Noach

The climate change that caused the flood

Thoughts on parashat Noach

Menachem Mirski

The story contained in our Torah portion for this week can be seen as a metaphor of a great catastrophe in which species were decimated or doomed to total extinction… Only a few of them were to survive, a few individuals of each gender, in order to reproduce and prevent the animal life cycle on the earth from a complete extinction. Does it sound completely unreal today? I don’t think so, it is certainly not beyond the scope of contemporary man’s imagination.

The story of the flood ends with a new Divine promise – the promise of the eternal covenant between God and humankind:

יהוה smelled the pleasing odor, and יהוה resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.

So long as the earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night

Shall not cease.”

(Genesis 8:20-22)

The above verses can only be understood as a proclamation of faith: as human beings we have no way to verify or falsify them. All we can do is hope that it is true and live with faith that it will, in fact, be so. Nevertheless, people have repeatedly challenged this faith throughout history. The greatest and the most bold challenge to this faith today is posed by climate change.

Climate change is a fact and the one we are experiencing in our times is largely man made. Back in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the request of the UN produced a report from which we know, among other things, a few fundamental things, namely:

  • Increases in average global temperatures are expected to be within the possible range of 0.27 °C (5°F) to 4.8 °C (8.6°F) by 2100, with a likely increase of at least 2.7°F for all possible mitigation scenarios.
  • Except under the most aggressive mitigation scenario studied, global average temperature is expected to warm at least twice as much in the next 100 years as it has during the last 100 years.
  • Ground-level air temperatures are expected to continue to warm more rapidly over land than oceans.

Around the same time climate scientists and economists issued numerous analyses according to which it is going to be very difficult and economically challenging to mitigate the effects of climate change, deeming the most optimistic scenario of 1.5 °C (2.7°F) by 2100 almost impossible to implement, for a variety of reasons – for example, we would have to close and eliminate almost entire energy industry we have at this moment, not only in the US and Europe, but in the entire world, and do it by 2030.

However, what none of those reports says is that we have 12 years until “we all die in a giant ball of fire”, as some politicians and media figures constantly suggest. The idea that the world is going to end in 12 years is an incredible misrepresentation of what the UN Climate Panel has actually done.

But let’s pause here for a second and think: from the analysis brought by scientists from IPCC we know that even if we stopped using fossil fuels completely and reduced our global emission to net zero by 2030, the average temperature on Earth would probably still have increased by 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) by the end of the century. It obviously means that the temperatures on our planet are growing no matter what we do. These facts are commonly known and all of this is well documented by geologists.

he last great global warming in the history of our planet happened roughly 55-58 million years ago and it is called Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. This warming was caused by a massive carbon release into the atmosphere that has been estimated to have lasted from 20,000 to 50,000 years. Geologists estimate that during this entire period, which lasted for about 200,000 years, global temperatures increased by 5–8 °C, from the average earth temperature of 24–25 °C (75–77 °F) of the preceding Paleocene period. This means that the average temperature on our planet might have been at its pick as high as 29-33 °C (84-91 °F), which is about 16-20 °C (27-34 °F) higher than the current average temperature on earth, which currently fluctuates around 13.9-14.5 (57-58 °F)! Both poles were ice free at that time, as in the preceding Paleocene era; the temperatures of Arctic and Antarctic seas were as high as 23 °C (73 °F). The climate of almost the entire planet was tropical; forests covered most areas of our planet, palm trees grew in areas of northern states, like Wyoming, Montana or Canada. How did it affect the animal kingdom? Because of these environmental conditions of that period  an intense evolution of primates took place: The oldest known undoubted fossil primates are about 55 million years old [2][3]. This global warming likely „changed the course of evolution”, as a result of which apes came into being,  from which we, humans, have later evolved. The next epoch, the Eocene, kicked off with a global average temperature more than 8 °C (about 14 °F) warmer than today, gradually cooling over the next 22 million years. Having said that, we are also allowed to say that as living beings we are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the last global warming.

I am bringing this analysis here in order to put things in a proper perspective and cool down emotions often accompanying this debate. Our planet, and life on it, not only survived but also thrived during much warmer periods than the one we expect to happen. Obviously, the human factor involved in our current situation makes it unprecedented. However, the scenario that things could get out of hand and the earth could become the second Venus as a result of a phenomenon known as the runaway greenhouse effect was found unprobable by scientists in 2013. For this to happen, our whole human civilization would have to emit 10 times more carbon dioxide than we emit today. One of the important factors to stop this effect is life on earth itself, which is capable of absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Another argument often raised in this debate is that even a global increase of 3°C (5.7 °F) will bring prolonged heat waves, droughts and increasingly common and severe extreme weather events. This may be true, however, it is also true that the global percentage of people dying in natural disasters has decreased since the early 1900’s by 95%.

Climate economists have done numerous analyses of the matter. In economic terms, spending on physical assets on the course to net-zero would reach about US$275 trillion by 2050, or US$9.2 trillion per year on average, an annual increase of US$3.5 trillion. [1] I don’t think any economy in the world can possibly bear that kind of burden. The UN report from 2014 estimated that, if we don’t change anything, the economical impact of global warming by 2070 would be equivalent to each one of us losing somewhere between 0.2 and 2 percent of our income. Juxtaposing these two analyses also brings us some additional context – the necessary context we need in the debate on climate change. The scientists and economists who prepared the reports for the UN knew that the most aggressive mitigation options – like a complete worldwide resignation from fossil fuels in a decade or two – were impossible to implement without ensuing a global economic collapse.

