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Tanakh Talks 11/30/20: Torah in the Desert

David Dirlam

Today’s study expanded on our study of Tikkun Olam in many ways. Participants connected it to art, the evolution of our concept of God, Memetics, inspiration, near-death experiences, service music, the concept of evil and its relation to humility, and the contrast between treasured documents like the Torah and our modern literature glut. Some people may have the time to listen to the whole hour-and-a-half discussion, but I thought some might prefer a ten-minute read of my edited notes. In either case, both testify to the careful stimulus that our Rabbi applies to these discussions and to the rich diversity of our community’s participation in them.

Tikkun Olam, as reworked in Jewish Mysticism

Rabbi Edery opened the discussion with a little history relating to Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam did not mean “to put things straight” until the 16th century. In 1492, the new world was discovered and Jews were expelled from Spain (Aug. 2, 1492). In the 12th-15th Spain was the cultural center of the Jewish world with renowned artists, musicians, philosophers. This was another great disaster for the Jews. The earlier ones were blamed on the victims. The destruction of the first temple and expulsion to Babylon was caused by us not worshiping. The destruction of Jerusalem was caused by us not caring enough for each other. By our persecution in Spain, some Rabbis concluded that we could not keep saying it is our fault. We did not do this. Why would God allow it? Some moved to Israel, despite Mamluk rule and despite having no support. They settled in Safed. Those settlers included some Spanish Jews. Two generations later,  Isaac Luria from an Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem was born and later became the leading Rabbi of Safed and founder of its mystical community and the Kabbala. We sing their songs (L’cha dodi). Tikkun Olam was transformed:

Shevirat ha-kelim (“breaking of the vessels”), a “catastrophe theory” of creation:
God, in making the world, could not leave it void of His presence. He therefore sent forth rays of his light. The light—being Divine—was too intense for its containers (made of mundane matter), which thereby broke, scattering fragments of light throughout the world. Those sparks of light are scattered and trapped under shards. It is our task as humans to gather up these fragments, wherever they are, and restore them to their proper place. Hence: Tikkun, repairing a fractured world. Each Mitzvah or positive act we do lifts off the shards and releases a spark of light. Each positive act then has a small immediate effect, but also a wider effect on the whole of creation. It restores something of lost harmony to the cosmos.

