What to Do to Live Happily Ever After

What to Do to Live Happily Ever After

Thoughts on Parashat Noah

Menachem Mirski 

The fear of the LORD prolongs life, While the years of the wicked will be shortened.

Proverbs 10:27

Immortality is an eternal human longing and its motif is interlaced throughout all religions and cultures of the world, including secular culture. We see this theme everywhere. Literature, art and film all adopt variants in different epochs to illustrate the fascination with immortality. The Renaissance concept of obtaining eternal life is through one’s own artistic or intellectual works and the modern idea of extending human life is by using discoveries of science and medicine. The dream of immortality expressed in the contemporary era, as longevity, seems to be an inseparable extension of the human survival instinct and, at the same time, an expression of the boundless affirmation of life, an enthusiastic “YES” to human existence.

According to Bereshit / Genesis and its story of creation, immortality, or at least longevity, was the original state of human existence, although this idea is not expressed explicitly in the Bible. All we know is that Adam and Eve were punished with death, or mortality, for their first sin – eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and from this fact we can infer that their previous state of existence was somewhat different. However, despite this punishment the biblical Adam enjoyed his life for 930 years (Genesis 5:5) and this was the typical life expectancy of all Adam’s descendants (and presumably all other living people) until Noah, who according to the Bible lived 950 years.

In the Torah portion for this week, we find the genealogy of Noah’s descendants, from Noah’s son, Shem, to Terah, Abram’s father. After which the lives of each succeeding generation are shorter: Shem lived 600 years, his grandson Shelach 433 years, Shelach’s grandson, Peleg, lived 239 years, and the last descendant mentioned here, Terah who lived 205 years. All of this was decreed by God before the flood (Bereshit/Genesis 6:3.) It was, according to my interpretation of these biblical passages, a punishment for human wickedness and proclivity toward wrongdoing that was happening in spite of being endowed with divine qualities… and a warning directly from God! (Genesis 6:1-6).

The traditional explanation of long lifespans is “lots to do and not enough people to do it.” There were not many people in the world and every person certainly arrived with a set of missions to fulfill. Therefore, at that time, people had large “all-encompassing” souls and therefore longer life spans in order to do the work assigned. In later generations, these big souls were spread out among thousands and millions of individuals, in the form of smaller souls with less work to do, and thus, shorter lifetimes in which to accomplish this work.

However, I believe we need not understand these passages literally and we need not believe that all these people lived 200-900 years.  Here the Bible isn’t speaking to us in the language of facts. This content is probably aimed to motivate people to act morally. What is important here is the message: our lifespan is dependent on our moral conduct.

This idea is expressed numerous times in the Bible:

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God gives thee. (Exodus 20:12)

We have an inversion of this commandment in the Book of Proverbs:

He who curses his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in utter darkness. (Proverbs 20:20)

In addition to the proverb quoted at the outset, another proverb expressing similar idea:

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the LORD, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through me your days will increase, And years be added to your life. (Proverbs 9:10-11)

We also have a little naughty version of this wisdom in the Book of Kohelet:

Do not be overly wicked, and do not make yourself a fool. Why die when it is not your time? (Kohelet 7:17)

But we don’t have to delve deeply into the Bible in order to find more passages with a similar message. It’s enough to open our sidurim and recite the 2nd paragraph of our everyday prayer – Shema ve’Ahavta, where it states that all the commandments were given to you:

…That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)

In fact, the entire system of the Torah commandments serves not only a good and moral life, but also a life with meaning and in which every human action has meaning. All of this deepens the substance of our life and it provides a source of motivation to live and to fight the obstacles we encounter. But, that’s not all: while we are at it, the Torah also teaches us to live in moderation. Because moderation can also extend our lives simply because lack of moderation can shorten it.

The commandments also teach us to live carefully and prudently. They teach us to think before each action and to anticipate its effects. For example, by avoiding unnecessary risks and being careful not to make negatively emotional, ill-considered or hasty decisions we inevitably make decisions that are smart and considered, leading to a longer life.

Therefore, by fulfilling the laws of the Torah together – living mindfully, pragmatically and with love towards others – we can together say an enthusiastic “YES” to human existence and fulfil the vision of the prophet:

No more shall there be an infant or graybeard Who does not live out his days. He who dies at a hundred years Shall be reckoned a youth, And he who fails to reach a hundred Shall be reckoned accursed. (Isaiah 65:20)

Shabbat shalom!

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

Nitzavim-Vayelech

 Open your heart to receive blessing

Thoughts on parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Menachem Mirski

Human beings are religious beings. This means we have a natural tendency to develop religion or something that metaphysically deals with the problematic mystery of human  existence. Every time human beings want to get rid of religion something else fills this gap and becomes a new religion. This new religion is usually a political ideology, an ideologized science or a random stream of philosophy that was accidentally popular at the time.

The problem is that what is metaphysical cannot be replaced with something physical, scientific or political. Whenever humanity tries to do so it hurts itself in the long run.

Conceaed acts concern the LORD our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deuteronomy 29:28)

We cannot repress or get rid of our metaphysical needs. We cannot escape from our need for transcendence. Why? Because by repressing things that concern our God we will end up, sooner or later, in self denial and nihilism. We were created in divine likeness which means we naturally strive for the divine. Our religious drive is a drive for something holy and eternal – something that is good, something that does not pass. This eternal and good thing has to be able to mark everything we freely do and experience- mark with meaning.

To mark means to affirm, not to subject – and no science, no political ideology nor philosophy is able to fully do that. Why? because the products of human intellect are, by definition, limited. Science and philosophy can give you explanation, political ideology can give you the goal. Religion gives you meaning.