There is no scientific evidence that climate change we are experiencing in our times poses any existential threat to planet earth and life on it. Climate change is a real problem and it is something we should strive to fix but we also need a sense of proportion in this matter. If you tell people this could be the end of the world for everyone of us – which is what existential threat means – you are telling people that we should spend everything on fixing this problem and not bother about anything else.  What poses a real threat – to our economy, and therefore to our societies worldwide, are irresponsible energy policies leading to galloping inflation and financial destabilization of the markets, which happens across the western world due to bad decisions of our political leaders. Calling for complete abolition of fossil fuels is not only irresponsible; it is, in fact, a call for genocide: it has been estimated that if we stopped using fossil fuels today, between 20 and 60 million of people would die from startvation within a few days. Who would be willing to take responsibility for a decision like that? We need to steadily transition to more and more clean energy but it cannot be solely dictated by government fiat or a group of lobbying businessmen: the fundamental solution here is to invest in new technologies (such as hydrogen cars, for example) and improvement of existing technologies (like nuclear energy).

Climate change is not the only challenge facing humanity – everyone realized that during the recent pandemic. Thus, we have to ask ourselves how much we want and how much we actually can spend on mitigating this problem compared to all the other problems we, as humanity, are facing. All of it should be a subject of an open, public, honest, academic and intellectual debate. Unfortunately this debate is all too often exceedingly emotional, partisan, full of fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions invented to scare people and emotionally manipulate them to make them accept everything people in power want to implement in response to these challenges. And it is often the case that real and important questions, as well as good, reasonable ideas for solutions get completely drowned in this entire noise, in this media hype.

There is a lot to study and talk about regarding this problem. I was just trying to hallmark some important issues and make some important, in my opinion, points. There is a widespread opinion that governments should play a central role in the entire process of tackling climate change and restructuring our energy industry. This is, in my opinion, a very dubious and dangerous view, especially if it were to entail unrestrained increase of their governmental powers, without a proper concern on economic stability and growth, and without a proper balance in decision-making. Nobody should have power to unanimously dictate solutions here. Nobody owns the science, nobody is entitled or even able to make predictions with absolute certainty. Science on these problems is not absolutely settled and probably won’t ever be. It’s all based on computer models. Basing on my knowledge of the methodology of science I would say that the certainty of what is going to happen in 100 years is not greater than our certainty regarding events that happened on planet earth 50-60 million years ago. There are so many things we don’t know and can’t predict.

We are not omniscient. Human cognition is always limited. But the world will not end in 2030 or 2050; there is no scientific, nor any other rational knowledge that would suggest anything like that. That kind of ‘predictions’ are typically based on misrepresentation of facts, ignorance and fear. Where our knowledge ends, our faith begins. According to some of our biblical commentators, it was not only arrogance that caused the ancient people to build the Tower of Bavel; it was also, if nor primarily, their disbelief: they did not believe in the Divine promise that there would not be another flood. They rejected faith in God’s covenant with mankind and therefore built a civilization that has collapsed. Let us be mindful and let us not repeat their mistake. We have more time to decide; more than we typically think.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

[1]https://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/overview/in-the-news/what-it-will-cost-to-get-to-net-zero

[2]https://www.esrf.fr/home/UsersAndScience/Publications/Highlights/highlights-2013/x-ray-imaging/im2.html

[3]https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/the-history-of-our-tribe-hominini/chapter/primate-evolution/

https://climatechange.chicago.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change

https://www.britannica.com/science/Neogene-Period

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene%E2%80%93Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

The position of man in the universe

The position of man in the universe

Thoughts on parashat Bereshit 

Menachem Mirski

God’s unity and oneness is a fundamental theological principle in Judaism. Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! – these are the words we recite twice a day, everyday. There are, however, passages in the Torah that seem, at first glance, to question this Divine unity:

And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

The very form of  „let us make” as well as „in our image, after our likeness” served Christian theologians to justify their Trinitarian theology, which is an unacceptable position from the Jewish perspective. But what is then the proprer Jewish interpretation of these words spoken by God Himself?

Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (known as Akeidah) and other commentators explain the expression „let us make” as an invitation to have the upper beings (the angels) and lower beings (the creatures on earth) involved in the creation of man. After God created the upper and lower beings, the need was felt for a creature that would link lower beings with the upper world, so that the lower beings would be able to exist. The man was created partly from the lower beings, from the dust of the earth, as they were created, but the life spirit in him comes from the upper, spiritual beings, like God and angels. This describes the general essence of man. Chazal in Midrash Rabbah 5 tell us that:

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created man, He consulted with the ministering angels and said to them, „If I create him from the upper beings, he will live and not die, and if from the lower beings, he will die and not live. I will therefore create him from the upper and lower beings, so that if he lives he will die, and if he dies he will live.”

This is one of the most penetrating descriptions of man’s existential position. Both his essence and his existence is composed of the contradictory elements: life and death (with the goal of overcoming death and decay through creating life and through the life permeated with creation) as well as the spirit (from the upper beings) and the animalistic aspect (from the lower beings).

The man is therefore a pillar joining the two worlds. However, the goal of human existence is not only to unite these two worlds, but also to lift this lower world to the higher one. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hebrew word for a man – adam – is not derived from adamah – the Hebrew word for the earth – but the other way around. Man is therefore a creative force which is to transform the surrounding reality so that it serves not only him, but also God and God’s plans. This idea is also included in the plural form in the Torah verse above: God uses this plural form just as a king uses the royal plural to stress that all of man’s actions are on behalf of the community and for the good of the community, and by community we mean all existing beings, the lower and the upper beings.

