Posts Tagged ‘morality’

The Search for Lost Perfection

            Are we an experiment that failed?  Look around.  Could anyone have planned for our world to be the way it is?  Error, human error, is evident at every turn.  We live in a world of broken dreams.  We live in a world of broken promises.  We live in a world of broken ideals.  We are the embodiment of potential lost, potential wasted.  What in our makeup causes us to be numb to another’s pain, to walk by the lost soul pleading for food, to take those who love us for granted?  Look at ourselves.  Flaws evident at every turn.  We would seem to be an experiment that failed.

Yet, it is our particular oddity to keep searching for perfection.  Having, for a brief bit of time, inhabited paradise, we keep thinking that we can return.  We cannot let go of the notion that the next peace negotiation, the next technical innovation, the next medical advancement, will somehow put us on the road back to Eden.  We refuse to fully abandon hope.  We search for lost perfection.  We yearn to be allowed back into paradise.

Midrash teaches this about our creation.  God gathered dust from the four corners of the world, transported it to the sight of the ancient Temple on Mount Moriah, molded the human figure, and breathed into it the first soul.  God then took this thing, newly created from the dust of this world called human, and placed it in Eden, paradise – the place of perfection.  Adam entered paradise with Eve at midday on the sixth day of creation.  By the twilight of the first Shabbat they had sinned.  After Shabbat, a last bit of time God permitted them to inhabit paradise, thereby giving them a taste of what would be left behind; man and woman were expelled back into the world from which they were created.

Did God know this failure would happen?  Our bodies are created from the elements of the mundane.  Our souls are the very breath of God.  Did God expect a body created from this world not to fail in paradise, despite housing a God given soul?  Did God not expect the material would corrupt the spiritual?  Did God really think placing the flawed in paradise would somehow perfect the flaws?  I think of Eden as a kind of spiritual Petri dish.  We were placed in a controlled environment to see if we could survive.  We could not.  It was an experiment that failed.

Midrash does seem to indicate that God knew this possible outcome, but was willing to take this risk anyway.  Rabbi Berachiah taught, when the Holy One decided to create Adam, God saw righteous and wicked both arising from him. God said, “If I create him, wicked men will spring from him; but if I do not create him, how are the righteous to spring from him?”  What did God do?  The Holy one disregarded the potential for wicked, thus making a decision that God’s presence would always be associated with the quality of mercy.  Then, when consulting the ministering angels, God hid the potential for evil from them, knowing they would then object to the creation of humanity.  So God created us anyway, despite the risk, despite anticipating the objections of those perfected beings that inhabit the divine realm with God.

We might reasonably ask, “why?”

Perhaps the experiment is not over.  Perhaps it has not yet failed.  The angelic retinue, has no desires, no wants.  They are content with their perfection.  But we humans?  We are filled with wants and desire.  To a great extend we are enslaved to them.  Yet, we cannot let go of the notion there is something more – something more than the fulfillment of desires – which of course we keep finding are never really fulfilled.  We dream about paradise.  We give it names.  Utopia.  Eden.  The world to come.  Heaven.  All names for a more perfected time, a more perfected state.  We try to create heaven on earth.  We call Shabbat a taste of Eden.  All of this is a search for perfection, a perfect time, a perfect place where we might be the best version of ourselves.  It is a search for lost perfection.

And God has turned responsibility for this search over to us.  It is all in our hands.  There is no divine rescue on the way.  Our sages knew this.  Consider how they conveyed it to us.

Midrash teaches that when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, they dwelt at first on Moriah – the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Moriah is considered the very gateway to Eden.  The history of that spot teaches some things about humanity.  To begin with, we do not even recognize the gateway to paradise.  Or, if we do, rather than share the entrance, we fight over it – thinking only that people like ourselves, be they Jews, Moslem, or Christians – are deserving of possessing the doorway to paradise.  Do we ever stop to think that paradise might just include an acceptance of all of us, despite our diverse ethnicities, religions and views?

But there is something more taught by the sages.  I think it is the bigger lesson.  Adam and Eve leave the protection of paradise after Shabbat.  From that moment, they are dependent on their abilities to navigate this world – to find ways to survive.  But God did not let them leave empty handed.  According to midrash, God made two pieces of flint which Adam struck together and made fire. Observe that God did not give Adam and Eve fire, but the means to make fire.  The producing of the fire is up to us.  They way we use it is up to us.  We are reminded of this while reciting the blessing over fire as part of the Havdalah service, the service taking us out of Shabbat.  Indeed, there is an interesting discussion over the proper wording of the blessing for fire in the Talmud.  Beit Shammai says the wording should be, “shebara m’or ha’eish,” which means “who created the illumination of fire.”  However, Beit Hillel teaches the words should be, “borei m’orei ha’eish,” which means “who creates the illuminations of fire.”  Beit Shammai’s wording commemorates a singular event in the past. Beit Hillel’s wording reminds us that the creation of fire is continuous, multiple, and our responsibility.  We keep making fire.  We are the ones tasked with continuing to bring fire, and its light, into the world.

