The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur Midrash

There's a midrash (I'm probably going to butcher this) that says that human beings are holy, but the Jewish people are singled out for a special kind of holiness (not exclusively; more like they are a particular lens for examining the concept of holiness). All Jews are holy, but the Kohanim (priesthood) are singled out for a special kind of holiness. All Kohanim are holy, but the Kohen HaGadol (High Priest) is singled out for a special kind of holiness.

All days are holy, but Shabbats and Yamim Tovim (holy days) are singled out for a special kind of holiness. All Shabbats and Yamim Tovim are holy, but the Days of Awe are singled out for a special kind of holiness. All of the Days of Awe are holy, but Yom Kippur is singled out for a special kind of holiness.

Everywhere in the world is holy, but Israel is singled out for a special kind of holiness. All of Israel is holy, but Jerusalem is singled out for a special kind of holiness. All of Jerusalem is holy, but the Temple, and especially the Kodesh HaKadoshim (Holy of Holies) is singled out for a special kind of holiness.

So when the High Priest utters the Sacred Name of God in the Holy of Holies of the Temple on Yom Kippur, this is a moment where holiness is the most focused. The power of that utterance is such that the holiness exceeds the boundaries of space, time, and personhood. Through that event, all Kohanim are made holy, and all Jews are made holy, and all human beings are made holy. Through that event, all the Days of Awe are made holy, and all Shabbats and Yamim Tovim are made holy, and all days are made holy. Through that event, Jerusalem is made holy, and Israel is made holy, and all the world is made holy.

So through the power of HaShem (a Jewish name for God; literally, The Name) each human being is made holy at the time and place that the person currently inhabits. I submit this midrash without fully endorsing it, but I think it gives a mental exercise in how to understand the holiness that pervades the universe of time, space and consciousness, that lenses in on particulars without losing sight of the general condition.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ha'azinu: As An Eagle Stirreth Up Her Nest

This Torah portion consists of the Song of Moses and a brief epilogue in which Moses is commanded to go to the place where he will die.

The song, as you will recall from last week, is designed to be a testament. The Israelites are commanded to memorize it so that when they turn astray and are conquered and exiled, they cannot accuse God of having abandoned them. The song is meant to be evidence that God warned them that they were going astray. Moses tells the Children of Israel to teach the song to their children and have everyone sing the song so that it becomes a pervasive theme for them in the Promised Land.

In the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, we sing Pleyel's Hymn during the MM degree. In a Royal Arch Chapter, there are a lot of songs, and in our history, Masonry has often used music lyrics to instruct candidates. The Psalms are usually sung in Jewish worship, and the Bible has a lot of songs in it. The Song of Moses is meant to be pedagogical and prophetic in nature, warning the Israelites not to go astray, while predicting that they will.

If you look at a Torah scroll, the Song of Moses is written in two columns, making a striking pattern in the text. You will recall that the Song of the Sea has a brick-like pattern when written in a Torah scroll. I have heard that Orthodox Jewish children are taught the Song of Moses as the first verses of scripture that they learn, and yet, I am unable to find a tune for these verses.

In the song, there is a couplet: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: So the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him." [Deuteronomy 32: 11-12].

The eagle as a symbol of God bears some explaining. While we regard the eagle as a bird of prey, swooping down and tearing prey to pieces, the Israelites noticed how tenderly the eagle takes care of her young, carefully tearing strips of meat for the eaglets to eat, and placing the nest safely in remote perches. Earlier in Exodus 19: 4, God tells Moses to tell the Children of Israel: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself."

The eagle appears in alchemy and haut-grade Masonry. Indeed, the double-headed Eagle of Lagash is the symbol of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. In alchemy, it is a symbol of whiteness, or the transmutation of base metals into fine metals. The eagle is also a symbol of the sign of Scopio, along with the fish and the scorpion. To describe the Deity as an eagle is very striking, but in context it is used to show the protective nature of the Deity, and the power to transport us to safety.

And yet, we can fail so badly that God will hid His face from us. The early Hasidic masters understood this to mean that not only would God hide His face from us, God would hide the hidden traces of His existence. We exist in a world where God is hidden. But a world where what is hidden about God is hidden from us is terrible, indeed. The Sufis understood that longing for God was a sacred emotion. In a world where the hidden face of God is hidden from us, there is the terrible peril that that longing might disappear, leaving nothingness in its wake.