How is man to achieve these goals: joining these two worlds and elevating the lower world? Through actions through and within the Divine commandments – mitzvot – and this is a central element of human nature. Because man was created in the image of God he obtained special features differing from other creatures: intelligence, ability to understand the world and free will. However, man does not obtain these features at birth: every human being is meant to achieve this status over time. Therefore a man can ascend, to become God-like, but is also liable to fall into the abyss and become beast-like. On the practical level it all boils down to one ability: to say no to ourselves, to restrain our own natural impulses. According to the biblical metaphysics every creature acts in accordance with its natural tendencies and is a slave to its passions, but man can control his natural tendencies and that’s the most important way man resembles his Creator: that is the image of God that is part of his essence. We are to take care of the world and all the lower beings; but they, as well as nature and its resources, are to serve us in our duty to serve God. Our obligation is to find the proper balance in this structure; if we succeed in that, the entire world will not only survive but will grow and flourish.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Miketz

Thoughts on Parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

How should we live? On what basis should we make life choices? Should we trust God, ourselves, or maybe other people, for example those from the government? Or maybe we should trust only some people, or for example experts and science and technology?

Of course we can find answers to these questions in the Torah and Rabbinic literature. Last week’s Torah portion ends with the story about Joseph interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the chief baker. According to the prophecies conveyed in both dreams the chief baker will be sentenced to death, whereas the cupbearer will be restored to serving at the Pharaoh’s court. Joseph knows that this will happen, that’s why he asks the cupbearer:

But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place. (Gen 40:14)

In this week’s Torah portion we read that Joseph had to wait for two years to get out of jail:

After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. (Gen 41:1-2)

Why is the Torah even mentioning this? Why did 2 years have to pass before the Pharaoh had a dream that only Joseph could explain?

According to Midrash Bereshit Rabbah Joseph had to spend two additional years in prison because the Divine plan for the world and the people of Israel had to be fulfilled. But the Midrash adds one detail: these two years correspond to the two words that Joseph “inadvertently” said to the cupbearer:

But think of me… and [mention me] to Pharaoh… (Gen 40:14)

Joseph was punished because these words show his desperation, and at the same time his lack of faith in the Eternal. Joseph sinned because he did not have trust in the Eternal, but instead he was relying on one, ordinary person (which actually sounds quite rational, considering the possibilities and limitations and the strengths and weaknesses of an average person). Joseph was punished because he was a tzadik, and Adonai medakdek im tzadikim k’chut ha’saara – Adonai is scrupulous with tzaddikim even to a single hair. The essence of being a tzadik is therefore extraordinary scrupulousness and completely  entrusting God with one’s life, in every aspect of one’s life. Everything comes down to fulfilling God’s law and to faith in the Eternal; since everything that happens in our lives comes from Him (including of course various punishments and rewards). But on the other hand in the rabbinical tradition we have a clear doctrine stating that we should never, especially in difficult situations, expect that a “miracle will happen” and we shouldn’t rely on such faith:

A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they on High will perform a miracle for him, lest in the end they do not perform a miracle for him. And, moreover, even if they do perform a miracle for him, they will deduct it from his merits. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a)

So is there a contradiction between these two concepts? No, if we define more precisely what faith in God is. First of all, faith in the Eternal does not come down to believing in miracles. The great majority of paths that God shows us in our lives do not have a miraculous or supernatural character, but are rather completely ordinary and natural. Relying on miracles is perceived as “testing God” and is forbidden:

Do not try the LORD your God, as you did at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Actually in Massah the Israelites did try God: while standing in front of the Horab Mountain, waiting for Moses to miraculously retrieve water from the rock for them, they asked:

“Is the Eternal present among us or not?”  (Ex 17:8)

Let’s go back to the questions we asked at the beginning: How should we live? On what basis should we make life choices? Should we trust God, ourselves, or maybe other people, for example those from the government? Or maybe we should trust only some people, or for example experts and science and technology?  Certainly we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket and not leave everything to God, whom we should nonetheless trust. So in each situation we should have a multi-prong approach and have several alternative plans. We should trust both people and ourselves, as well as science and technology, but consider each of them with prudence and necessary critical thinking.

Trusting God entails mainly fulfilling His commandments. And when it comes to our expectations towards Him, then yes, we can expect from God help in every life situation. But we shouldn’t expect that God’s answer will have a miraculous, supernatural character or that it will be exactly as we wish. God usually offers us many different solutions; they are not always what we’d imagined they would be, although they often come close. Joseph trusted one possibility; a possibility that God didn’t actually consider in His plans.

God’s answer can come in different shapes: for example the Eternal gives us wisdom as well as inspiration and motivation to act and He removes the obstacles standing in our way. But in order to access His help and protection, we must open our hearts and minds to the world as widely as possible, so that we can notice everything that the Eternal has planned for us, since everything that happens around us is an element of the Divine plan – usually an element “which is not aware of itself”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Vayishlach

Don’t worry, nothing is really happening

Thoughts on parashat Vayishlach

Menachem Mirski

Worry is psychologically consuming. Fear of the unknown may lead us to many irrational actions and reactions, some of which may hurt us or keep us in a mindset that limits us emotionally and intellectually, not allowing us to function normally and efficiently.

