husband. He might become angry at what he perceives as her failures. Yet the woman's priorities may be totally different and through those priorities she both sees the world and fixes her behaviors. In the context of her life's priorities and values she is not a failure at all and she resents her husbands insensitivities to what she perceives as her response to her call and life's work.

It is not surprising that marriage is a work and to have a successful marriages men and women need to understand that they are substantially different. They need to stop expecting the other to behave and think like themselves. Most importantly they need to cease being disparaging of the other's priorities or condescending. Adam and Chava in the Garden could easily do teshuva and repair their relationship with G-d.
It would take more to heal the tension between the genders and their respective ways of thinking, doing, and prioritizing. Those struggles, long after our banishment from Gan Eden, we continue to carry.

The beginning of the Torah and the beginning of the year impels us to make the work of understanding gender differences and showing respect for attitudes and behaviors other than our own a priority in our lives. If not we, like Adam early in the Garden, will remain alone.

Shabbat Shalom