Saturday, October 24, 2009

Parshas Noah - On the Borders of Good and Evil

In Parshas Bereishis, man begins by mixing good and evil in Gan Eden. By Parshas Noah, he has already sunk so low that the entire earth is no longer mixed, but almost entirely evil aside from Noah himself. What is evil? What does it mean to do evil?

Morality consists of boundaries, areas where we may go and where we may not good. Good is defined by staying within Godly boundaries. Evil is defined by crossing those boundaries and destroying them. Chaos and order. Good and evil. The Godly and the ungodly. These are the parameters of creation.

When God created the universe ex-nihilo, order was formed out of chaos through a series of divisions. When mankind sank into hopeless and irredeemable evil, those boundaries began to fray, and were finally collapsed completely.

Each boundary had been erected for the purpose of man and life on earth.

First the light was divided into day and night. Then the sky was divided into atmosphere and ocean. And then the ocean itself was divided to make room for dry land, where man and animals could live. The stars were created to govern the seasons and the passage of time. With the flood each of those boundaries was removed. Night and day ceased to function. The heavens poured down on the earth. The dry land was swallowed by the ocean. Seasons ceased to be.

As man tore down Godly boundaries, so too God tore down the boundaries he had erected for the benefit of man. And only the Godly boundaries that Noah and his family kept on the Ark saved them from becoming destroyed along with all other life. Only by keeping the Godly boundaries does humanity enable the maintenance a world where dry land is not flooded by the ocean, where the sky and ocean are divided, and night and day, and the seasons make life livable.

Just as the Sabbath is a boundary for the human week, so too does every commandment serve as a boundary for our thoughts and our actions. The commandments represent the way of God, and they are no different than the commandments imposed on the sea and the sky, the stars and all the world around. But the only difference is in us, that we can choose to keep them or not, and thereby face the consequences.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Parshas Bereshis - The Sacrifice of the Shabbat

The Torah begins with G-d creating the world. Day by day we are told what is created, and then on the seventh day after having created everything from all the stars in the universe to the tiniest bugs and finally man, G-d rests. But why does G-d rest? Is he a man that he becomes tired and needs to take a day off?

The Lord does not weary and falter. And the Sabbath is more than a day defined by negative, by the absence of work. The Sabbath is not merely the absence of work. It is the completion of work. All too often we tend to think of the Sabbath in terms of what we can't do, but that is not what the Sabbath is. The Sabbath is the culmination of a properly spent week. For six days G-d had brought material life into existence. On the seventh and final day he declared a rest from the material in favor of the spiritual.

The first week though marks the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden, and the end of the first welfare state. And two curses are attached to that expulsion in measure to the sins that caused it.

Adam who sinned by disobeying G-d's command not to eat from the tree, is punished by having to work a cursed earth. He took from an agricultural product that he was not permitted to take, and in turn he is forced to work and sweat to produce agricultural products himself. He sinned by disobeying a negative commandment from G-d, and the earth refuses to obey his efforts to bring forth food from it. As Adam disobeyed G-d, the earth which he was once meant to rule, no longer obeys him.

Chava who sinned not by eating from the tree, a commandment that she was never given directly, but by causing Adam to eat from the tree in disobedience to G-d, committed a sin not against G-d, but against her fellow human being. As such her punishment was tied to her relations with other human beings, namely her husband and her children. Because she harmed others, she in turn would suffer through them.

But there is no curse that is an addition to what is, but rather is a subtraction from what was. In the Garden of Eden, Adam did not have to work and Chava bore children easily, and both of them lived with no threat or difficulties, because of how G-d had uplifted them. Their curses simply removed those benefits that they had formerly enjoyed, and forced them to live on a lower level without their former level of divine blessing.

Similarly the flood that drowned the world was the cause of G-d removing the Dai (enough), the barriers that He had erected when bringing forth the earth that prevented the water from flooding the land. When mankind itself showed no ability to say Dai, to say enough and control its appetites, the water in turn was unable to say enough, and flooded the land. 

After Adam and Chava's expulsion, it fell to their descendants to try and undo the curses by raising themselves up to a higher level of closeness with G-d.

Kayin and Hevel both worked, and brought portions of their labors as a sacrifice to G-d. The purpose of sacrifice is to pay tribute to G-d, to recognize that our labors are a product of His labor, that all we have is a gift from Him, and that all our labors must be with the knowledge that we are serving Him.

Kayin and Hevel however were very different men and brought very different sacrifices. Kayin worked the cursed earth and he brought from among his harvest, not the best or the worst, but the average. In essence then Kayin was saying that G-d was a partner, but not a superior. This was foreshadowed by his name because when Chava bore Kayin, she claimed Kaniti Ish Et Elohim, I partnered with G-d to create a man.

Hevel by contrast offered to G-d the best that he had, therefore recognizing that G-d was his superior. Therefore G-d took from Hevel's offering, but not from Kayin's, because only Hevel was attempting to ascend to G-d, while Kayin presumed that he was on the same level as G-d. This was the same fallacy that had caused Adam and Chava to eat of the Eitz Hadaat in order to become equal to G-d. It was the same fallacy that would drive the Tower of Bavel.

Through sacrifice, man demonstrates that is dedicating a portion of what he has gained to G-d as a form of perfecting all of it. Thus the wheat we harvest is inedible until we set aside a portion for the Kohen who is the servant of G-d. Similarly Israel finds itself expelled from the land for failing to keep the Shemita cycle, losing all the harvests over the failure to maintain the Sabbaths of the land.

