“I have spent many days bound up in the thicket of patriarchs and prophets. Over the years I have traveled the world with these stories, I have integrated ancient texts into my own contemporary context. I have come to feel at home with these words, but Torah is not something I own. Nations can stake claims to the moon, but only one who idolizes himself can pretend to lay claim to a single definitive meaning of Torah. Even Moses learned that he could not bring the word down to the people and remain above the law.”
Part I: P’shat / פשט (The Simple Narrative Reading)
The Book of Genesis begins with a story so universal that it offers an explanation for the creative force in the universe itself. In this sense, the Torah is the heritage of all who convey a creative spirit, and it belongs to all who see themselves reflected in the light of creation. The story of envisioning the light that will transform the wondrous and thunderous darkness into the setting that will be inherited by all forms of life quickly becomes the story of all humanity. One of the first tasks of the first human being is for Adam to name all of the species. We who have come to name our own species ‘Homo Sapiens,’ or ‘wise man,’ understood already thousands of years ago that it is our responsibility to catalogue the wealth and care for the health of our biodiversity.
The Eden Garden story offers an imaginative interpretation of the freedom of humans to dominate the earth, justifying it with the imperative that we bear the responsibility to care for all that we see. Adam and Eve, the earthlings fashioned from the earth, or, more specifically, the humans made from the humus, are created in the image of the creative spirit. When they cannot resist the temptation to seek knowledge (What other kind of fruit grows on a knowledge tree?) they come to understand that they will live a life of toil to provide their own sustenance from the soil. They will eat the fruits of the land, and they will be fruitful in bringing forth children in their own image, from their own bodies. With freedom comes responsibility.
Culture travels with people. We pitch a tent, rent a room or build a house, and there is folklore to share about our journey. We tell and retell the stories of how we came to know the people we encountered along the way. We put down our belongings, and roots begin to sprout. Moving creates an inevitable tension between tradition and change. For some, the emphasis is upon how the new becomes old with the passage of time, and how we sanctify our visions of the past. For others, the old becomes new, and the emphasis is upon how we rectify our memories to support our visions of the future. Ideas belong to those who make them part of their own story.
Part II: Mishpat / משפט (The Moral Normative Sentence)
I have spent many days bound up in the thicket of patriarchs and prophets. Over the years I have traveled the world with these stories, I have integrated ancient texts into my own contemporary context. I have come to feel at home with these words, but Torah is not something I own. Nations can stake claims to the moon, but only one who idolizes himself can pretend to lay claim to a single definitive meaning of Torah. Even Moses learned that he could not bring the word down to the people and remain above the law.
Moses, by the way, is not the only ‘stranger in a foreign land’ with whom I have an unbreakable literary bond. I have a similar relationship to Meursault, the tragic hero in The Stranger, and with Dr. Bernard Rieux who struggled against collective social suffering in The Plague. I see my own personal stumbling and grappling reflected in the archetypal struggle of Jacob at the Jabok Canyon, and like him, I also dream, night and day. Albert Camus and I compare and contrast the accidental killings committed by Moses and Meursault. We call Abraham in to ask if he really intended to sacrifice his own son, and if he realizes that he actually did.
Rieux, Jacob and I compare the struggles we have faced, and we see that they are the struggles of character, real as imagined. Jacob sees himself in Rosa Parks. Surprisingly, Rieux says that he identifies with the trials and tribulations of Harry Potter. Hermione reminded him, he says, that fear of a name only increases fear of the the thing itself. It turns out that J. K. Rolling’s love of magic is really about the magic of love. Ripred the human-sized talking rat, from Gregor the Overlander, fights demagoguery and fascism, and through him, Suzanne Collins explains that prophecy only appears to reveal the future when we choose to imitate the predictions left to us from the past. Wisdom, however, is the ability to learn from and to avoid reliving the tragic mistakes of the past. These and countless other popular and lesser known contributions to our common literary heritage define and redefine the dedication required to prevail against senseless violence and discrimination. We transmit and internalize values through the morals of our stories.
Part III: Muphshat / מופשט (The Abstract Conceptive Analysis)
“Whose Torah is it?” suggests that the text belongs to someone or one group of people, as opposed to another. The very question suggests yet another case of the honorable ‘us’ versus the alien ‘them.’ Ownership has a way of becoming contentious. And in the hands of those who would lay claim to Torah, the closed book becomes a shield, or, worse yet, a sword. But swords can be wrought into plowshares, the book can be open for all to read, and we can accept that the literature of the ancient Hebrews is part of the intellectual heritage we all share.
