Sunday, September 29, 2013

Between divinity and depravity / Noach

Like many parents, on the occasions when I thought my children’s table manners were lacking, I was wont to say, “Where were you raised—in a barn? Don’t eat like an animal.” The predictable retort was, “Yes. And we’re all animals.” The story of the Flood, in parasht Noach, is the quintessential “animal story” of the bible; ironically the one in which virtually every animal on earth is annihilated.
The story of the Flood is nestled between two stories of human overreaching for divinity. The Flood story follows the account of Adam and Eve, who are banished from the Garden of Eden for eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which will supply moral discernment. Added to the immortality God has already granted Adam and Eve by virtue of fruit from the Tree of Life, this will make them divine. In essence they will become gods. Torah cannot tolerate apotheosis, people becoming gods, a notion rife in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
The Flood is followed by the terse account of the Tower of Babel, found in this week’s parashah. The Tower is a tale of human hubris gone wild. People set out to build a tower to heaven so that—ונעשה לנו שם / “we will make for ourselves a name; that is, become gods. Adonai confounds their speech and here Torah makes a wordplay on שם “name” when it says ונבלה שם שפתם “God confounded/confused their speech there. The seemingly superfluous term “there” is written identically to “name” because the Torah originally had only consonants. Their “name” (i.e. ambitions for divinity) became nothing there but confusion and lead to ruin.
These two bookends to the Flood story, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden to insure they do not become gods, and the Tower people’s failed attempt to become gods, not only bracket the Flood story, but also help us understand it on another level. Torah has treated God’s unsurpassed creative power in the opening chapter of Genesis; creating the cosmos and our world provides sufficient evidence. The Flood, in contrast, addresses God’s unrivaled destructive power; most of the world is wiped out in the deluge. Only a small remnant remains and—the story suggests—God could well have decided to forego the whole ark business, leaving nothing. In fact, midrash Bereishit Rabbah 3:7 tells us that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating ours.
In fact, there is ample evidence that the biblical authors knew of traditions that some of us are descended from gods. Just after Torah’s first mention of Noah, but before the story of the Flood begins, we find this peculiar remnant of that tradition:
And it came to pass, when people began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the divine beings [b’nai elohim, lit. sons of gods] saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took wives from among them, whomsoever they chose. And Adonai said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in people for ever, for they also are flesh; therefore shall their days be 120 years.’ It was then that the Nephilim were on the earth, and also after that, when the divine beings [b’nai elohim, lit. sons of gods] came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
Descendant of gods (b’nai elohim), presumably, walk among us. Adonai does not approve. Perhaps it is because finding our place in the world, between the vaulted heights of divinity and the depraved depths to which humans can fall, is so difficult and dangerous. Striving to become divine leads us not toward holiness, but ironically in the opposite direction. Human arrogance knows no limits, and leads people both to conceive of themselves as gods, and to engage in nearly unimaginable corruption and violence. Akavkiah b. Mahalalel taught:
If you ponder three things, you will avoid falling into sin: Know your origin, your destination, and before whom you will be required to give an accounting. Your origin: a putrid drop. Your destination: a place of dust, worms, and maggots. Before whom will you be required to give an accounting? Before the Ruler of rulers, the Holy One Blessed be God. (BT Pirke Avot 3:1)
How’s that for a formula to keep one’s ego in check? But don’t we want people to spread their wings, let their creativity soar, and exert their influence? We are capable of the best and the worst, and the two often come perversely bundled. Accounts of the Holocaust, certainly a hallmark of human depravity, are not complete without the stories of courage, heroism, and altruism.
The Rabbis (BT Sanhedrin 38b) envisioned God consulting panels of angels concerning the creation of humanity. The first two panels, citing the evil people would do, are adamantly opposed. God eliminates them. The third panel says (in essence): Given what You did to the first two panels, we wouldn’t dare oppose the plan. Do as you will.” But when the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Tower come, the third angelic cadre cannot resist chirping a refrain of, “We told you so!” What is God’s response? I’m sticking with them through thick and thin. God is committed, but it’s not always easy.
The Rabbis couched it this way:
God created humans with four qualities of the angels and four qualities of the lower animals. Like the animals, people eat, drink, reproduce and die. Like the angels, they stand erect, speak, understand, and see [from the sides as well as from the front]. Rabbi Tifday said: The angels were created in the image of God and do not reproduce, while the earthly creatures reproduce but were not created in God’s image. God said: I will create humanity in My image and likeness and in that way they will be like the angels. But they will also reproduce, like the animals. Rabbi Tifday also said: The Lord reasoned: If I create them like the angels, they will live forever and not die; if I create them like the animals, they will die and not live forever. Therefore I will create them as a combination of the upper and lower elements. If they sin they will die; if they die, they will live [in the world-to-come]. (Bereishit Rabbah 14:3)
We are little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:6), but not unlike the beasts. In our best moments, we aspire to righteousness, generosity, and humility. This is our divine side. But we also aspire to power, possession, control, acclaim, and adoration, and like the beasts, we are curious about everything—good and bad. We are vulnerable to every sort of temptation. We are driven by our biology. We live every day in the tension of our angelic selves and our animal selves.
Science confirms this. Psychiatrist and cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz explains this in her both startling and comforting book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and Human Healing. We would see ourselves as utterly different from the animals—possessed of free will, superior intelligence, complex technology—but in reality we have all evolved in tandem and share many traits and biological processes in common. Not only can we learn much from the animal world and the specialists in animal behavior and healing, veterinarians, concerning cancer, infection, and disease, but we have more in common with animals than you might like to acknowledge in the areas of addiction, sexuality, eating disorders, and adolescent behavior.
Natterson-Horowitz gently counsels that rather than denying the breadth and depth of our “animal side,” we would be better off acknowledging and even embracing it. Our biology combined with our instincts are responsibility for much good—love and loyalty, for example. The energies of our biology, when we understand them and how they operate in us, can be channeled to fuel our divine side. Acknowledging and understanding our animal side, celebrating it, and then taming it by placing it in service of holiness will go far to relieving the angel-or-animal tension.
Torah’s persistent refrain that humans must not become gods is, perhaps, a warning not to think of ourselves as gods and thereby shut off our aspiration to holiness.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the two poles of our being as divinity and dust, which we will all ultimately become. His charge to us applies to our attempt to achieve balance between the poles of divine being and animal, as well. He wrote:
Perhaps this is the most urgent task: to save the inner man from oblivion, to remind ourselves that we are a duality of the mysterious grandeur and the pompous dust. Our future depends upon our appreciation of the reality of the inner life, of the splendor of thoughts, of the dignity and wonder of reverence. This is the most important thought: God has a stake in the life of man, of every man. But this idea cannot be imposed from without; every man must discover it; it cannot be preached, it must be experienced. (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, pp. 12-13)
This week, pause and consider your “mysterious grandeur” and your “animal side.” Try not to focus on the former at the expense of the latter. Try to discover in your life a sense of how valuable you are to God and to those around you. Feel it. Experience it. And then going forward, live it.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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