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On the eighth day

03/21/2011

In response to my last post on Esther, Vashti, and the puzzles of Purim, my friend Marty wrote: Why do we have to choose between them, anoint one “better” than the other, one good and one bad….  I choose to see Esther’s “obedience”and sacrifice in the service of her people was courageous and something we can learn from. And Vashti? Thank the god who isn’t even mentioned that there was someone [not to mention a *woman*!] who challenged power….

Bing, bing, bing! Right answer!

Complex, nuanced, reasonable, radical. Which leaves me with the question: why do we have such a strong need to choose (at the very least continuously incline in the direction of choosing)? Personally, I like ambiguity and the unknown (think: poetry), but ask me my opinion about something and I’m already picking sides. Right and wrong are 2 of my fave words, even as I’m able (if pressed) to see the rightness in the wrong and vice versa. Jim Hightower speaks for me (well over 90% of the time) when he says there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. The song that has influenced me more than any other (even though you can’t dance to it and you can’t sing it on a bad-romance day) is Which Side Are You On?

All of which stand me in good stead in the world of the Torah. There’s a lot of right and wrong, this way or that, holy or not. It affects one’s world view, that clearness of vision. (Wrestling with the text — if I might speak for all of us who are obsessed with doing so — does occasionally lead to moments of realization that we might be reading more into the white spaces than the black letters actually allow. Please do not take this as criticism of either the text or the wrestlers.)

So. This week, 2 examples of the right/wrong/nothing in between syndrome in the Torah portion Shemini:

First, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer up strange fire in their pans — and whoosh! They’re, pardon the expression, toast. God is the toaster and they are (unambiguously) burnt to a crisp for their mistake. Second, the laws of kashrut are handed down, verse after verse on allowable meals and unclean morsels. There is little room for nuance here. Sacrifice the wrong thing and/or in the wrong frame of mind: not good enough! So not-good-enough to get you a fireball in the face. So not-good-enough that your father isn’t allowed to mourn your untimely death. Eat the wrong animal/bird/fish and you are unclean. Not good enough! Unholy and unwanted by God. Maybe you had a good excuse for eating that heron — but you shoulda had the locust appetizer instead. No excuses.

Marty, my friend, I fear this is a set-up —  to be given both free will and a whole lot of shoulds. Of course we’re going to break them (think: Garden of Eden). Of course we’re going to want to wander down the middle of the road, zigzagging this way and that. We want to play with as much strange fire as possible, stretch & bend & blow raspberries at the rules. That’s what happens On The Eighth Day, the day after creation & rest, the day we start living out there beyond the Garden and its warm, comforting breezes. The day – if I might say so – that we start acting like adults.

Speaking for myself: I want it all — the strident clarity and the ability to say no, the pleasure of right & wrong as well as the risk of making the non-allowable decision. I want the black letters and the white spaces, both. To know, just a little bit, what it feels like to play God.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/21/2011 6:17 pm

    Sue – you’re right on the button – just to throw into the mix: until the rabbis start to rationalize we really don’t know *why* Cain’s sacrifice doesn’t please God or why Yishmael was “bad” simply because he “mitzachack-ed” [giggled? played around?] – strangely, from the same root as his “good” brother Yitzchack.

    But we modern Jews [Samaritan’s excluded] *aren’t* just Biblical, we’re rabbinic and we should embrace all the [even awful] ways the rabbis recognized that these lapses were problematic. Which brings me to meet you in the Garden: in some popular stuff we sometimes buy into something like the “original sin” thing – but that’s totally *not* Jewish. Think about it. The whole creation thing is motivated by God’s wanting something/one to relate to – S/He’s lonely being all alone, being the whole universe. So S/He creates a whole lot of inanimate stuff until he gets to the fish and bugs and cattle and whatever. Still no one to talk to [maybe S/He should have waited until the donkeys learned to talk]. So S/He creates Adam and gives *him* someone to talk to – but S/He still misses something. We shouldn’t be pissed at Eve, we should honor her – it’s only when she eats the fruit [an etrog? pomegranate? whatever] and shares it with [fairly mindless] Adam are they able not only to distinguish right from wrong [good and bad?] but even have the ability to *disobey*. It’s only then that God has someone S/He can really talk to. [There’s midrash about this but please don’t ask me to cite it.] It seems to me that Eden is sort of like an all-expense paid vacation on South Beach: it’s nice to lie on the beach all day and club at night, but [and this is just me] I really wouldn’t like to *live* there! So, I fantasize about what it would be like to be in one of those little yeshivas overlooking the Western Wall, studying Torah and pilpuling with the rabbis, but I always end up hanging with the folks in B’ilin under the Separation Wall.

    Thanks a lot, Eve.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/22/2011 8:17 am

      Eden as South Beach (and I know you don’t mean the diet): Love it! That’s precisely the metaphor. No vocabulary for disobey or trauma or adventure. Welcome to my blog, dear friend!

  2. 03/24/2011 12:28 pm

    What a fabulous conversation!! It brings a couple of things to mind. One of them was a Chinese proverb I heard once that was about moderation and it went something along the lines of: if you walk along one side of the road, you’ll fall in the ditch. If you walk on the other side of the road, you’ll fall in the ditch. If you walk in the middle of the road, you won’t fall in the ditch. The first time I heard that proverb, my first thought was: yeah, but if you walk in the middle of the road all the time, you’ll get hit by a truck!

    I think that we, by nature, construct a very dualistic world for ourselves. Doesn’t it make things so much simpler if there is only black and white, with no gray in between? I think of the concept of yin and yang, and that there is only a brief fleeting moment when something is entirely one or the other, before it changes again. It’s always in flux. That’s an uncomfortable notion for most people. So we have the drive to simplify things and categorize and rope off. It’s our nature.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      03/24/2011 4:31 pm

      Love your reaction to the proverb — hanging out in the middle is no guarantee of safety!

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