The pattern of Torah is woven from stories of oppression, freedom and responsibility. Many variations on those themes will be defined and redefined as these threads are passed through the biblical narrative, connecting Adam the First, to Eve the Match, to Noah the Just, to Avram the Great Hebrew Father, to Rebecca the Cagey, to Jacob the Eternal Struggler, to Joseph the Savior, to Moses the Emancipator, and on via the links of continuity to every reader and every listener who mindfully holds the stories in the creative light. The prophetic vision of universal economic justice will emphasize providing for the most vulnerable members of society. It is their Torah, too. The Torah belongs to all those who will strive to serve the higher purpose of the struggle for liberty and to all of those who will benefit from it.
Studying Torah with my children and my students adds layers of new meaning to the familiar stories. As we talk, reading the words and adding our own thoughts, our breath condenses over the pages. A stream of consciousness begins to flow; it is the living water of Torah. I lean in to drink from the stream, and I see my life reflected in the tales of the genesis of humanity, and in the exodus from oppression. Within our human capacity, we are free to pursue the will of our creative spirits, and we share the responsibility for the well being of our planet. These two complementary elements are both mutually dependent and mutually enhancing characteristics of life. Freedom + Responsibility = Liberty is the formula for emancipation that is embedded like a genetic code in the biblical narrative. Everything grows from it.The most deeply profound meaning of emancipation is not merely in escaping oppression for oneself or one’s side, but in moving completely beyond the pitfalls of oppressed and oppressor. It is everyone’s responsibility to see that the economically overwhelmed do not become a social underclass. Only when we can transcend ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ can we work toward a vision of liberty and justice for all.
It is the opening moment of biblical time, and my image is present there in my imagination; I see myself wondering and pondering the darkness of infinite space. An astonishing vision springs forth from what seems to be nowhere and appears to be nothing, and I can see an enlightened world. But the story progresses in a flash, and the early events already spin out of control. The goodness of the garden quickly turns into mistrust, denial and blame. Then—East of Eden—anger, violence and the shadow of death clouds my vision. I begin to feel the corrupting influence of fear and greed seeping into my consciousness.
I raise my eyes from the pages of Torah and I bear witness to the rich and famous, to the powerful and the wealthy, to the entertainment moguls and the Captains of Industry who provide the endless supply that feeds our consumer appetites. In return for being granted these ‘goods,’ we deify designer clothing, ostentatious jewelry and opulent houses… temples built to honor their occupants. As the messiah tarries, simple folk get off their asses, dance merrily around the alter, and feel deeply moved in the presence of gold.
We all learn to ignore the way we are all subjugated and commodified. The powerful justify their actions in the name of freedom to pursue happiness and their responsibility to their shareholders. We all want some of that power… and we all learn to dehumanize the other, subtly at first and eventually with reckless disregard. Distracted by the light reflected off of precision cut diamonds, we are deflected from our core values. We remember to build beautiful temples and forget to provide for the widow and the orphan. Celebrities become the objects of our adoration, leaving us to become idol worshipers. Is this all we have the potential to become?
I: A Simple Dollar
Exit the train station, I notice a young woman up ahead on my left. I automatically avert my glance to avoid the humanity in her eyes. Immediately realizing what I have done and why, I lower my eyes in shame. An image of the words צדק צדק תרדוף (tzedek, tzedek, tirdof / justice, justice pursue) are all aflame, even though the page is not actually burning. Shaken from my urban stupor that enables me to turn away from facing the truth, I remember that economic and social justice are the birthright of all who are created in the creative image, and I have a responsibility to pursue.
I look up, and I see that she is peddling copies of One Step Away, “Philly’s Street Newspaper, Produced By People Experiencing Homelessness.” The people who sell One Step Away are not begging. They are trying to raise themselves out of poverty by writing, producing, and selling their stories. From within the throng of passersby who were ignoring her, I approach her with a smile. I pull a dollar out of my pocket, and as I hand it to her, she lights up with the words… “My first sale of the day!” I see a spark of the light of creation in her eyes, and she is almost shaking with excitement when I say “I am looking forward to reading the new issue.” And I thank her for being there. She locked onto my eyes for a moment and called to me, “God Bless you!”