In this week’s parsha Jacob returns to Erec Israel after his 20-year stay at Laban’s in Charan. He prepares to meet with Esau at Seir, in Edom. He sends messengers to Esau in hope of a reconciliation. The messengers return to Jacob with a following message:

“We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (Gen 32:7)

The news frightens Jacob greatly:

[…] in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Gen 32:8-9)

Jacob prepares for war. He prays, he sends Esau a large gift (consisting of hundreds of heads of livestock) to appease him. At some point, after crossing the ford of Jabbok, he is left alone and wrestles with an angel:

And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven  with  beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:26-29)

According to the rabbis, the man/angel sent by God was a spiritual representation of Esau. He was sent to empower Jacob spiritually and to convince him that the meeting with Esau will be a success for both of them. However, even the fact of overcoming God Himself did not make Jacob calm. Just before meeting his brother, he reorganizes his retinue to possibly save those he loved the most:

He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. (Gen 33:1-2)

But ultimately all this fear and panic turns out to be something completely futile because:

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”

Jacob didn’t see Esau for more than 20 years and the last memory he had about him was that Esau promised to kill him. His fears were somewhat right and justified, but it seems that they determined his inner life too much. For example, the not entirely clear message he received from his envoys, was interpreted by him unambiguously negatively, as a direct threat to his and his family’s life. His own sense of guilt might have played some role in all of that. Obviously, based on the past behavior of Esav, Jacob’s fears seemed legitimate but because many years had passed since that time they were, in fact, only “theoretically legitimate”.

And that’s the point, that’s the major issue here. Everything Jacob did preparing himself to meet with his brother was based on speculation. He did not have a chance to verify his presumptions prior to the meeting, when he ultimately confronted them with reality. He was “in his bubble”, to use a contemporary colloquialism, and got stuck in it.

Experiences of that kind are becoming more and more common today, in the digital era. People become anxious, insecure and sometimes even terrified solely on the basis of supposedly true and rational information, which they themselves are unable to confront with reality. More and more people are afraid of things our grandparents would not treat seriously even for a second. Fear is commonly used as a tool to “divide and conquer” by various political demagogues, tyrannical governments and, unfortunately, various powerful media machines in the “democratic, free world”. There are people in this world, quite powerful, who want us to live in fear or to be constantly caught up in problems that are not really relevant. Population that is afraid or confused is much easier to control and manipulate. Information disseminated to the general public is often framed in the way to achieve that goal.

People today are often too preoccupied with their feelings, thoughts, as well as with not particularly real issues. They escalate in their minds everything they feel strongly about. Being worried all the time about “things that might happen” is psychologically damaging and detaches us from reality. It is similar to materialism and being caught up in buying things we don’t really need. It’s like chasing the wind. None of this makes any sense. From our individual, everyday perspective none of what happens on facebook or any other social media platform ultimately matters.

There is also no point in worrying about things that we know will eventually happen to us, such as old age and the diseases that will affect us then. “There is no point in experiencing now, in your imagination, the suffering that is to come in the future” – as the Polish philosopher, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, wrote.

The best way to end our fears and internal struggles is to confront our fears with reality. If we are unable to do so at the moment then prayer, studying Torah and other spiritual practices can help us to maintain the balance and to keep us sane and reasonable. If you are currently worried about something, try to remember your past worries that have never been substantiated. None of them ultimately mattered, right? At the end everything was perfectly fine. It will be so also this time.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Toledot

When Something Goes Wrong, You May Have to Do the “Wrong” Thing

Thoughts on Parashat Toledot

 Menachem Mirski

The main theme for this week’s Torah portion is the struggle between Isaac’s two sons, Jacob and Esau. The struggle between them begins already in the womb: Jacob, still unborn, tries to pull Esau back into his mother’s womb.

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist? ”Meaning of Heb. uncertain. She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Gen 25:22-26)

It was Jacob who was supposed to be Icchak’s firstborn, but things simply “went wrong”. The entire story of rivalry between the two brothers is about a reversal, a correction of “what went wrong” at the time of their birth, and God legitimizes it by foretelling the final outcome of this rivalry. This struggle is even reflected in Jacob’s name: the name Yaakov means heel holder or supplanter, and its root akav means to follow, to tail, to watch.

[Esau] said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” And he added, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen 27:36)

In biblical times the birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance: one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the whole family including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters (Gen 48:22, Deut. 21:17). Given the biblical descriptions of Esau’s character and lifestyle we can rightly conclude that is was not a good fit for the forefather of the Chosen People:

Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. (Gen 25:31-33)

First of all, Esau seems to be underestimating the privilege of being the firstborn, to say the least. Secondly, his hunting lifestyle leaves much to be desired. Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Gen 25:32 states that:

He was daily exposed to danger when he went out hunting, as an animal might kill him. Thus there was a possibility that he would predecease his father.

Given all of that it seems that Esau was not the most reliable person to bear all the responsibilities associated with being the firstborn, and we know that his father, Icchak, was advanced in years at that time.

This sheds additional light on Rebecca and Jacob’s deceptive actions to take Esau away from his birthright. The welfare of the whole family, tribe, the future of the chosen people and the fulfillment of God’s promise were at stake here. What was important here was not who was actually born first but who was a better fit for a leader of the tribe; a better fit – socially, psychologically and intellectually – to be the father of the Chosen People.

In ancient times, and basically until modernity, people didn’t question existing laws, regulations and customs as they do today. These laws and customs have always been “calculated” on large groups of people, and thus were not flexible and typically allowed no exceptions. The strictness of the law and custom “required” lying. In psychology, situations like these are called lie invitees. Rebecca and Jacob had to use a trick, to achieve a goal desired not only by them, but by God himself. In order to “correct the things that went wrong” at the beginning they had to act unethically. Our story is then a story about the necessity of an exception in custom and culture.