Many people misperceive sacrifice as being about atoning for sin. In fact the primary role of sacrifice is to draw men closer to G-d by demonstrating that He is present in all that we do. Sacrifice in the Torah primarily involves animals and agricultural products, because they mainly concerned a time when Jews were herders and farmers. As slaves in Egypt, the Jews brought no sacrifices of animals until they were freed and they had property again that was all their own. In exile and cut off from their land, the Jews too brought no sacrifices of animals or grain. But animals and agricultural products are not the only kind of sacrifice there is.  

In the wake of the exile from the Second Temple, the fruit of the lips, prayers are one universal form of sacrifice, in which we set aside a portion of our time and thoughts to dedicate to G-d. And while most of us are no longer ranchers or farmers, we bring what we have as sacrifices to G-d. So businessmen set aside some of their profits for charity, scholars set aside some of their time for learning the Torah of Hashem, and so on and so forth.

But another and the first universal form of sacrifice is the Sabbath. For six days we work, and the seventh is set aside as a sacrifice to G-d. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban, drawing close. We draw close to G-d through the Sabbath, a day when we rest from material things in favor of spiritual things, to mark the original Sabbath when G-d perfected the creation he had just made with its culmination in the Sabbath.

There is a Midrash that says, all days of the week each had a mate, a parallel day in which its creation was completed, for on the first day light was created and on the fourth day, the sun, stars and moon came into being to project and reflect that light.

On the second day, the waters were divided between the oceans and the sky, and on the fifth day, the seas and skies were filled with birds and fish. On the third day, dry land came into being as did all forms of vegetation. And on the sixth day, animals and man were created to live on the land.

The Sabbath though lacked a paired day which could fulfill it. That was the role of man. To do more than merely live on the land as the animals did, but to transcend the material as the Sabbath transcended the six days of material creation.

The Sabbath, like the sacrifices of animals and grain, or the Torah studied, charity given and good deeds done, is not about what we lose materially, but what we gain spiritually. Kayin stuck in the cursed earth could only see the material side of it and was unable to draw closer to G-d. Instead he allowed his animal instincts to rule him and became the world's first murderer. And then was forced to go from farmer to nomad, building cities he could never live in for long.

And the sacrifices of Kayin and Hevel are the last sacrifices mentioned in the Torah, until Noah returns to an empty world after the flood. Noah whose name expressed the hope that he would bring Manoah rest from the hard work of tending the cursed earth. But the rest that Noah brings is not the kind of rest they had in mind, for the world has become corrupt and Noah lacks the qualities needed to arrest that corruption.

Noah is described as a perfect man for his generation and he is, because he is obedient to G-d. However his influence does not extend beyond himself, not even to his own family. Noah is in isolation a perfect specimen, but he contributes nothing to others. This enables him to lift the curse of Adam, the curse of the earth, that came about because of disobedience to G-d. But the world is unworthy of benefiting from it, because it remains corrupt, and Noah does not influence them to change.

The rest that Noah brings is cataclysmic as the world is purged of all life besides Noah and his family and the animals he has brought along. In the wake of that tremendous global exile, Noah has the chance to begin anew, as the world has had a Sabbath of 40 days through the flood.

Noah's name has a meaning similar to Shabbat, both involve rest. And Noah was saved because he embodied the virtue of the Sabbath in its focus on the divine. But his descendants once again descend into making a corrupt world because while his service to G-d is intact enabling him to undo the curse of Adam,  he lacks the ability to undo the curse of Chava by influencing others to do good, instead of evil.

It is only Avraham, an even number of generations later, who tackles the curse of Chava. As Noah's name referred to his service to G-d, Avraham's name refers to his influence on man, as the father of nations. And Avraham does what Noah could not do by influencing his fellow men to find G-d. Just as Sara's name refers to her parallel role as princess of nations.

As a result, Avraham shows the ability to nullify Chava's curse, when Sarah impossibly gives birth at an advanced age. So too in the next two generations, Yitzchak and Yaakov show the same ability, when Rivka and Rachel give birth, despite being seemingly barren.

Avraham's uniqueness lies in his ability to undo both the curse of Adam through his service to G-d and the curse of Chava through his influence on his fellow man. Adam's curse lay in his disobedience to G-d, which Avraham nullifies through a series of tests, beginning with his recognition of G-d to his sacrifice of his son. Avraham's sacrifices show his willingness to obey G-d and to live under His will.

Chava's curse lay in her causing others to sin, which is far graver matter, because a Hoteh Umahateh et HaRabim, causes sinfulness transcending their own private error. While sacrifices can atone for sins between man and G-d, by man coming closer to G-d, one cannot atone for sins against one's fellow man through sacrifice. This is why Chava's curse remained unaddressed until Avraham and Sarah atoned for it by reaching out to others to teach them to do good and not evil.

By doing so, Avraham transcended Noah by not merely observing the Sabbath, but creating a "mate" for the Sabbath in the form of people who could transcend the material to actually see the role of G-d in the world. Noah was unable to arrest the world's spiraling evil, because while he served G-d personally, he could not brings others to do so collectively. And so human evil which began in the Garden continued to spiral out of control. Avraham brought the first sign of hope that human evil could be checked and even reversed. Thus he became worthy to found G-d's nation.