As I walked away, I thought, God or no god, I felt blessed by that bedraggled woman. Perhaps she was a grown orphan or a young widow; all I know is that she was an angel—not from on high, but from nearly the bottom rung of the social ladder. She was a messenger, sent only from her own soul, to reach the humanity that might be open to a human touch on a bustling city street. The excitement in her eyes stayed with me as I turned and walked away. I left with her image in my mind, like a photograph of my own child I had seen many times and committed to memory. Under slightly different circumstances, that could have been my daughter.
II: The Value of a Dollar
A few minutes later I was already reminiscing. I felt good about myself, partially because I had helped someone in need, but more so because of her reaction, and maybe also because I had purchased both of these commodities for just one dollar. That single dollar was all that I had to pay to assuage my own feelings of dissatisfaction with my society that idolizes wealth and ignores poverty. When I realized that I got the deal of the day, the light of creation was dimmed by my own greed. Why didn’t I give her twenty dollars? Why didn’t I buy her lunch? Why didn’t I ask her to tell me how she ended up on the streets? Maybe I could have helped her find a job. But who am I to ask her about her life story, as though I had just bought the rights for a single dollar?
She was selling newspapers. Perhaps it is none of my business. Newsflash: When homeless people are selling their stories, right at the intersection of Freedom Way and Responsibility Drive, right here in downtown Metropolis, it’s everybody’s business. Until proven otherwise, I have to assume that she would like nothing more than to have an interested person make eye contact, listen, have a real conversation. I wanted to test the water, see if she would like to talk, get a sense of whether or not it would be appropriate to offer to buy her some lunch. I love it when people buy me lunch, and I love to buy lunch for other people. Why should I assume that she is any different? I went back to the corner, but she was gone.
I walked around the neighborhood for a few minutes, to the entrance of the train station, into the market. Maybe I should have bought all her copies of One Step Away. Or maybe I could have encouraged her to raise her voice and call out to the crowd, “Get your copy of One Step Away, right here! Step right up, folks. It’s the special vendor issue! For one dollar, you can read profiles of courage. For four quarters you can read the poetry of rejection and hope. For half the cost of a subway token, you’ll get the value of the Bible… reflections, thoughts and expressions… Find out what we want people who have a roof over their hear from us!” But she was gone. So was that moment of salvation through conversation. And so was the Torah she was holding.
III: Imagery, Grammar & The Possibility of Redemption
Later that evening I was wondering and contemplating the Hebrew word for ‘Messiah/Mashiach’ (משיח). It is a noun structured like a verb because the concept of ‘messiah’ represents an action, a way of being, rather than a particular entity. I realized that Messiah shares a root with the word for discussion, and that the exact same letters vocalized just slightly differently spell the word ‘Maisiach,’ not a particularly common form of the the root, meaning ‘to cause or bring about a discussion.’ And I realized that the difference between the words is in form, rather than content. Strip away the trappings of our material world, and what, after all, is any of us waiting for but a meaningful conversation? It could be anything from catching up with an old friend, to an interview, to a negotiation, to meeting a new neighbor or connecting deeply in mutual understanding… all achieved only through conversation.
Perhaps she kept the image of my smile, as I have kept the image of the sparkle in her eye. There is nothing more etherial than a conversation and nothing more concrete than the results of one that has come to an end. Visions lead to words that give way to actions. Peace talks break down; the Messiah tarries, and a bomb explodes. Two people express their love for one another; they marry, and a child is born. We can only cultivate our relationships when we are present for the possibility of encounter.
There was no third person there when I met that young woman, briefly, near the corner of 11th & Filbert. There was only her act of compassionate understanding, her heartfelt thanks and the blessing she offered me. With no time to consider her reaction, she committed herself to a supreme action of being. It might have become something even more powerful, but the experience of supreme being evaporated into thin air as we went our separate ways. The universe that had paused in anticipation for a fleeting moment resumed the busyness of the day. I will try to be there for someone again soon, and perhaps someone will be there again for me.
Dr. Joshua Yarden holds an M.A. in Judaic Studies from the University of Haifa and a Ph.D. in education, culture and society from the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a dissertation entitled, Embracing Complexity: A Reflective Investigation of Cultural Transformation through Reflective Practice in Experiential Learning. Josh has extensive experience in Israel and in North America, working with individuals, camps, schools, community organizations and national initiatives engaging learners and teachers in the process of ‘becoming Israel.’ His many presentations include: In Search of Solutions: Understanding Israel through Problem-Based Learning; The Binding of Abraham, Jacob’s Struggle to Become Israel, The ‘Torasophy’ of Experiential Learning, and The Well-Framed Empty Space.