At the end of the day human intellect is there to serve, to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more predictable. Religion very often does the opposite or at least starts with the opposite. Judaism, our religion, does not unconditionally affirm our life. It affirms it deeply, but only when we bring holiness, good and justice. It affirms life with a spirit that deliberately opens itself towards unknown and concealed things. None of these concealed things, nor holiness nor good are the notions that can be politically or scientifically defined without reducing them to fractions.

When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the LORD your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. Then the LORD your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

These words contain an endless, divine promise. Note, they don’t make many conditions. There is only one essential: we have to return to God, to everything He revealed to us on Mount Sinai.

Everything that is concealed is known by God. During the coming High Holidays I encourage all of you to express everything that is concealed in us before Him, with our entire hearts and entire souls. If we do that He will turn His countenance towards us and will bless us with all His generosity.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Balak

Focus on things within your impact not on your feelings regarding things

Thoughts of Parashat Balak

 

Menachem Mirski

 

 

Technological progress and the speed of information exchange in the modern world has had many advantages. We have at hand basically whatever we need: we can buy almost anything we want within minutes and have it in our hand the next day, we can order tickets to visit countries we have never been and book hotel rooms for when we are there, we can obtain any movie/book/information/knowledge we want immediately. We can even find our life partner without leaving home.

There are downsides. It’s enough to open the news or any of the social media platforms to find information that raises our blood pressure, makes us frightened, frustrated, angry or even depressed and it is not always easy to get over. Depending on the importance of the “bad news” it may take some time until we find our peace of mind again.

In this week Torah portion, Balak, the King of Moab, finds information that disturbs and frightens him. Everything happens after the Israelites pitched tents on the plains of Moab on the other side of Jordan, opposite Jericho:

Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.” (Num 22:2-5)

Balak persuades the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that Balak can defeat them and drive them out of the region. At first, Balaam refuses and sends Balak’s messengers, for he receives a message from God that he cannot curse the Israelites, because God had already blessed them. (Num 22:12) Balak, however, is adamant and sends his messengers again with the same request, offering him various generous gifts in exchange. Then the message which Balaam receives by God is slightly different:

“If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (Num 22:20)

But even though Balaam is given a choice to go with Balak’s messengers to fulfill his requests God becomes incensed and sets everything at odds with this plan. On the way, Balaam is berated by his donkey, who sees the angel of God blocking their way. When Balaam finally arrives at the designated place, on the border of the country, from which he is able to see the Israelites and curse them, he attempts to pronounce his curses three times, from three different vantage points. Each time, instead of a curse, he pronounces a blessing and prophesies that Israel’s enemies will be defeated. (Num 23-24)

As we know, the Torah places no faith in divination or magic. In this particular story the Torah makes even a stronger point: if we curse someone, not only will it not bring the effect we expect, but it will bring the opposite effect. The message of this story serves to strongly discredit superstition and belief in magical practices. Additionally, the figure of Balak is showing us vividly what happens to people who believe in that kind of practice: they only get more frustrated and angry as they observe that their actions are actually counterproductive. But that’s not all. Each element of this story is designed to sober up the man involved in that kind of irrational practice. It’s hard to express it more clearly than by putting criticism in the mouth of a donkey:

Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” (Num 22:28-29)

It was a sobering experience for Balaam who a moment later admitted that he had erred. He who was the seer and prophet, who claimed to probe the mysteries of time, could not even see what his donkey had seen. That was not the end of the story, for the futility of these practices had to reach everyone (this is, in general, a typical feature of biblical narratives). The will of the Supreme One will prevail over magical rites – no matter how multiplied they are (like building seven altars and sacrificing animals on them, Num 22:40-41.) Israel was to prosper – it was the Divine decree.

This message was also aimed to reach us. Despite the fact that most ‘modern’ people do not believe in magical practices and their effectiveness, we often do, instinctively or subconsciously, get involved in them. If something does not go our way, if someone or something constantly works against us, we get frustrated, angry and we curse. It’s a typical, psychological mechanism. If we curse someone or something we don’t like, it may give us a temporary relief, but it has no effect on the objective reality in which the things we curse exist. In fact, as in our biblical story, it often has the opposite effect: by cursing something we waste our time and energy instead of doing something productive. We emotionally and mentally get stuck in the situation we don’t like and we don’t move forward. We just wrestle in our minds with obstacles that may be impassable or often not even real. Ultimately it can have a negative impact not only on the situation in which we are, but also on our mental health.

To what extent it is dependent on me? – That’s a question we should consistently ask ourselves. We shouldn’t spend too much time or energy on things that are beyond our impact. Instead, we should keep our minds and senses open, because the world around us (or God Himself) often teaches us what is within our reach and what is not. The universe usually does not send us this message through “the lips of the talking donkey,” but such extreme situations do occur. If you suddenly encounter unexpected obstacles, think twice and reconsider your actions. Are the goals you set really worthwhile? Because it is possible that if you prevail, the outcomes may be the opposite to those you expect.

Thus, focus on those things and matters on which you have an influence: your everyday relationships with people, your everyday work and your duties. Focus on things in your close environment where you can do good or make a desired change. I’m not saying “don’t be idealistic” or only “focus only on immediate matters.” You can have and you indeed have an impact on things that belong to the distant future. If you can imagine a realistic plan on how to achieve them then the path to their implementation is open.

However, if you’re angry, pissed off, frustrated, try not to escalate. In these moments think about what you can do for others. Maybe your brother / mother / friend / colleague / partner needs help? Maybe you forgot something someone else had asked you for?  Do something good, something useful – here and now. Instead of hitting your head against the wall and complaining that the world is not what you think it should be – do something good and useful. Nobody promised that life would be beautiful and painless. The world in which we live is built from the bricks and mortar of our daily good deeds. Add at least one or two bricks before you blame your friend, co worker, partner, the system or society.

Shabbat shalom,

 

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