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Leaving Mesopotamia

04/06/2015 08:26:00 AM


Leaving Mesopotamia
Yom Kippur 5769, 2008
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

In the beginning, there were two: Tiamat, the great goddess of the sky waters. And Ea, the deliberative, slow-moving god the earth waters. They co-mingled their waters and there were born all the gods of the world; gods of sun and moon and stars, gods of war and peace, of fertility and barrenness, of rain and drought. These gods were driven by their passions and jealousies and lusts. And their carousing filled with world with noise and commotion. So much so, that mother Tiamat regretted having created them. She longed for the quiet days with her consort. And she devised a plan to kill all the gods, all her children, and return the world to pristine silence. 

The plan was leaked to the gods. They gathered anxiously in council. What could be done? Who dared resist the all-powerful mother goddess? Up stepped Marduk, god of thunder and lightning and proposed a plan: He would fight the sky goddess on behalf of all the gods. If he was victorious, he would be crowned king of the gods. The plan was quickly adopted. And off to battle against his mother went Marduk.

The battle raged for many days. Until Marduk gained an upper hand. He pried open the mouth of the sky goddess, propped it with a thunder bolt, and then cast another bolt of lethal thunder deep into Tiamat’s belly. She died in agony. Marduk sliced the dead body of the sky goddess in half. Half, he placed in the sky. And half, he placed beneath the earth. 

Marduk celebrated his victory with a grand festival at which he was crowned king of the gods. But his rejoicing was short-lived. For it was Tiamat, the mother goddess, who provided sustenance for the gods (Mama did the shopping and cooking!). And once she was gone, there was no source of food. 

Marduk set to work creating a suitable servant for the gods. He squeezed out the blood of the vanquished goddess into the mud of the river, and formed from the mixture, the man. Man was given the task of serving the gods. Literally. Man was to offer savory sacrifices whose smoke billowed toward the heavens and fed the appetites of the gods. 

So goes the ancient Mesopotamian creation story. Approximately 2000 BCE. This was Abraham’s bedtime story. 

This myth depicts a world of endless conflict. The gods pitted against one another in endless combat driven by lusts, jealousies, desires, or just the caprice of boredom. It is a world without stasis, without a moment of peace. In this world, the human being is a pitiful, powerless bystander. Anything a human being might dare attempt to build would be snatched away or sullied by the uncontrolled impulses of the gods. You are children building sand castles by the seashore. The tide will inevitably and irresistibly come in and wipe away all your ambitions and your plans. So sit quietly, do as you are told, fulfill your role, and you and your children might survive to see tomorrow. 

The Hebrew Bible was protest, a rejection of this story. Our Bible was a polemic against this view of the world. 

“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. The earth, unformed and void. with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—3 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.....”

Compared to the Mesopotamian myth, Genesis is placid. There is no battle. No struggle. No lusts, no passions, no blood. Instead, there is hope. There is room in Genesis for human aspiration, for human dreams. The most important words of Genesis: God saw that it was good. The world has possibilities. The future is open. There is order. There is benevolence. It is good.

In the Mesopotamian story, the human being was created from the blood of the vanquished goddess to serve the whims and appetites of her spoiled children. Genesis parodies on this notion, and supplants it. 

26And God said, “Let us make man 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.” 27And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” 

Just as in the pagan myth, the human being is created from the essence of the divine. But in Genesis, the human being bears the image of the Creator, and shares the power and responsibility for governing the world. In Genesis, the human being is a creator, partner with the divine creator, and responsible for the destiny of creation. 

The Biblical prophets went to war with this myth and battled its world view. They called every generation to fight the myth. Because the prophets perceived that everything sacred, everything noble, every moral capacity of the human being is threatened by the myth, and its view of the world. They knew that the myth lives. Even though the ancient Mesopotamians are long gone. Even though there are no Babylonians, Assyrians, or Akkadians among us, their myth still lives. Its world view survives. The Biblical prophets warned us: In certain moments of history, when there is economic strain, political uncertainty, social instability, the ancient Mesopotamian myth comes to life again and threatens all that is good in human beings. This is our time to battle the myth. 