" They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation." [Deuteronomy 32: 21]. In the Hebrew, there is a verbal wordplay between the non-God and the non-nation. When we worship something less than God, we become less than people.

The song ends by saying: "Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people." [Deuteronomy 32: 43]. This is a strange consolation. After verses of admonition, there is half a verse of mercy, and we are called upon to rejoice.

But the bitterness does not end there, for after Moses finishes the song, God calls him to Mount Nebo, to lay down his body and die. He tells Moses to look across the Jordan River at the Promised Land, but because he struck the rock at the Waters of Meribah, his punishment is to be that he never got to set foot in the Promised Land.

The Torah is nearly completed, and I will have more to say next week about the ending. I find it very strange that the narrative ends on such a bittersweet note, with the ungrateful Children of Israel getting a home while Moses is doomed to die alone in the clefts of the rocks.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Vayelech: This Song May Be A Witness

We are coming to the end of the Torah. Moses has been commanded by God to die. Moses finishes his oration by telling the people that they will pass the Jordan River and enter into the land, succeed in conquering the land under Joshua's leadership, and will find a place (מָּקוֹם in Hebrew) where the Temple will eventually be built. The zeal of the people will eventually slacken, and they will begin to worship other gods, and this will offend the Lord, who will expel them from the land and beset them with curses.

To guard against this, Moses has composed a song which every Hebrew child is to memorize (the lyrics will be in the next Torah portion, the penultimate one) that will remind them to stay faithful. Once the Israelites are exiled from the land and cursed, they will still remember the song, and know why they are being punished.

Moses emphasizes the importance of the Law. He writes the Law down in a Torah scroll and orders that, once the Temple is built, it should be read out loud in its entirety in public in front of the Temple every seven years during the start of the Sabbatical Year. The books of Chronicles and Kings record that this practice stopped happening somewhere along the way, and the corrupt kings of Israel and Judah ruled in ignorance of the Law. Second Chronicles tells us that during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah, the Temple was renovated, and in a secret place celebrated by Royal Arch Masons, found a scroll with the Law written on it. [2 Chronicles 24: 14-19]. Previous to which, it had been lost to the Children of Israel. Josiah dedicated the rest of his reign to enacting the laws found in the scroll.

Something similar happens after the return to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. After the Second Temple is built by Zerubbabel, the Scribe Ezra gathers the people and reads them the entire Torah. The whole nation wept in dismay for having forgotten the Torah. [Nehemiah 8: 9]. The efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah were devoted to keeping the laws of the Torah in the newly rebuilt kingdom.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nitzavim: the Word is Very Nigh Unto Thee

This Torah portion continues Moses' exhortation to the Children of Israel to seek the blessing and eschew the curse that comes with being in the Covenant. He warns them that everyone stands before God, not merely the leaders, but the men and women and children, even foreign laborers who chop wood and carry water. The rabbis have interpreted this mention of the foreign laborers as a reminder that no matter how badly off we are, there are some who are risking their lives to perform menial services for us, and they should be treated with the same dignity we hold for our leaders.

The Covenant is not merely for those who were there with Moses on that day, but for all of their descendants, leading up to the present time. There is an interpretation of this that says that each of us is there at that moment as well as being where we currently are. We are in suspension there, and that suspension informs us where we are now.

Interestingly, Moses predicts that the whole enterprise of occupying Canaan will fail, that the Children of Israel will be exiled after being conquered and subjugated by foreign armies, after significant moral collapse. He predicts that in exile, the Israelites will repent, and be allowed to return. In the Documentary Hypothesis, the Deuteronomist is writing during the time of the Babylonian exile, which gives these words a sense of hope rather than the defeatism that they would have if they were written in Moab on the West Bank of the Jordan, before the conquest of Canaan began.

Moses warns that, before the exile will be lifted, God will circumcise the foreskins of the hearts of the people who seek to return. The toughness around their hearts will be pared away, leaving a heart that is raw and tender. Only those with tender hearts can have the right attitude towards God and His commandments. Our society places a lot of value on being cool, but being emotionally aloof is a form of weakness. One has to have the heart open and raw and tender in order to perceive the emotional content in reality. Many rationalists are afraid of their emotions, mostly because they are afraid of being overpowered by their emotions. Moses is not advocating that our emotions overwhelm our reason, but that our experiences have non-negligible emotional content.