This is a story about the circumstances in which the existing ethics and law need to be questioned, suspended or broken for a higher purpose. It is about an exceptional situation where the only law is the will of God. We deal with a similar situation in Akeda (Gen 22) as well as in the story of Pinchas and Zimri (Num 25). The situation here seems to be less drastic, but it still posed a direct threat of the death of one of the people involved: Esau promised to kill Jacob, and therefore Jacob had to flee. Our story seems to convey a theological statement that God’s will sometimes override the Divine law. It’s not a norm, however, it’s an exception. This story can be also used as an illustration that sometimes reason, human design and common sense have to triumph over convention, a given state of affairs or even nature.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Truth vs Peace

Truth vs Peace

Thoughts on Parashat Vayehi

Menachem Mirski

“No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth”, said Plato. “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it”, said Voltaire. “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for”, said Bob Marley.

Is telling the truth always good or necessary? Is telling the lies always wrong? Many books were written on these topics, many people have tried to give an ultimate answer to it. Soon after this problem seems to be resolved there comes another answer to it. Also our Torah portion for this week touches this subject. It tells us the story of Joseph’s brothers who openly lie to him:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Gen 50:15-17)

Joseph cried because he immediately noticed that his brothers were lying. This lie was nothing compared to what they had done to him when they sold him to Egypt many years earlier. In his eyes, the brothers’ lie was a rather pathetic expression of their fear, helplessness and sense of guilt. How do we know about this? The rabbis give us some hints. According to Rabbi Luzatto:

He understood that the brothers had instructed the messenger what to say; otherwise Jacob would have told himself. Joseph therefore wept at seeing the tragic state of his brothers, going in fear of their lives and forced to such shifts to stave off his vengeance.

There is no reason to believe that the brothers told their father the truth about the sale of Joseph: the Torah does not mention that Jacob found out about it. Nahmanides explains it as follows:

It seems to me that the plain meaning of the test is that Jacob was never told of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, but imagined that he got lost in the fields and was sold by his finders to Egypt. His brothers did not wish to divulge their misconduct, especially, for fear of his curse and anger. […] Had Jacob known it all the time, they should have begged their father to command Joseph to forgive them […].

The idea that Joseph himself told his father about it also seems improbable. First, he had forgiven his brothers and saw a divine plan in it. So he had no reason to take revenge on his brothers, and it would be revenge to disclose this information to his father, Jacob.

I have already mentioned several times the well-known comment that the family stories in the Book of Genesis are predominantly the stories of dysfunctional families; that these stories often tell us how not to deal with each other and that they capture aspects of ethics that are very difficult to codify into a moral or religious law.

However, let us consider what the case of the lies of Joseph’s brothers will look like in the context of the ethics of Judaism. The Torah does not absolutely forbid lying as such. The 9th commandment of the Decalogue, lo taane ve’reacha ed shaker, commonly translated as You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, is restricted to bearing a false testimony in order to harm someone. Its literal meaning is: You shall not answer your neighbor, false witness! A false witness is one whose testimony may even be theoretically true, but has no basis in his experience, e.g. they say that they have seen something but in fact only heard about it, etc. The rabbis, however, put many restrictions on what we can say to others: for example, revealing private information about others (gossip – rekhillut) even if true, is prohibited, unless revealing this information can protect someone else from abuse or harm. Obviously, deliberately misleading others (geneivat da’at) through “smooth speech” or seductive language is a violation of Jewish norms of speech and prohibited (however, trying to persuade the people who are informed that they are being persuaded to buy or believe something is not considered misleading and it is allowed.)

So what do the rabbis say about our story? One of them, Rabbenu Bahya Ibn Pakuda, tells us that we may deviate from the literal truth in order to preserve peace between people. Joseph brothers, tormented by their sense of guilt, felt their lives were in mortal danger. Our Sages regarded their conduct as warranted on the principle that truth has sometimes to be subordinated to more important values.

Some say that this means that truth, no matter how important, is not an absolute value and sometimes it must give way to other values and two of them sometimes are more important: peace and life. I believe that this opinion confuses the truth as such, understood by philosophers as accurate cognitive representation of reality with the mere act of ‘telling the truth’ assessed from the perspective of ethics. Telling the truth is sometimes inconvenient, sometimes gravely dangerous but sometimes necessary, even if it ensues sacrifices and sufferings, necessary to begin something new, to say goodbye to something we don’t want anymore or to put reality back on track which I wish everyone in the New Year 2021!

Shabbat shalom

 

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Miketz

Truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While there is a lot of truth to this rather amusing statement, I challenge this conclusion. It would be absolutely true if we had full control over the results of our actions and over other factors that influence those results, however, we have no such control. Additionally, we don’t get everything right the first time we try – so repeating it again, might in fact produce a different result. The same is true of risk-taking situations: these situations, by definition, do not guarantee the desired results. Therefore, at the onset, the truth of the statement is limited.

In this week’s Torah portion, we come across a story that seems quite puzzling in light of the ending of the previous Torah portion. As you may remember, in last week’s parashah, Joseph interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer and predicted correctly that he would be released from prison and regain his former position. Joseph asked the cupbearer not to forget about him. And while he had proof that Joseph interpreted the dream correctly the cupbearer did nothing. But in this week’s Torah portion the situation is completely different. Joseph again interpreted a dream, in order to get out of prison, and in fact, had a different result. Here is what follows after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream:

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. (Gen 41:37-43)

How did Pharaoh, unlike the cupbearer, come to believe Joseph when there was no way of proving his interpretation? The dream was about a rather distant future. What was the criteria of truth here? Why did Joseph achieve a different result? Why did Pharaoh listen to this message, from the lowest among the lowest in the social hierarchy, while ignoring his court magicians? Why were the magicians’ explanations not convincing while Josephs were?

