Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We are Your children, and You are our Father

When God struck Miriam with leprosy, Moshe prayed for her. According to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, he intensified that prayer by drawing a circle, getting inside it, and telling God that he would not leave until his sister was healed. This tactic seems to work: “b’ota sha’ah” “at that very time” God tells Moshe that God will have mercy on her for Moshe’s sake.

Choni HaMe’agel famously used this strategy to pray for rain (and then to pray for the rain to stop when it worked too well, in a scene that always reminded me of Strega Nona’s spaghetti). My first thought was that this reflects a theology where God is dependent on people: God must need Moshe and Choni, or he would be able to say “All right, then. Stay there and die of thirst.” I understand how someone might make a neder that she would bring a sacrifice to the Temple if God answers her prayers, but here, Moshe and Choni assume that what God wants is us, and that assumption seems to be correct.

I have been thinking about this image of God who needs people lately, as part of my new obsession with the medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda HaLevi, which started a few weeks ago when my teacher Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky showed me one of his poems. In another of his poems, “Ya’alat Chen,” “The Graceful Doe,” a lover describes his relationship with a woman whom he loves and who seems to love him but who often rejects and hurts him. According to my very cursory looks at what people say about this poem on the internet, it could be either a straight-up human love poem or a poem from God’s point of view about God’s relationship with Israel. I’ll assume the latter for now. The Hebrew isn’t showing up right, so I’ll write using my own problematic translation, but here it is.

Much of the poem is spent describing how attracted God is to beautiful Israel, and how Israel rejects God over and over: “She trapped my heart with the breasts that rest on it—A heart like a rock, but it brought out two apples!” and “I was longing for her love like a drunkard for wine,” says God, and when he finally had his hands “grazing in her garden and touching her breasts,” she tells him to take his hands away. A reasonable person might ask whether he should really be in this relationship, but that does not seem like a question for him: he says that, if his lover ever leaves “[her] leaving will be his tragedy.” Here, God needs the need the lover, but just because he loves her, not for anything in particular.

The Choni  story provides a relationship where the lack of reciprocity might seem less troubling. After Choni stops the rain, Shimon ben Shatach tells him, “If you were anyone else, I would have put a ban of excommunication on you. But what can I do against someone like you, who need only tell God his needs and God fills them, the way a son can tell his father his needs and his father will fill them” (Ta’anit 19a). God does not want Moshe and Choni to stay in their circles forever, not because he needs them to be functional for him, but because he loves them. In fact, in God’s response to Moshe, God compares himself to Miriam’s father (and therefore also Moshe’s).  Moshe is often described the one who sees God face-to-face, but here, the relationship is markedly unequal, and that works for both parties. The tactic of staying in a circle until you get what you want might seem more appropriate to a sulky three-year-old than to the leaders of our people, but in these stories, we are God’s toddlers, and that is one of the things God loves most about us: in each of these stories, people tried ordinary verbal prayers, but God was more affected by the appeal to God's parental side and the reminder of our childlike vulnerability.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Scattered Souls

Our learning for this week was focused around the teaching from Pirkei Avot: “aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zchut. Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the scales tipped in his favor.”

When we learned this text over the summer, one of its aspects that I particularly liked was the use of the verb aseh (make) rather than kneh (acquire) in reference to finding teachers. A teacher, implies the text, is not discovered but cultivated. More so, anyone can be made into a teacher, as it is a process of relationship building rather than a swift act of obtaining. Avot d’Rabbi Natan reads this text a bit more literally. “Melamed she’ya’aseh lo rav kavua. This teaches us that a person should have a fixed teacher.” From this teacher, a student should learn Torah, Mishna, midrash, halachah, and aggadah. In this way, if a teacher forgets a detail when teaching Torah, for example, this detail will still ultimately be imparted to the student when the teacher teaches Mishna.

I know very few people who have a rav kavua, a fixed teacher. In my personal experience, I have not only had different teachers for Tanach, Mishnah, and the rest of my Jewish learning, but I also have a whole other set of teachers from whom I have learned English literature, calculus, physics, and history. Furthermore, there is no one rabbi I would go to for psak, nor is there one denomination or ideology to which I fully subscribe. In speaking about students like me, Avot d’Rabbi Natan asserts that “nimtza adam ha’hu…b’lo tov u’vracha. A man like this will be found…to have neither goodness nor blessing.” Great…

A really interesting note on the commentary offered on the original line in Pirkei Avot (a meta-commentary?) reads: “Ha’lomed Torah me’harbe anashim yesh lo pizur hanefesh lachsov al leshono v’daato shel kol achad v’achad. One who learns Torah from many people has a spreading out of the soul because s/he has to think of the words and opinions of everyone.” Avital and I often talk about the Bifurcated Existence. We go to school and spend all day solving for x and analyzing Shakespeare, and then we come home and spend hours on Skype learning geonic commentaries on Pirkei Avot. It’s pizur nefesh (spreading out of the soul) to an even greater degree than what is referred to in the text. We both talk about wanting college to be a “unified experience,” but I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that.

On the one hand, I love the idea of having a rav kavua. It would largely eliminate the agony of choosing and being forced to make decisions. Sometimes I hate this pizur nefesh, this feeling of always having a foot in both worlds and never truly belonging in either. But there is also something about it that fascinates me. We are studying existentialism now in school, and I love imagining what Kafka would think of Kohelet or how Camus would read a Reb Nachman text. During my physics class, I often ponder how halachah would be different if we applied the physics definition of work to the idea of melacha. So what are those of us with fragmented souls to do?

We were very excited that our blog’s epigraph appeared in this week’s learning, as an explanation of the “acquire for yourself a friend” dictum. Immediately following the text that spurred our pizur nefesh crisis, it is precisely this text on friend acquisition that may serve as the answer to our dilemma. I may not have found that one teacher, but I have found friends that have helped in the process of karev pzureinu, bringing in all my scattered musings. When I learn with Avital, she is just as quick to quote Rashi as Kant or reference academic thought on medieval Jewish life as she is to bring up modern philosophical or psychological thought. Maybe I will find unity by acquiring friends who are equally as scattered. When there is no longer a need to compartmentalize, when Talmudic and political examples are both fair game to back up a point, then living in two worlds feels slightly less lonely. Friendship has the potential to create that immersive community that I am always seeking. Maybe when I talk about college feeling unified, I mean that I hope to find a community composed of all those who lack a rav kavua but are looking to acquire friends, a community of all those with leaking, seeping, spreading souls.

When we learn about acquiring a friend, Avot d’Rabbi Natan tells us that a person should find a friend to “galeh lo kol starav, seter Torah v’setet derekh eretz, reveal one’s secrets to, both Torah secrets and everyday secrets.” The best, though, is when these secrets are one and the same, and then neither Torah nor academic pursuits exist in isolation. When a person leads a life that is so infused with Torah to its core that seter Torah and seter derekh eretz are indistinguishable, and then, on top of that, has a friend with whom to share this, then that person is surely ma’le tova u’vracha, full of goodness and blessings.