So there nascent humanity sits, on the doorway to Eden, holding the means to survival in our hands.  Whither do we go?  Often it is a vain search to re-enter the perfection from which we were expelled.  A story from the Talmud well illustrates the results of our attempts to re-enter Eden.  This aggadah tells of 4 rabbis who entered paradise.  They were ben Azai, ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya, and Rabbi Akiva.  Rabbi Akiva warned them, “when you see the crystal clear marble that forms the wall around heaven, do not shout ‘there is water, there is water how can we ever enter.’”  Akiva was telling them not to be fooled by what they saw.  Upon glancing at the divine presence ben Azai died, ben Zoma became insane, Elisha ben Abuya had his mind corrupted by perversions.  Only Rabbi Akiva emerged in peace, because he knew not to be fooled into looking at the divine presence.

What can we make of this tale?  Akiva knows that there is no place in paradise for humans – not yet.  He goes with his friends to warn them, to try to keep them from the traps of a realm they cannot comprehend, for which none of them is ready.  He is able to emerge b’shalom – in peace or as whole person – from paradise, because he is grounded in this world, knowing it is his place.  It does not matter that Akiva will die being tortured by the Romans while clutching a Torah scroll.  This is as far from a perfect ending as one can imagine.  The Talmud itself poses the question as to why a sage as wise as Akiva deserves this ending.

The only answer I have is that Rabbi Akiva was the rabbinic master at finding meaning in each detail of the Torah and looked to apply Torah to every aspect of life.  He understood that for imperfect humans, a detailed instruction manual would be invaluable.  He believed that manual was Torah.  He was unconcerned about his end.  He focused on the moment at hand, the moment in which he lived and taught.  Even the moment of his death, clutching a Torah while being tortured, with the words of the Sh’ma on his lips, was inspirational if not instructive.  His story challenges us to consider what are our core values.  To what will we cling in the moment of our ultimate crisis?  Will we be as grounded in hope for this world, even in the face of death?   When our personal tipping point moment occurs, how will we act?  Will we, like Akiva, declare the Sh’ma?

I cannot answer that question for myself with any surety.  Can you?  But I can see examples that provide a bit of inspiration, a bit of hope.  I can see cases of people who took the figurative tools for fire God gave them, and created their own fire, a fire that shines with the light of righteousness.  Allow me to share two.

If you have seen the movie, “Orchestra of Exiles” then you are familiar with the name Bronislaw Huberman.  Huberman, born in 1882 in Poland, was a child prodigy on the violin.  As an adult his playing was hailed for its individual expressiveness and tone.  He played on many of the great stages of the world, including Carnegie Hall.  He played for many of the royal houses of Europe.  He was a musical superstar in his time, and as such could have taken refuge easily in any number of safe havens while the Nazi party took over Germany.  His path could have easily been one of the spoiled star, refusing to worry about anyone but himself.  But  Huberman saw the Nazis for what they were early on.  He recognized they were not a passing phase, soon to fade away.  He realized that Hitler and his minions were dead serious about their plan for European Jewry.  So he decided to act in the only manner his life’s path had trained him.

Huberman stated, “One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism – a first class orchestra will be this fist.”  The orchestra he had in mind was the creation of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which would eventually become today’s Israel Philharmonic.  Risking his own fortune, and using his fame as a bartering chip, Huberman recruited Jewish musicians for this new orchestra.  None of this was easy.  Many Jewish artists did not want to leave what seemed like secure posts in Europe.  Huberman needed to make them see the reality of their plights before they experienced personal danger.  He had to arrange for visas from a British government that controlled Palestine in the face of growing Arab opposition to any Jewish immigration to Palestine.  Yet, in the end he saved over 1,000 Jews – musicians and their families – and created a first rate orchestra in the process.  Knowing Arturo Toscanini’s opposition to the Nazis, Huberman convinced him to conduct the first concerts in Palestine.

The result of Huberman’s efforts is not just the saving of 1,000 Jewish lives from probable death, but the creation of a musical, cultural icon.  No less a figure than maestro Zubin Mehta said this, “The seeds of culture that Huberman planted here, that he brought from Central Europe, we are reaping its rewards today.”

But one does not have to be famous to strike a flame that shines with the light of righteousness.  I would like to share the story of a 7 year old girl named Morgan.  Morgan is the granddaughter of my former office manager, Jayne, from my old factory in Pennsylvania.  From 1979 until 1994, Jayne was the person I depended on to run all aspects of our office.  After closing our factory, I had no contact with her until just this June, when she found me on Facebook, and began reading the blog I was posting about my family journey.  We began to email and message each other.  Finally, a few weeks ago, we had a long conversation to catch up on family news.  Much of our talk centered around her granddaughter.