We do not know, we can only speculate. We know from my previous sermons that Joseph was seen as truthful and sincere. Perhaps the magicians interpreted the dream in such a way as to please the Pharaoh, but Pharaoh who was quite disturbed by it, didn’t “buy” their “positive” interpretation, while Joseph’s was perceived, in the blink of an eye, as more sincere and truthful and thus more believable. Additionally, Joseph’s interpretation was pragmatic, he immediately gave Pharaoh practical advice on how to deal with the coming famine. Another factor that may have been appealing in Joseph’s response is that he, as a Hebrew, a stranger in the land of Egypt, had at heart, the future of that land. This is also an expression of pragmatism, but what is crucial here is that it is a sign of Joseph’s impartiality.

Let me say it again: truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism. These are values that we should consistently support and work towards. Not only because untruthfulness, partiality and detachment abound. But because these three values sometimes are in conflict. Pragmatism can mean, and often does mean, being partial. It can also mean silence on topics that need to be addressed openly. I don’t think I need to give any examples here – there are many of them in various areas of our life: in our professional and private life, at work, at home or in our relationships. Similarly being truthful at all costs is also not wise. We know well that not every thought has to be expressed the minute we think it. Not every message or email has to be delivered the minute it is written. We need to be thoughtful about things. What I’m advocating for is to have all these three – truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism – in our hierarchy of values and strive to always find the right balance among them and their consequences.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Vayetze

The Ladder of History

Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Menachem Mirski

We live in a world that is so deeply divided ideologically that it is commonplace to rationalize the concept that people live in different, parallel realities. We see ideas of tolerance and pluralism, that were born from the Enlightenment, proliferated during the last 20 years – expressed in slogans like “agree to disagree” or, attributed to Voltaire, „I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – mean little to nothing today. What happened to our Enlightenment values? What caused these deep ideological rifts that pierce so many Western societies?

While there are many answers to these questions, it is possible that postmodernism, by deconstructing everything, also deconstructed what was good and valuable in our culture, and now we are living in a time of another „re-evaluation of already re-evaluated values”. It is also possible that much of this „ideological rupture” is a delusion due to the fact that most of our political debate takes place on the Internet. Debate on the internet fuels division and radicalism because it is a place where people have no external stop signs or limits and does not require anyone to take responsibility for their words. All of that has an impact “outside the matrix”.

A wider perspective might see this disorder as an intrinsic orderly process of birth, decay and rebirth, and not only is nature subject to this order but also the world of spirit and ideas.

In this week’s Torah portion we have the story of Jacob, who on his way from Beersheba to Haran has his famous dream about a ladder and angels wandering on it:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Avraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land on which thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed (Gen 28:12-13).

In Midrash Tanhuma we have a very interesting interpretation of Jacob’s dream:

“And behold the angels of God are ascending and descending”: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many! In that our Jacob was afraid and said: Peradventure, this one has no descend? Said the Holy One, blessed be He to him: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob… neither be dismayed, O Israel”. Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me, thence will I bring him down! As it is stated (Obadiah 1:4): “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.”

According to this Midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of nations, empires and cultures in the arena of world history. The fact that this knowledge was revealed to the father of the Jewish people is not surprising. The last mentioned empire, Edom, in rabbinic mind, represents the Roman Empire and its political successors. The author of this Midrash lived in the period of the Roman Empire and had not yet witnessed its decline, so it is no wonder that Edom only ascended. However, the way it is told seems to suggest that the final fate of Edom will be the same as that of any other empire.

Empires rise and fall, and as such, one may predict that just as the Greeks and the Romans fell, so too will the empire known as the „Western World.” I’m not a prophet and I don’t know what will happen, however, from the Jewish theological point of view, where God is a master of history, we know this depends entirely on God. God revealed to Jacob the nature of this historical process; nevertheless He is above nature, He is its ultimate ruler. To what extent is this process dependent on us? It seems that it is dependent on us human beings only to the extent we are able to influence God and His decisions. So, nobody knows. But according to Deuteronomistic doctrine of reward and punishment which we express everyday in our Shma God is more favorable to us when we are righteous. Thus being righteous and having good faith can’t hurt.

Whether it happens or not, the collapse of the West does not have to be immediate, spectacular or complete. It is very possible that it could be a kind of hybridization of different cultures and political systems which ultimately may positively contribute to the development of the whole world. Uniting us all rather than destroying.

The idea of humanity as a single human race is at the heart of our tradition: we are all created in the image of God. Ideas of a great unity of humankind were expressed by our prophets. According to Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6) at the end of times all the people will become Jewish. The vision of Micah is, however, a bit different:

Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit Under his grapevine or fig tree With no one to disturb him. For it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk Each in the names of its gods, We will walk In the name of the LORD our God Forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)

A future where the nations will live in peace and all will retain their distinctiveness and their identity. Relying on common sense and above all my faith in God I would say the following: this vision can not come true until we treat each other respectfully. Unfortunately, we do not. The division among us is apparent on all possible levels and ranges between individuals to family to community to globally. We see the hatred, slander, defamation, demonization, applying group responsibility, contempt, revenge, resentment, self-hatred, bigotry and intolerance everyday and everywhere. In our tradition, hatred, slander and defamation are serious sins and they often start with smaller offenses, like mockery and insults, which, like everything evil, can escalate to unimaginable magnitudes.

We must avoid mocking people who think differently, not to mention treating someone with contempt. Let us remember that people who have a different vision of the world, have the same human nature – they are in the image of God. By insulting them we insult God. We also shouldn’t treat each other as objects – for example, like computers that can be reprogrammed (ideas of this kind are sometimes expressed at the ends of the political spectrum). First, we shouldn’t do it because people, good or vile, should not be treated as objects. Second, because it has the opposite effect: people cannot be reprogrammed. Attempting to do so can only result in retaliation and aggression. If a group in power has a significant advantage over another ideological group and forces its opponents to submit then resentment will arise and like a time bomb will explode when a defensive group comes to power in the future. Treating people as objects is then not only immoral: it is senseless and dangerous.