In Masonry, we say that the Compasses are a tool for circumscribing our desires and keeping our passions within due bounds. Every experienced Mason at least once has heard a WM flub his line and say "circumcising our desires", and it's usually good for a chuckle. But Moses is warning us that God will do precisely that. He will circumcise our hearts, the seat of our desires. Again, Masonry shows where this is going, and how to handle this the right way. We should not repress our desires, but merely to draw a circle and keep our desires within that circle, keeping our passions within due bounds. To the 18th century mind, passion was not a complimentary word. If you read the acid way in which George Washington talked about enthusiasm, you will see that these bursts of emotion made those in the Enlightenment Era very uncomfortable. And yet a person devoid of emotion is not human. By drawing boundaries, we allow for an emotional life that doesn't overwhelm our rational life.

The next passage is often quoted, but is more often completely forgotten:
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. [Deuteronomy 30: 11-14].
Everyone has access to the Torah. It is immediate. We carry it in our mouths and in our hearts. This is the Jewish version of "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." But it is a lesson that people continually fail to learn. No human can intercede with God on your behalf. There is no need to travel to a faraway country to find God. God is right here, right now.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ki Tavo: A Syrian Ready to Perish Was My Father

This Torah portion covers the first fruits of the harvest, the tithes owed, and a long litany of blessings and curses that come from obeying or disobeying the commandments spelled out in the Torah.

When the first fruits of the harvest arrive, the Israelite farmer is to take the first of each fruit, put them in a basket, and make a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem some time during the festival of Shavuot. The farmer is to tell the priest that he is affirming to God that he has come to into the Promised Land. The priest is to take the basket and place it before the altar at the Temple. The farmer is then to offer the following declaration:
A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. [Deuteronomy 26: 5-10].
This is an exercise in gratitude for good fortune. When we come into good fortune, we should be grateful to God for blessing us with good fortune. This is a good example of a type of mitzvah called zachor, or remembrance. I have mentioned previously that mitzvot are sometimes divided into ethical practices, remembrances, and esoteric practices. Remembrances help an adherent feel that they exist within a thread in the tapestry of history, and the Sacred History of Judaism is the story of the Exodus. The "Syrian ready to perish" has been interpreted to be either Abraham or Jacob, both of whom sojourned in Egypt during times of economic distress.

It is important to remind my readers that Deuteronomy is an oration given by Moses on the far bank of the Jordan in the land of Moab, given to people who had been wandering in the desert for forty years. A fruit was a rare delicacy to these people. That they would someday gather a whole basket of fruits and offer them up as a sacrifice hints at much bounty to come. The honey promised is fig or date honey, not bee honey. The Talmud tells of Rami bar Ezekiel visiting Bnei Brak, and seeing goats grazing under fig trees, with fig honey dripping on the grass as the lactating goats dripped milk on the grass, so that milk and honey flowed onto the ground. [Ketuvot 111b].

Moses commands the Israelites to make the law public by writing it out on large stones plastered with lime. Then God commands them to build an altar of stone, and "thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them". [Deuteronomy 27: 5].

Moses lists a bunch of specific curses for certain behaviors, and after each curse is mentioned, the whole congregation of Israel repeats "Amen". What are these behaviors?

  1. Idolatry
  2. Showing disrespect for one's father and mother
  3. Moving one's neighbor's boundary marker
  4. Misdirecting the blind
  5. Perverting justice for the foreigner, the widow and the orphan
  6. Having sex with the wife of one's father
  7. Having sex with an animal
  8. Having sex with a sister or half-sister
  9. Having sex with one's mother-in-law
  10. Striking down one's neighbor in secret
  11. Taking a bribe to put an innocent man to death
  12. Not upholding and keeping the entire Torah (literally "this law")

The rabbis interpreted the curse against misdirecting the blind as a curse against leading astray anyone who lacks wisdom. It is interesting that four of the twelve curses are sexual in nature, but none directly address homosexuality (meaning that incest and bestiality were much more stringent taboos than homosexuality). Notice that justice for foreigners in your land is paramount. Righteous people treat immigrants and aliens with proper justice.