Even now, the myth comes and whispers: Your world is out of your control! Look at the front page of your newspaper. Listen to the TV news. Your world is run by faceless forces far bigger and more powerful than you. You have no control over your destiny. You are just a bystander. You are an innocent victim. You are manipulated by power far beyond your comprehension. You are powerless. You have no control. So fear. Fear for your future. Fear for your children. Fear for your dreams. 

The Biblical prophets knew that when people are driven by powerlessness and fear, they close up, they go into a clinch:

-- Forget concern for the other, I have to watch out for my own. 
-- Forget the call to justice, I have to make sure I get what’s coming to me. 
-- In a world that is random and absurd, I’m going to protect what’s mine.

In such a world, there is only one ethic: Take! Take all the advantage you can, because that is the only way to protect yourself in a chaotic world. Cheat on tests in school. Engage in shady business practices. Break the rules. Climb over anyone's back. Do whatever you have to, because that is your only chance to survive. 

Take! Take all the pleasure you can. Satisfy every desire and impulse as soon as you can, because who knows what tomorrow may bring. Take! – and when the taking gets too lonely or too empty or too sad, take a drug and you’ll feel better. Have a drink, have a hit, go gamble a hand or two, at least for a moment, it will make it all go away.

The prophets know that when people are driven by fear and powerlessness, they divide their world into neat binary disjunctions: Us/Them. Our People/Those People. People like us/People who are Strange. Citizens/Aliens. Children of light/children of darkness. The Chosen/The Damned. Carefully drawn and neatly bounded, the world becomes so much simpler. It provides a comfortable sense of identity. We know exactly who we are, because we know precisely who we’re not. We feel at home in our place, a place well-fenced and well-defended from those Others. 

To gain control over their world, we construct an image of the Other. Who is the Other? The one who threatens. The danger. He’s not like us. He corrupts our values, he pollutes our world. He has no place here. When you see him, destroy him! Every generation has its own particular Other: The black man, the Asian man, the Jew, the immigrant, the gay man, the assertive woman who refuses to submit, the Latino, the Muslim.

-- Watch out for the Other! Don’t let him into your home, your neighborhood, your children’s school. All he needs is a toehold to steal your world, so beware!

The Biblical prophets know that when people are driven by fear and powerlessness, they seek to assert control. Even if it’s just an illusion of control. They need to have control over something, over someone. So they’ll go and dominate or abuse or destroy, and worship their own power. According to the US Dept of Justice, families suffering financial strain are three times as likely to experience domestic violence. Women whose male partners experienced two periods of unemployment during the past five years were three times as likely to be abused. The cause, the study noted, was not employment status, but the instability and uncertainty brought on by unemployment. Powerless to provide for his family, he is shamed. So he beats her, and he beat the children. He beats them to exorcise his shame, to reassert his control, to have power again. 

The prophets know that when people are driven by fear and powerlessness, they garb themselves in the cloak of the victim, a cloak that covers any horror. In the Bible’s fourth chapter, Cain is despondent that his offering is not accepted as was his brother’s, so he kills his brother. Cain, the very first human being born into the world, feels himself a victim, so he turns to murder his brother. As victim, he feels justified: The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

In the life of nations, this same phenomenon leads to history’s greatest tragedy. Seventy fives years after the Nazis rose to power, historians still struggle to explain how the Nazis could take such effective hold of Germany and bring it to such murderous extremes in war and in the Holocaust. In a new book that draws extensively on German diaries and letters, University of Illinois historian Peter Fritzsche argues that much of the Nazis appeal was driven by deep German fears of national destruction. The Nazis built upon the strong sense of victimhood and vulnerability resulting from the nation’s defeat in World War One, to the near-death they believed Germany had suffered in 1918. Because they believed they were fighting for their very existence as a nation, the Nazis delivered upon their enemies the very destruction they imagined awaited Germans. “The perpetrator murders,” writes Fritzsche, “because he believes he is a victim.”