Let us treat each other with respect and control our impulses of anger. While they may be natural they are the source and fuel for many of the bad things mentioned above. Moral ideas, such as respecting each other, self-control, and many others, like not slandering or deceiving each other, are present in all cultures. These are fundamental and universal values: they are not culturally relative. It is so because they are the foundations of every civilized human society. Had they not developed within society they wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrived. The fact that they are present in all cultures is a strong foundation for the belief that the visions of our prophets are not pipe dreams – their realization is absolutely possible.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

 

 

 

 

Toldot

The Bible is not immoral

Thoughts on parashat Toldot

Menachem Mirski

Some people accuse the Hebrew Bible of containing fiction or idealizing certain events or phenomena, especially when it speaks of incredible or miraculous events. The main problem with this critique is that the Bible contains testimonies that are to a large extent non-falsifiable. The proposed „methods of verification” of the biblical stories often consist in confronting their factual layer with the knowledge about the world we have today, with our contemporary, often well-founded, but still beliefs, about what is possible in the world, what is impossible, what is probable and what is not. This is one of the reasons that this process always fails and that the Bible cannot be fact-checked and approved or disapproved and put in the archive. This is also one of the reasons why the most important question regarding biblical narratives is not whether something really happened or not, but what is the message of the story.

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible does not idealize its human characters: they are often eminent people, with unique qualities, but at the same time are „painfully human”. Our biblical characters are not “idealized heroes”: even the greatest, the most righteous and pious of them, like Moses, had their human flaws: impatience, tendency to anger etc.

This week Torah portion tells the famous story of how Jacob, our forefather, took the birthright of his brother Esau:

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am about to die, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.(Gen 25:29-34)

There are some additional details to this story provided by our biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for example, tells us that Esau lived a very hazardous life as a hunter and believed that he might very well die before his father and never enjoy the portion of the first born. That’s why he said I am about to die (hebr. ani holech lamut /Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:32). In another commentary he claims that Esau saw that his father had become poor in his old age and that there was little for him to inherit. Thus he didn’t care about it. (Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:34)

We do not know exactly how much time passed between these events and the actual „taking” of the birthright by Jacob, but from the way the Bible tells this story, as well as many others, it can be inferred that both situations were quite distant in time. After the events described above (Gen 25:29-35), the entire next chapter (Gen 26) tells a story of the famine in Isaac’s land, his journey to Gerar (which was a city or region probably located in the Negev Desert) and his alliance with Abimelech. Isaac settled in Gerara and it seems that he stayed there for at least a few years, if not more. The story ends with the mention that Esau, reaching the age of 40, married two women, Yehudit and Bosmat, and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. (Gen 26:34-35). Then, the Torah, going back to our birthright story says: When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” (Gen 27:1) Therefore, we can confidently assume that many years have passed between the reckless consent of Esau to give away his birthright and the plot by Rebecca and Jacob to actually take it over.

What does it mean? This means that the question of the birthright was probably a bone of contention between the brothers and Jacob had been planning this takeover for years, waiting only for the right moment to happen. Especially that they were conceived at the same time and were born the same day, one after another. In biblical times the birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance: one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the whole family including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters (Gen 48:22, Deut. 21:17). This sheds some additional light on Rebecca and Jacob’s deceptive actions to take Esau away from his birthright: they probably believed that Esau, given his personality and lifestyle, was not fit to be a birthright son. However, the law was the law and there wasn’t a way around it other than cheating.

Thus, Jacob’s and Rebecca’s decision might have been completely reasonable and right, especially in the long run. This does not, however, exonerate them and doesn’t change the fact that their behavior violated ethical standards, at many levels. Yes, Jacob actually got Esau’s consent in this matter, but it was given recklessly and casually, probably many years earlier. But what is absolutely ethically indefensible is plotting against the disabled father and deceiving him to obtain the birthright. The result of these actions was as follows:

Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob. (Gen 27:41)

Why does the Bible tell us these kinds of „embarrassing family stories” and why does tradition pass them on from generation to generation? There are many reasons for it. One of them is that both the Bible and our tradition want to show us a real life of our ancestors, with all its ups and downs, without sweeping anything under the rug. This, in turn, is aimed to guide us to conduct rightly, even through our embarrassment or maybe exactly through it. This is to teach us many things: to critically analyze ethical situations, to sensitize us to the harm of those we have hurt, to remind us of our own imperfections, our own faults, sins, lies, manipulations and deceptions. Perhaps the Bible tells us all these embarrassing stories so that we would feel uncomfortable and accept it with humility. There is nothing wrong about it: we do similar things in our life; our successes contain sometimes some dishonesty and manipulation deep in the background that has never been revealed. Our parasha gives us a radical example of it that we may not forget, to motivate us to correct our behavior in the future.

The Hebrew Bible is not immoral. This confusion often comes from the belief that the Bible allegedly promotes the imitation of its characters. This belief is incorrect: the ethics of the Hebrew Bible is not a role model ethics (as is the case with the Christian New Testament). It is primarily a normative ethics in which moral norms and standards are codified into law. Nevertheless, not all the ethical standards expressed in the Hebrew Bible have been codified, for a simple reason: many of the ethical situations in our lives are too complex and too situational to be codified into law, into a clear set of rules. The Torah is aware of that and thus it also contains general ethical demands, like: And you shall do the right and the good (Deut. 6:18) urging us to use our conscience and to act beyond the letter of the (ethical) law. For this reason we also need biblical stories, which often show us examples of what are the outcomes of unethical behavior, a prime example of which is the story of our parasha.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter

Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter

Thoughts on Parashat Lech Lecha

Menachem Mirski

There are days when we completely lose our energy to live, when we feel unhappy and a voice inside us tells us that nothing can be done about it so do nothing. Some people simply accept this voice and for others this can be a harbinger of impending depression. There are also those among us who hear a second inner voice, the voice of rebellion: Now is the time for an important change, don’t hesitate, take this jump. Make a breakthrough!

