Monday, June 16, 2014

Perceptions and Illusions - Greg Marzullo

Parshat Shlah Lekha

Perceptions and illusions are the meat of this week's dramatic Torah portion. After liberation from slavery in Egypt and the famous Red Sea crossing, the Jewish people march through the desert and almost reach the Holy Land. God commands Moses to choose twelve scouts who will check out Canaan, take stock of its natural resources and, most importantly, size up the locals who already live there.

The spies head off to gather intel, and when they come back, all but two of them say how difficult it will be to win this country flowing with milk and honey. The inhabitants are plentiful and very large, so much so that the spies saw themselves as "grasshoppers" compared to these giants. The people of Israel begin wailing about their impossible hardships, saying it would be better that they had never left Egypt. 

The Torah paints God as having had enough with the constant lack of faith, and He tells Moses that He'll wipe them all out and start again with a line of Moses. Luckily, our well-worn human hero begs God to reconsider, and Adonai relents; yet, He decrees that the generation which doubted His power - even after seeing all those miraculous interventions - will die in the desert. After 40 years of wandering, only the non-believers' children will reach the land promised to their ancestors.

Harsh, right? Seemingly. But, of course, there's more to it than that. 

Medieval scholar, teacher and commentator Rashi exhorts us to remember that the heart and eyes are the body's spies. This powerful observation, based on a line at the end of this week's portion to not follow the heart's and eyes' lustful urges, throws the entire portion into a new light - one based less on a seemingly Draconian punishment and more on the natural laws of cause and effect.
In yogic philosophy, the senses are viewed with wariness. They so easily lead us astray from our true intentions. The Upanishads, beautiful mystic texts of India, liken the human experience to being in a chariot drawn by the horses of the senses who madly plunge down the roads of our selfish desires. It's only with a firm grip on the reins that we can peacefully ride through the world and go where our true, transcendent nature would have us, as opposed to being dragged hither and yon by passing fancies. We're all too often pulled in multiple directions at once, convincing ourselves that our addiction to busyness is a necessity to leading a successful life, when in truth, our perceptions are only drawing us further and further away from the real promised land - the sacred earth that lies within our own divine consciousness.

The Israelites give up on their long-awaited goal because of mere perceptions - those guys are bigger than us! there are too many of them! we'll never be able to do it! - thereby creating their own punishment and exile. Stumbling after our every whim and sensory input only leads to chaos and a lack of fulfillment. Ultimately, the very things which drew us away from our connection to God are only going to betray us in the end. No job, car, house, person, experience, personal story, mental habituations (good or bad) can bring us the lasting contentment we're seeking, because all those things are transitory by design. 
We're supposed to fall out of love with the impermanent, so we can become intoxicated with love for the eternal Adonai. 

Seen through this lens, the wandering of the Israelites is not some story in a long-ago faraway place. It happens here and now. Turning our eyes from the land of milk and honey, perhaps not so much a geographic location as a state of being, leads us into the vast desert of ego-driven fantasies and desire that cannot possibly bear any fruit. Instead, we must give no credence to the faulty reports from the spies of our senses, instead staying focused on the Holy Land and gaining entry into the sacred place that has been ours since before the world was made.

Such Great Heights


Parshat Korach
18 Sivan, 5774
June 16, 2014

A few weeks ago, my brother and I climbed 1488 vertical feet to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park.

I am afraid of heights.

The world looks different from a 1500 ft. promontory. You think differently, up there. An unrestricted view of the sublime changes your perspective.

There is a promise, in the book of Isaiah, regarding Shabbat. Keep the Shabbat, God says, and we will be set astride the heights of the earth (Isaiah 58:14). On the top of Angel’s Landing, I understand that God, in that verse, promised us perspective. To actually be on top of the heights of the earth is to see the world from a God’s eye view, and to have an intimation of what our existence looks like from afar. I don’t mean perspective simply in terms of sheer height, I mean the realization that this cliff which has stood for geological ages, is itself a blip in the history of existence. I mean understanding that all the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place from where the rivers come, there they return again. I mean knowing how infinitesimally short the mere 10,000 years of human existence really is.

What is our significance in God’s eyes, and how do we seem from a God-like view? To say that we are insignificant is to forget that we are remarkable, and that we are the only sentient creation of which we are aware – something unique in the annals of the world.

But equally true is that humanity's time may be, relatively, quite brief, depending on how we play it and on circumstances beyond our control. Most of the time, I worry only about my own survival as I did on the climb up, peering down over either side, holding on for dear life. But perhaps I should spend time thinking about who we are - all of us - and how we as a species should choose to be known. If we saw ourselves with God's eyes, how would we change the way we live?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Good, Better, Best

Towards Shavuot
4 Sivan, 5774
June 2nd, 2014

Grammar snob noun \ˈgra-mər ˈsnäb\ : self-appointed tyrant and arbiter of the proper usage of language. Though the grammar snob often resides within social groups, the snob may, after a particularly difficult text message session, abandon the group in exasperation to be alone with his/her/zer's New Yorker, MLA Handbook, and occasionally a Strunk and White's.

The grammar snob's seemingly hair-trigger outbursts and depth of feeling concerning the use of "thru" and "lite" are often a mystery to companions and friends. But to the snob, such reactions are a perfectly reasonable - nay, moderate - response to the misuse of the snob's beloved language, whose purity and precision should be defended at all costs.

The question before us is whether or not the grammar snob is a force for good, albeit in a rather grating manner, in the community.

A friend shared this piece which argues that the grammar snob's influence is more pernicious than helpful. In it, Melissa Fabello points out that the grammar for which snobs would gladly make the ultimate sacrifice was canonized by a bunch of white, wealthy, highly educated men circa 1930. Which is to say that what we call proper grammar is in fact the dialect belonging to the most privileged Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

I want so much to like her piece. Her main point is a good one. Those of us with ethnically Ashkenazi forebears who made it to this country will recognize that the English in which I now write was not the dialect of our grandparents ("You vant I should call you? I'll be staying by Murray - you know, mit the shmatte (clothing) business. Don't forget to wear a nice sweater.") There's African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which most of white America regularly, and sneakily, indulges. There are even dialects based on profession: management-speak, corporate-speak, medical-speak, airline-speak etc.

So when we hold up one dialect as proper English, we're reinforcing the hegemony of the people to whom that dialect belongs - at the cost of other dialects that are full of their own life and should be treasured. To paraphrase from her piece, when it's called the Queen's English, we all know who's best. The implications go far beyond semicolons.

The problem is the extreme to which this argument goes, for she drops this sentence like a bomb, "any time we create a hierarchy by positioning one thing as “better” than another, we’re being oppressive.”

I have seen this reduction ad absurdum used before, and I protest. The hierarchy of “best” can oppress, but it is equally true that ideas of “the good” and “better” serve to uproot both injustice and pursue aesthetic beauty. All is not relative. Language that promotes freedom is better than language that oppresses; language that argues against the objectification of women is better than misogyny; language that is creative and meaningful, deft and expressive, and well-employed through its own rules of usage is simply good. The judgment of these categories is not merely subjective, but the proper use of the human heart and intellect; their accomplishment, the work of our hands.

When we talk about language and expression through writing, one of the things we need to address is how to get better at them. Such a discussion will incorporate the words, “usage,” and “better,” and “mistake,” and “good.” To write judgment out of language subverts the very goal it is trying to achieve. Without judging, we cannot determine what is just.

Deuteronomy 6:18, “You shall do the right and the good.” Our understanding of the multiplicity of what is good has blossomed, but our pursuit of the good remains constant.