The blessings and curses that follow lay out the simplest kind of theology. If you do right, God will reward you, and if you do ill, God will punish you. The rest of the passage lists the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience. But the history of the Jewish people has taught us that we suffer even when we have done no wrong, and that evil people can prosper without retribution in this lifetime. So the literal interpretation of what is said in this passage cannot be the whole story. Maimonides understood this, and understood that if we perform mitzvot only to stave off an angry God, then we are not acting from virtuous motives.

My readers understand that this litany of blessings and curses, if literally interpreted, depicts a Deity scarcely worthy of devotion. Each of us has a friend whom we have befriended solely because being that person's friend is only slightly less terrifying than being that person's enemy. That's a pretty lame reason to engage in worship, let alone friendship.

I find that there is a back-and-forth going on. There are things that humans can do that can ruin lives. Heroin addiction usually doesn't end well. There are things that humans can do that can ruin the lives of innocents. There is plenty of collateral damage in a war, and children living near pollution sites get leukemia, even when they didn't do the polluting. There are things that citizens can do that ruin the nation. The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. [Yoma 9b]. The Talmud explains that Solomon's Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, but that the sin of sinat chinam was worse than the other three sins put together.

In the USA, we are going through a particularly contentious Presidential election campaign, and sinat chinam is everywhere. Because of sinat chinam, the credit rating of the USA has fallen for the first time ever. Congress spends more time bickering than solving problems. Outrageous lies and distortions are uttered about the candidates, and uttered by the candidates and their running mates. Celebrities are going on television and claiming that if the wrong candidate gets elected, there will be a thousand years of darkness.

Jews are not very apocalyptic in general, but during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, we were very apocalyptic. An apocalyptic literature spread at that time, and influenced Christian literature as well. Today, we are hearing apocalyptic rhetoric about this election, about the State of Israel, and about climate change. The curses in this passage seem apocalyptic in nature, describing an absolute breakdown of civilization and a reversion to utter barbarism and savagery.

The description of the curses in this Torah portion can be interpreted as what happens when a nation lives its life out of balance, when it fail to pursue justice, to live by the rule of law, to respect the dignity and integrity of all its citizens.

A crude form of idolatry practiced even among people of the Abrahamic faiths is to pretend that there is a bearded man in the sky who is perpetually angry at us for not obeying an irrational set of rules, whom we have to placate or be destroyed. This is a particularly pernicious form of idolatry, but a crude reading of this passage seems to support this. Except that the very first thing that gets cursed is idolatry. This is crucial to understanding the passage at a deeper level.

If you tell your average educated person that if they don't obey every arbitrary rule in the book, the bearded man in the sky will smite them, they will probably roll their eyes and think you are a nut. But if you tell them that injustice breeds more injustice, and that a society that rewards evil and punishes good will have a bad outcome, this seems more reasonable. If you tell a Star Wars fan that they have to harmonize with the Force, and not indulge in the Dark Side, they will understand you. If you tell a New Ager that they cannot oppose the Tao, but rather flow with it, that makes sense to them. If you abjure people not to pervert nature, but to take a survey of nature, and imitate nature's forms and harmonies, you might get a positive response.

The metaphor of God as King was effective to the Ancient Semitic imagination, but in a world where kings are largely obsolete, we need new ways to connect to the Grand Architect of the Universe. Ancient kings had absolute power over life and death, and were supposed to control the harvest, and bestow bounty and prosperity upon their lands. Anything other than absolute submission to the king was met with agonizing torture and death. In that sense, the Organizing Principle has a way of emerging into the world as we know it, and we would do well to observe these ways and imitate them. When we defy the way that nature organizes herself, we run into conflict with nature and the universe, and this often ends badly.

We need a new way to approach the Unifying Concept, the First Principle, the Prime Mover, the Force, the Tao, the Course in Which the Nations Run according to Giambattista Vico, or the cyclical 'asabiyyah of Ibn Khaldūn, the co-domain of consciousness, the cumulative epitome of states of awareness. To this end, we have a personal responsibility as individuals to seek virtue and eschew vice, and a civic and national responsibility to seek justice, uphold the weakest elements of society, and embrace the stranger, and a global responsibility to achieve harmony among all the peoples of the world.

Blessings come from living in harmony, not always, but usually. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. Curses come from living out of balance, not always, but usually. As my mother used to tell me: "Don't go looking for disappointments in life. You'll find them anyway, but you'll find more of them if you look for them. Instead, look for joys, some of which you will not find unless you seek them out."