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But powerlessness and fear destroys souls. Embracing a myth of our powerlessness inevitably leads to cynicism and despair. It despairs of the human capacity to shape the conditions of our own existence. It despairs of human efficacy in the face of a world of chaos. It despairs of human dreams and hopes. It destroys the human soul. 

Judaism went to war against this myth, its sense of powerlessness and fear. And that’s ironic. If ever there was a people whose historical experience corresponded to this tale of chaos, violence, and absurdity, it’s the Jewish people. This tiny people – battered and beaten and trample by the powerful in every generation and on every continent – this tiny people proudly proclaims its refusal to give in to hopelessness and fear. Instead, it carefully constructed a spiritual bulwark to protect the Bible’s sense of hope, its commitment to a world of open possibilities, its belief in the power of human dreams and human aspiration. 

Despair is a poison to the human soul. The antidote is gratitude. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with a serious cancer. I was told it was most probably fatal. There was a week between the diagnosis and the surgery that would determine whether I lived or died. Probably the strangest week of my life; alternating between the normal tasks of any week, and wrestling with my very immanent mortality. It was a week of overwhelming anxiety. But sometime during the week, I was struck with a profound sense of equanimity. In a moment of reflection, it occurred to me that I enjoyed more blessings that I could count. I had a wonderful family, I’ve shared life with the girl I’ve loved all my life, I have kids I cherish, my parents and brothers beside me. I had a rich community of friends. I have teachers who drew me close. All of these blessings, and I didn’t earn nor deserve any of them. All these blessings were gifts. Who was I to complain? All I can feel is gratitude. Gratitude doesn’t make the pain or the fear or the loss go away. It balances them. It casts a new light into our human situation. When gratitude for our blessings balances the pain of our loss, we are healed, we have peace, we can go forward.

The rabbis instituted a remarkable spiritual discipline. A Jew is to recite one hundred brachot, blessings each day. One hundred times a day, we are to stop the rush and routine of life, to take in the blessings of being alive, to notice the gifts that come our way each day, to be mindful that it is only by an endless stream of daily miracles that we live and walk this earth. Nothing extraordinary – just the capacity of the body to breathe, the food we eat, the friendships we cherish. She-hechiyanu, v’keymanu v’higyanu lazman hazeh, for the singular moments of closeness and love. One hundred times a day, we are to notice, be mindful, appreciate, and express thanks for our blessings. 

I taught this to the kids in our school last year, and one very smart boy raised his hand: Rabbi, who has time to stop a hundred times a day to say thank you? And before I could answer, an even smarter girl sitting in the row in front of him turned and said, “How many times do you say, ‘I want something’ each day? Well, how about, before you say, I want, or Give me, or Get me, you stop and say thank you? She got it. And I gave thanks for fourth grade girls who get it. Despair is a poison to the human soul. The antidote is gratitude.

Cynicism is poison to the human soul. The voice of cynicism counsels surrender. Give up. You can’t affect the conditions of your existence. Resign yourself to what is. What is, is what is meant to me. And it can be no other way. Cynicism poisons the human soul. Its antidote is action. 

My father suffered a serious stroke three years ago. Much of his body was paralyzed. After his initial medical care, he was brought to Northridge Hospital for rehab. So after work each night, I’d go up and visit. At first, he was very depressed. He felt everything good in his life had been taken from him. And then one night, his mood changed, his whole attitude was different. I thought perhaps the physical therapy was beginning to work, returning his strength and control. Or perhaps they changed his medications. Then I learned the truth: At eleven o’clock, he excused himself, and told me he had an appointment. Who do you have an appointment with at eleven o’clock at night? I asked. And he told me: A few nights ago, they brought in a kid who had been in a terrible motorcycle accident. The kids was completely paralyzed, his body almost destroyed. The kid was so depressed, he was suicidal. He saw nothing in his future, so he refused to take his medications. He wanted to die. They brought social workers and psychologists and psychiatrists, but no one could reach the kid. Except my father. With his own body broken, he wheeled his wheelchair into the kid’s room each night when it was time for medications. My father sat with the kid and talked to him, and talked him into staying alive for just another day. Each night, Dad went into that kid and talked him into taking his meds. He talked him off the abyss and back into life. That’s what healed my father. 