Morgan was born deaf.   This came as an utter shock to her family, who then went through all of the predictable stages of grief – anger, denial, questioning.  Jayne told me that it felt like they were mourning someone who died.  Morgan’s uncle summed up their emotions by remarking, “even the dog can hear.”  After consulting with doctors and each other, the family decided to have Morgan receive cochlear implants. These have to be done in two stages, one for each ear.  The first set went in when Morgan was 4 months old.  Even with the implants the ability to hear is not automatic, but takes a few months.  By the time Morgan was 8 months old, she was starting to read lips and beginning to hear.  At age 4 she received her second set, which then allowed her to localize sound.  All of this of course necessitated many trips to the hospital, constant monitoring of the implants, not to mention the limitations on Morgan’s lifestyle – no swimming, no overly physical sports.  Despite all of the difficulties, Morgan learned to speak pretty much on schedule.  She still studies people’s faces while listening to them and trying to understand them.  Because she has spent so much of her young life interacting with adults, she has some wisdom beyond her years.  When meeting her 2nd grade teacher for this year she asked her, “I know you used to teach 5th grade.  Now you are a 2nd grade teacher.  Did you want to come here?”  She was asking the teacher if she saw this as a demotion.  None of this, however, is what really makes Morgan so special.

A couple of years ago, after yet another stay in the hospital, Morgan woke up to find that a local business had provided an Easter basket for all the children staying in the hospital that weekend.  Morgan, who had woken up in hospitals many times to absolutely nothing, was thrilled by this Easter basket.  Realizing the joy it brought her waking up to a present in the hospital, Morgan decided that other children deserved to always wake up to presents during their hospital stays.  So she has made it her mission to provide buckets of goodies to every child who has to stay in her hospital.

This seven year old girl raises money by selling brownies after school and on weekends.  She decided to print up tee shirts to sell at a community fair.  A local business got wind of what she was doing and paid for the tee shirts.  As a result, the full profit from the sales goes to fill those gift buckets for the kids.  To date this year, Morgan has raised $1500 from tee shirt sales and brownies that she bakes.  She buys the presents to fill the buckets and makes regular deliveries of gift buckets to the hospital to distribute to children.  The hospital staff knows her and knows exactly what to do with the buckets she delivers.  She has steady customers for her brownies; that know what she does with the money.  All of this initiative comes from Morgan.  Her mom and grandma feel they will support this for as long as Morgan is motivated.  Like any child she has times in which she is less devoted and times more devoted to raising the money, but she keeps on, determined to provide those gift buckets to children in the hospital.

Both stories, of Huberman and Morgan, remind me of a Talmudic tale.  One day Honi the circle maker was travelling along a road.  He saw a man planting a carob tree.  He asked him, “in how many years will this tree bear fruit?”  “70 years,” the man replied.  “Is it clear to you that you will live another 70 years?” Honi asked.  The man replied, “I found a world with carob trees.  Just as my forefathers planted for me, I too plant for my children.”    Is this not what Huberman did and what Morgan is doing?  They are planting for those who come after them.  Both are examples of taking a step towards paradise.

And maybe that is all we are supposed to do.  None of us might ever reach paradise.  But if each of us takes a small step towards Eden, the day might come when humanity gets there.  However, maybe there is a greater, more important point.  Perhaps we are not even meant to go to Eden.  Perhaps that is not our goal.  For we are taught in Pirkei Avot (4:17) “An hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of the life in the world to come.”  Maybe, just maybe our goal is not perfection, but to find that one hour when our deeds exceed the value of eternal life.  Why, you might ask, is that hour more valuable than all the life in the world to come?  Because in that one hour we are not thinking of ourselves, whereas the world to come is only of benefit to ourselves.  We are not an experiment that has failed.  We might not be destined for Eden, but our search just might momentarily elevate us to a level that even exceeds paradise.

Isn’t that what this whole holiday period that culminates on Yom Kippur really about?  Our mundane routines cause us to focus on the less important.  Too much of our activity separates us from each other and therefore from God.  But our coming together on Yom Kippur is not just about confessing sin, it is about bringing us a bit closer to perfection, to sheleimut, to wholeness.  The mystics taught that on Yom Kippur all the souls of the people Israel are united as one soul.  Today we stand together, we pray together, we hope together.  Today we support each other in the search for lost perfection, that through our community turning collectively back towards God perhaps we will spot the doorway leading to Eden once again.  And if we can reside for only a moment in that vestibule, that will be enough.

Oh God, we pray that there we might find you, that we might be at peace praising you and through our deeds, our actions thanking you always.  Amen.

Read Full Post »