Janet: Is the light a metaphor for honesty, decency, love, compassion?
Rabbi: We don’t know what he means. Is he speaking metaphorically? Science is clear about what science means. The kabbala lends itself to be multiple interpretations. Have you ever heard of it?
Me: This passage is a precursor for Memetics, ideas that spread from one to another person like viruses.
Annette: The idea of each little piece being a photon of light is new to me. I think of Tikkun Olam as big stuff. This, to me, makes it feel much more personal that each little Mitzvah is important.
Rabbi: Each Mitzvah allows that light to shine.
Nancy: The concept of light is extremely interesting. Light changes every day from time to time, morning to night. From an aesthetic standpoint it can be really, really beautiful. A lot of people go through their days without noticing the light. To me personally, it really influences my world. I see things in terms of color and light. It represents good.
Erica: I like this because of its equal opportunity; wealthy or poor, we can all take part in releasing the light, young or old, black or white.
Rabbi: If I see a terrible accident, who will save us? This answer is it is us, one little light at a time. When I do a Mitzvah, “I released some light into the world.”
Rebecca: It reminds of Madelaine L’Engle’s books.
Janet: This is a sense of being “enlightened.”
Rabbi: It’s also being an activist. It’s more than bringing our light to others. Everyone has their light. You help to release their light.
Mark: I like the metaphor. It reminds me of the Native American myths that I’ve read. I would take this and make my own myth of a God who takes the light away. I would make it less.
Rabbi: This suggests that there is a hero that can fix this. Like the Mashiach, who would repair the world. Who can make it right? Each of us can do it. I can do it with one spark. Whatever happened, whose fault is it?
Mark: If your protagonist is human, it becomes a story of human tragedy, like Daedalus. Fundamentalism fomented the rebellion against the Romans. The moral lesson has to do with the need for moderation. If you are too intent on bringing holiness into the world, it can have unintended consequences.
Rabbi: In the tradition of the 17th century, the Musaf prayer had an offering every day. On Shabbat, there is the daily prayer, plus the added offering, the Musaf. Part of that prayer, it is because of our sins that we were exiled from our land. You are reminded every week that all of us have sinned. In Spain, we rejected Jesus. We are the homeless in the world. The world was telling the Jews that it was their fault. Safed said it was not our fault and asked, “Who’s fault was it?"
Rebecca: It was God’s fault. We all have responsibility for it.
Rabbi: This answers the big picture, how come the community.
Me: My friend, Jim Moffett, was a great writing educator. He wrote about the development of heroes in writing. The hero can be God, a superhero, an everyday man, and at its most complex, even an anti-hero. Where is the anti-hero in the Safed argument?
Rabbi: God itself couldn’t make it right?
Doug: Where did the idea come from?
Mark: It’s arrogant to think we know where evil comes from. I like the idea of prayer, of humility.
Rabbi: If I go to a slum in India and see a youth feeding on garbage, I don’t give him a prayer of humility. Give him an image of encouragement. This is one of the main reasons that this is important. Many Jews were ready to give up. Something went wrong in the creation. It is not your fault. You can be the hero. You can bring light. It’s asking us to help God. God messed up. Who’s going to help? We are. God needs our saving. That sounds pretty arrogant, but it also sounds encouraging. 
Doug: When I first read this, I was reminded of something downtown: If God is the artist, we are the art. The shimmer wall on the conference center. It’s constantly evolving with the movement of the sun. Each piece is responsible for its own beauty. We’re responsible for its own beauty.
Rabbi: You can shine a piece that has become dull. You are not to blame; you are the one that can help us.
Janet: When we talk about God as we are today, are we putting a human face on it? I don’t know if I should look at God as a person or as something that I can’t understand.
Rabbi: I believe that the concept of God has evolved, from Zeus like a person to leave that behind for a God to fill the whole world. Embrace God as a divine, intensely radiant light. Maimonides will tell you that anything you say about God, you don’t know that. We need to talk about such abstract things. Sometimes you make them personal as long you know you are just saying things.
Rebecca: Our concept of God reflects back on how we react.
Rabbi: I am not saying I have found the truth. This is an image, a metaphor. Compare it to others (Christianity). The world is broken. Original sin. I like the myth about the Tikkun Olam better. I don’t want to blame us.
Linda: I heard a voice from God after weeding in my back yard. It said, “Congratulations. You have prepared the house for your family. You will die soon. I ran in the house and called for a physical and had to wait for three weeks. I couldn’t remember that she had even taken my blood pressure. They found a giant aneurysm, and they removed it. Why did I hear the voice?”
Rabbi: I have heard stories, like yours, where something unexpected happened and somebody says something that changes everything. Paul McCartney said he started hearing a piece of music. He said, “I didn’t compose the song. I was playing the piano to what I was listening to. This was not me.” Some people will say “There was a Godsend message.” Abraham and Sara had a happy life except they wanted a child. The strangers came and said, "the next year, you will have a child." The Bible will say “they were God sent messengers.” We thank God for miracles. 
Mark: I’m glad you shared the story. God is a terrible explanation for almost everything. Religion sells ideas to the least thoughtful people. It doesn’t explain anything to me.
Rabbi: Within the world of religious thinking, there are many ways to think. The Rabbis in the Talmud ask how things happen. The world works in the way it works. Maimonides said, "Go study this world and find out what makes things happen."
Alec: The way I come up with an equation is a miracle.
Rabbi: The word that the world will use is “inspiration.” Why did you have that breakthrough that day?
Linda: Why did those people in my groups die and I didn’t? I thought about all the good things I had done. (She listed them.) I was a do-gooder. But there are lots of people who do much more work than that. I was never very religious. It’s fascinating to me.
Rabbi: I had an uncle who was super Orthodox in Montreal, who used to wake up every morning, before he took his children to school, and go to the Mikvah and do 92 immersions. I visited, and he had a sniffle and explained that the hot water at the Mikvah wasn’t working. He fell asleep driving and totaled his car but wasn’t hurt. He thought he had used up all of his Mitzvahs. Who sings L’cha Dodi? "Go, Groom in search of the bride. Bride, your Groom is coming." This poem has a simple meaning and a hidden meaning. We are the groom, and Shabbat is the bride. The hidden message was why this composed. God created the world, and the light was shattered and hidden. God and Shekinah, the creating force and the creation. We need to make through our celebration of Shabbat brings them together. 
Me: There are inside and outside sources of knowledge and the struggle to understand. One way that ancient sources fascinates me is the difference in how they created knowledge. They took centuries to mold their ideas into treasured manuscripts while today, individuals take a few months to write additions to the millions of articles that we bury in databases each year.
Rabbi: If all humans were extinct, would there still be a Shabbat? If there is nobody to make this day different, then there is no Shabbat. Shabbat begins when a person makes it special by a light. How do I light our Hannukah candles? We light the Shamash first, but it is the poor candle that doesn’t count. It makes everything else shine but doesn’t count. The world needs a Shamash. 
Rebecca: My question is, we always associate dark is bad and light is good. Is that the cause of racism?
Rabbi: Dark is not bad. You cannot measure darkness. Dark is nothing. Knowledge and ignorance. Ignorance is nothing. 
Alec: White light is made of an infinite range of colors. 
Rabbi: I use different colors of candles. 
Alec: Sometimes, it takes a prism to see them all.
Albert: Evil is the lack of good. 
Me: Not all contrasts are something versus nothing. Some are polar opposites, like the two ends of a magnet. Evil is more than a lack of good. It is something created and spread. I hope we never again see as much evil as we have seen in our last four years.
R: We have more readings and many more questions to continue next week.

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784