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shnuer Zalman taught that there will always be moments in life when we’re ready to give up and lie down in defeat. We give up on life, on the world, on God, on meaning. When those moments come, taught the Rebbe, you must go and do one good deed. One act of selfless loving. Go hold the hand of a sick person. Go teach one child to read. Go feed one hungry person. Fill your hands with Tikkun, with goodness, and suddenly you will feel God’s presence in your hands. 

Something happens to you when you are teaching a kid to read, or planting a tree on a barren hillside, or hammering a nail into a new home for a displaced family. The sense of futility and cynicism and depression that shadow us everyday are replaced with a sense hope and the open possibilities of life. We grow inside. We become more than ourselves. Our own pettiness, the aggravations and irritations of daily life, the worries and anxieties, they all disappear; displaced by a profound sense of joy in our power to touch the world in significant ways. The tradition called this simcha shel mitzvah, what Heschel called, “ineffable delight of sacred deeds.” Cynicism is poison to the human soul. Its antidote is action. 

Fear is poison to the human soul. The antidote is faith. 

When we look into the world, in all its absurdity and chaos, a simple question, a simple choice of orientation rises before us: 

Is the universe cold and lifeless, and I, a species of self-conscious biological life, am I just a happy accident of biochemistry? Am I the anomaly? Is death the normal state of things, and life just a momentary happenstance? Or did the universe will me into being? Am I the intended product of this universe? Is life the goal of the world’s existence? 

The Bible comes to answer one fundamental question: Are we strangers in the universe, or do we belong here? 

When my daughter was small, I would put her to bed at night. We’d read a story, say our prayers, turn off the lights, cuddle and fall asleep. As soon as she was asleep, I quietly sneak out of the room. And she would scream: Abba, there’s an alligator under my bed. There’s a monster in the closet. There’s a big spider on the ceiling. So I’d go back, turn on the lights and look. No alligator. No monster. No spider. I love you, go to sleep. Tomorrow is a big day. 

We did this dance for a year, until one day I stopped and asked myself a basic question: Who is right? Whose view of the world is empirically correct? The kids who says, there is an alligator under my bed? Or the father who says go to sleep. It’s going to be alright. Tomorrow is a big day. 

Empirically, the kid is right. She doesn’t know the names of all the alligators. We adults know them as terrorism and cancer and every impending disaster that fills the evening news. She doesn’t know their names, but even at a young age, she knows they’re there. Even so, every parent, every grandparent says the same thing: Go to sleep. You’re safe. Tomorrow is coming. Even the most hard-boiled atheist says this to his kid. 

That’s faith. Faith is not the affirmation of some abstract proposition, some belief. Faith is the courage to live in a world that offers no guarantees. Faith is the courage to bring children into that world. Faith is the courage to offer the child a tomorrow we can’t predict or control. 

In the Mesopotamian myth, and all its modern counterparts, we are uninvited visitors thrown into a world that is random, absurd, dark, cold, and indifferent. Nothing more can be asked of life. The Bible offers a different world. The Bible advocates a different attitude: Beyond the mystery, there is meaning. Beyond the brokenness, there is wholeness. Beyond the despair, there is hope. Beyond the fear, there is purpose. 31And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. 

Our community is entering a time of economic stress, instability and uncertainty. Families will feel it, our community will feel it, our nation will feel it. How will we respond? How will we cope? We have a choice. We can choose the way of the Mesopotamians and give in to a sense of our powerlessness and fear. Or we can choose the way of the Bible. And rise up to heal and to help. That decision is not determined by any federal agency or Wall Street banker or even Presidential candidate. That’s our decision. May God give us the strength to make it wisely. Everything depends upon our answer.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780