In this week’s parasha Abram, who was childless and believed that he was approaching the end of his life heard this second type of voice. He receives a promise from God that he will not only have a son, but he will become the father of nations and his offspring will be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). The constitutive feature of the divine promise is, of course, that the probability of its fulfillment is 100%. On the same day, God makes a covenant with Abram and foretells him in a dream a fragment of the history of his descendants, the Israelites – their bondage in Egypt and their liberation (Gen 15:12-17).

Soon after Abram’s wife, Sarai, who was infertile, gives Abram her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to bear him a son and Ishmael is born from this union. Abram was then 86 years old. Thirteen years later God appears to Abraham again. This time He promises Abram that Sarai would bear him a son. Sarai, being ninety years old at that time, laughs at this idea. But everything is again, 100% guaranteed and confirmed by another “annexed covenant” according to which God renames Abram to Abraham and ALL men become circumcised and circumcision becomes a fundamental and eternal element of the Abrahamic covenant.

The promise of Isaac’s birth sounds absolutely incredible even for those directly involved in these events at the time. The first reaction of both Abraham and Sarah is laughter. Abraham, moreover, seems to disbelieve this promise and by appealing to common sense he comforts himself with the fact that he already has a son born from a slave, so somehow the divine promise will be fulfilled:

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen 17:17-18)

That’s where Isaac’s name comes from: it means “he will laugh”, reflecting the laughter, in disbelief, of Abraham and Sarah, when told by God that they would have a child. Abraham was then 99 years old, Sara was 90. Even if we believe that the Bible doesn’t speak literally here and if we ‘convert’ their biblical lifespans to our contemporary lifespans, it still sounds incredible: Abraham lived 175 years, so let’s assume that it’s an equivalent of 100. In this scenario Abraham at the time of Isaac’s birth would be 57 and Sarah 51. Even though men lose their fertility with time and becoming a father at this age is not a particularly unrealistic scenario, it certainly was for Sarah and not really expected. The chances of a healthy natural conception after the age of 50 years are only 1%, not to mention that the risk of miscarriage or fetal defects is very high at this age.

What is important here is the message of the story: don’t always assume that what you consider impossible or even unthinkable is, in fact, impossible or unthinkable. That’s what Divine promises are often about – they often challenge our beliefs and common sense. In the same way faith, the human counterpart to divine promise, is at its core, suspending what we know and believe – going beyond reason and common sense. Faith is about making possible what is improbable (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) The Divine voice that speaks inside us when we pray wants us to open our minds to the possibility of improbability, to the possibility of things we consider impossible. When we really open our minds and hearts and follow this voice we are able to see a world full of incredible possibilities. Once we see this we suddenly can see roadmaps to follow these openings and tools to make the change real. Opening our minds means questioning our patterns of thinking.

“Have faith and it will happen” – it sounds cliche, but it actually works. In non religious circles they made up the notion of “the Law of Attraction” to replace religious faith. The law of attraction says that you will attract into your life whatever you focus on. Whatever you give your energy and attention to will come to you. So, if you stay focused on the good and positive things in your life you will automatically attract more good and positive things into your life. If you follow with consistent action and you do not come into a conflict with commandments and ethical teachings it all becomes true and real.

To make a great jump in your life or to overcome a great challenge you must have faith. Good faith that God, or the circumstances, will serve you and that in turn gives you motivation and courage.

Imagine anyone moving from another country to start a new life. Imagine the faith required. But, not just faith, you have to follow the road map, learn new things and change patterns to make it work and when it works you are rewarded with enormous satisfaction. Similarly, this also happens when people decide to have children, regardless of if they “can afford it.” They are often ridiculed for their belief, “If God gives children He will provide for them.” But in reality, if they are responsible people, they adjust everything they do to the new situation and make due. “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” Psalm 34:10.

This is what makes improbable not only possible, but real: When we are in a new situation we have to adjust our actions to it. We have to make it work! by changing our mindset we change our situation. The new situation can change everything, even your life span. Abraham being 86 believed that he was approaching the end of his life. After receiving all the Divine promises he got another 89 years.

In our tradition we have many stories about people who have done incredible things. But the greatest testimony of faith and its outcomes is our Jewish history as a whole. I have not heard anyone who expressed this idea better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

When I look at the Jewish people today I am awestruck. Here is a people that in 1945 stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. Had they remained traumatized for generations anyone would have understood. And yet, within three years they stood up and made the greatest collective affirmation in 2000 years. “I will not die, but I will live” by declaring the State of Israel. Secondly, the State of Israel itself which has achieved miracles, a country so small, so vulnerable, so surrounded by enemies, with so few natural resources has achieved great things and should, I think, be a symbol of hope for every small country, for every persecuted people. And that too, is cause for thanksgiving. Somehow or other, Jews having been through as close as you can get to hell on earth have come through, have not looked back, have looked forward, have not nurtured feelings of resentment and revenge, but have gone out and built the future. And if that is not a testament of the power of faith, I don’t know what is. Judaism remains, and the Jewish people remains a living symbol of hope, of the power of faith to let possibility defend probability.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA