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Creativity and Routine Parshas Chayei Sarah

Top ten biblical characters – go!

You never who never makes this list? Yitzchak.

And you know why? Because his life, excuse me for saying this, is boring.

 

I gave a lecture on Thursday explaining how Yitzchak gets a bad rap. People assume he was emotionally stunted, and I demonstrated from the text of the Torah how he was anything but; he was the most emotionally intelligent of the forefathers.

But boring? I’ll give you that. His life story is just not that exciting. The exciting narratives in his life, the Binding of Isaac, finding him a spouse – which we read about today, and the blessings that he attempts to give to his son, Eisav, in all those exciting stories – Yitzchak is entirely passive. It is Avraham who leads the way for the Akeidah, Yitzchak remains at home, his future wife, Rivkah is the one running around, demonstrating her greatness, and the stolen blessings is more a story of Yakov than it is Yitzchak.

The remaining stories are absent any drama – they are boring. Not only boring, but they seem downright repetitive. His father, Avraham, dug wells – Yitzchak digs the same wells. His father, Avraham travels to Gerar, Yitzchak travels to Gerar. It’s almost like the Torah could have saved a few lines by just writing, “Yitzchak was born, etc.” and then called it a day.

I believe that when we compile our top ten list of biblical characters, we are making a grave mistake by not including Yitzchak. We all crave the excitement of an Avraham, the revolutionary, who changes the world. We admire the Yakov, who stands up time and time again against all adversary. We applaud the courage of Sarah and Rachel, iconoclasts, creating a new understanding of a woman’s role in society. Our imagination is captured by the drama of Moshe’s life, the strength of Devorah, the emotions of King David. But how many of our lives are comparable to theirs?

I’d venture to say none. Their stories are exceptional, captivating, but entirely unrelatable.

Yitzchak was the most boring life, but it’s also the most consistent. This coming week, we are observing the Yahrtzeit of our former executive director, Max Jacob. He would come to shul every morning and every evening to pray. He would go to his office after Shacharis, make calls to those who had upcoming life cycle events and arrange the honors for the week ahead. He would head home and go work out. And then he did the same thing again. And again. And again. Virtually, until the day he passed. That’s Yitzchak. Boring? Maybe, but beyond impressive.

In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinzalth, zichrono livracha: “It has often been said that “all beginnings are difficult,” but continuation can be even more difficult. The capacity to persist is no less important that the power to begin. In all the significant revolutions of history it is evident that the first generation – the “founding fathers” – usually have to struggle against formidable objective forces.. But the verdict of history … whether it was a glorious victory or merely a passing episode, lies with their successors – the generation who have to fix and stabilize the revolution.”

Yitzchak, in Kabbalistic literature, is described as a man of strength. And that’s because it takes superhuman strength to live a life of consistency, of not needing the drama, and showing up every day to do the same thing.

So often I hear from people who feel like that their religious life has gotten stale. This is especially true for people who have made major life changes to become observant or people who have spent some time studying in Israel. It once was so exciting, and now… meh. Prayer in the morning, prayer in the afternoon. The same words, the same rituals. And so, we look for something new and exciting. “Wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful if we just meditated instead?” “Wouldn’t it be so much more exciting if we created our own rituals?” Or worse, this whole spiritual enterprise is just not worth pursuing. It doesn’t do anything for me anymore.

Someone reached out to me the other day and suggested that we incorporate the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd into our Ashkenazi calendar. It takes place on the 29th day of this Hebrew month, Cheshvan. One of the arguments for incorporating this holiday into our Jewish life is that this month of Cheshvan has no holidays. There is actually a custom to call this month, Mar Cheshvan. Some suggest that the reason it has this title of Mar, is because Mar means bitter; there are no holidays, nothing special during this month.

But that perspective is fundamentally mistaken, it’s a misunderstanding. True creativity is born out of ritual. True novelty is formed form within the tightest of places. I’ll give you some examples. There’s a book that came out a few years ago, called, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work. And it shares some unbelievable examples: Ludwig Van Beethoven would start his day, every day, with a coffee, with exactly 60 coffee beans. He would then sit at his desk and compose until 2 or 3 PM. He would then go on a daily walk, come home for dinner, have a beer, smoke a pipe, and go to sleep early. Every day.

It was said about Immanuel Kant, probably one of the most creative philosophers in the modern world, that when he would outside with his cane, all the neighbors knew that it was exactly 3:30 PM and he had finished writing for the day.

My favorite, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Wallace Stevens took a job as insurance lawyer. A poet and a lawyer! And he explained that it introduced discipline and regularity into one’s life.

I’ll tell you a little secret. On Simchas Torah, we auction off the opportunity for someone to choose a sermon topic. And while some may think that it is challenging to have someone tell you what to talk about it, I love it. You know why? Because every week, I could talk about anything. Anything at all. But when someone gives you framework, it takes all that creative energy and it focuses it. If you ever go white water rafting, you’ll notice that the rapids are found when the water rubs up against the rocks. That tension, that limiting of space, is the source of even more energy.

 We just observed the first Yahrzeit of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l, this past week. He was undoubtedly the most creative Jewish mind of our generation, and yet he understood better than anyone that to live an engaged, fiery life, does not mean innovating something new, it means finding something fresh from within.

In his words: “Much of Judaism must seem to outsiders, and sometimes to insiders also, boring, prosaic, mundane, repetitive, routine, obsessed with details and bereft for the most part of drama or inspiration. Yet that is precisely what writing the novel, composing the symphony, directing the film, perfecting the killer app, or building a billion-dollar business is, most of the time. It is a matter of hard work, focused attention and daily rituals. That is where all sustainable greatness comes from.

We have developed in the West a strange view of religious experience: that it’s what overwhelms you when something happens completely outside the run of normal experience. You climb a mountain and look down. You are miraculously saved from danger. You find yourself part of a vast and cheering crowd… You are awed by the presence of something vast. We have all had such experiences.

But that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life. And that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Minchah, Maariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home…”

That’s Yitzchak. He does the same things as Avraham. He is a copy-cat. He is boring. And that is his greatness. That is his strength.

***

But the truth is, if you read closely, if you read between the lines, you’ll notice that like Beethoven, and Kant, and Wallace Stevens, while we fell asleep watching their boring routine, they came up with something new. Maybe it was subtle, but it was also earth-shattering.

The book of Bereishis is a book of homelessness, or in the ancient world, landlessness. Adam is kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Cain, the farmer, is cursed to not be able to cultivate the land. The land is destroyed in the time of Noach. And our forefathers are promised land, but their profession is shepherds, because they don’t receive the land in their lifetime. And so, the book of Bereishis ends with our ancestors as shepherds in a foreign land.

But there is one exception, and his name is Yitzchak. He is a farmer. “וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, יְהוָה. And Yitzchak planted that year and reaped a hundred-fold. And G-d blessed him.” Through his routine, through the boring consistency of life, he was able to accomplish what no one else, none of those exciting Biblical characters were able to accomplish – a blessed connection to the holy land. (Based on an observation by Rabbi Alex Israel)

The B’nei Yissasscher suggests that Mashiach will arrive in the month of Cheshvan, this month bereft of holidays. This will teach us once and for all that there is nothing bitter about a lack of excitement, there is nothing lacking in the absence of innovation. On the contrary, routine, perspiration, finding excitement within the existing structure, that is where the greatness lies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Raven: Noach, Poe, and Baltimore Parshas Noach

March 29, 1984, is a date that will forever live in infamy in Baltimore. In middle of the night, fourteen moving trucks pulled into Owings Mills, MD, for a top-secret mission. So secretive that the truck drivers weren’t even told where they were going and what they were doing. By the morning, the Baltimore Colts were no longer in Baltimore.

It was a tough time for Baltimoreans. The city tried to sue to retain rights over the team but were unsuccessful. To add insult to injury, there were Baltimoreans who were happy to see them go. They lived through enough shame, a decade of embarrassingly bad football, and they were happy to just move on.

But to the credit of this very imperfect city, most Baltimoreans did not give up. Twelve years later, a new team arrived. They were enthusiastically welcome and by all accounts, they’re doing pretty well, aren’t they?

As you all know, I am not the biggest football fan in the world, although I have to say that watching highlights of Lamar running circles around the other team’s defense, and dramatic 66-foot kicks, has caused my interest and appreciation to grow steadily. And so today, I’d like to dedicate my drasha to the name of your beloved football team, the Ravens.

The name ‘Ravens’ was chosen in a fan contest that drew almost 34 thousand voters. The inspiration for the name is the famous poet and Baltimore native, Edgar Allan Poe, who penned a poem called, the Raven. Despite our city benches claiming that Baltimore is ‘The City that Reads,’ I cannot think of a greater proof that none of those 34,000 people who voted ever read in their lives. ‘The Raven’ does not exactly put ravens in a positive light; it’s an Edgar Allan Poe poem for G-d’s sake! The raven in his poem is an obstinate, fatalistic, pessimist. ‘Nevermore will you be reunited with your lover! Nevermore will your loneliness be redeemed!’ Great name for a city that was still reeling over loss…

The individual who shared Poe’s negativity towards the raven more than any other is the protagonist of this week’s parsha. After the rain stops and the water subsides, Noach sends two birds out of his teivah; a dove and a raven.

I was always taught that Noach sends these birds out to make sure that it was safe to exit the ark. But a quick glance at the text makes it clear that there is something else entirely going on. Even after the dove famously returns with the olive branch, Noach remains inside. He does not leave until G-d instructs him, tzei min hateivah, leave the ark. And if that’s the case, if Noach did not use the information that the birds brought him for any purpose, why did he send them in the first place? This is a question that has puzzled me for years, and I have no answer that I love. But there is a symbolic read that I’d like to share that is most relevant to you and me, and to your beloved football team, and it goes like this:  

Noach lived through the most harrowing period of human history. We have a glimpse of what this looks like through the experiences of Holocaust survivors who lost their homes and family. Noach lost the world and all of humankind. It’s impossible to wrap our heads around that level of loss and presumably, that level of trauma.

What was the cause of the flood? Why did G-d destroy all of humankind? Because they were evil. They stole, they raped, they took advantage of the weak, and ripped apart the social fabric of the world. And now, Noach, knowing all of this, has the awesome task of rebuilding – not just the physical world, but the spiritual world as well, the world of ethics and morality. All of this rested on his shoulders.

In one read, the sending away of the birds was a symbolic act, demonstrating the type of world Noach was attempting to build. Throughout all of Jewish literature, the dove and raven represent good and evil (Gittin 45 and the Ben Yehoyada there, as just one example). And not just in Jewish literature. The dove is the universal sign of peace, and ravens, in so many cultures beyond Judaism, have represented evil spirits (Swedish folklore) and souls condemned to eternal damnation (German mythology). French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, suggested that as a carrion bird, ravens were seen as a mediator between life and death. The word raven in Hebrew is made up of the letters, Reish-Ayin-Bet, which when rearranged spells, B’RA, in evil. The raven is a universal sign of sin, death, and evil.

And so Noach, righteous Noach, recognizing how the world was destroyed through evil, competition, lust, unchecked individualism, he takes the raven and sends him away. If you look closely at the text, you’ll notice that Noach does not send the raven on any mission, vayishalach es ha’arev, he banishes the raven! In the new world I am creating, says Noach, there will be no evil! I want to have nothing to do with it! I will build a utopia; a world of peace and harmony, a world in which the spirit soars unencumbered by the body; a world of the dove. Nevermore, Mr. Raven, nevermore!

But the dove that Noach sends out to sanctify the world with its beauty and spirit, that same dove returns with the leaf of an olive. In Western culture, the olive branch represents peace, but Chazal, our Sages recognize the olive leaf to represent that that is bitter. There is no such thing as a perfect world, as a world of unbridled sweetness. There is no such thing as a world of joy without sadness, of light without darkness. You can’t just send evil away, said the dove, bitter evil is part of the fabric of the world. The raven is here to stay.

Tragically, it was a message that Noach couldn’t accept. He froze, he couldn’t leave the ark. He had to be forced out by G-d; “Tzei min hateivah!” G-d commands him. And even then, though he physically leaves, he’s still stuck, as he quickly slips into a dark and intoxicating depression. It’s a hard message to swallow. That after all that he and the world went through, sadness, bitterness, negativity, and evil were here to stay. It was too much for Noach to handle.

We have had our own mabbul of sorts. (No, I am not talking about WhatsApp and Facebook going down for six hours.) Over these past two years we have experienced different levels of lockdown. It began with a literal lockdown where we didn’t see each other for months. But then the doors opened, god himself, Dr. Anthony Faucci, (just kidding) told us we can go outside. But while we were locked up, after the first wave of enthusiasm and hopefulness passed over us, the world we hid away from got pretty scary. The political divide became an unbridgeable abyss, the tech companies that were supposed to be helping us were revealed to be destroying us, antisemitism went through the roof. Looking out the window at this crazy world, quarantining didn’t seem so bad.

Some people, like Noach, refused to leave. When I hear people tell me that they are still not going out much, I can’t help myself but wonder if there is more than the fear of Covid at play. It’s a scary world out there! Some did leave and resumed life as normal, but in some ways are still in quarantine, they’re isolated, having dropped half their friends or family members in the process. And then there are others who haven’t dropped relationships per se but have developed an ‘us against them’ attitude through which they see everyone around them – another form of isolation.

G-d attempts to reacclimate Noach to the world by sharing with him a number of messages. First G-d tells him that mankind is bad, ki yetzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. According to some, the reason that Hashem allows us to eat meat after the Great Flood is some form of concession to human frailty. The evil that you tried to banish is here to stay, echoing the message of the dove.  

But then G-d introduces one of the most important ideas of the Torah, ki b’tzelem Elokim asah es ha’adam, that humankind is fashioned in the image of Hashem. Yes, it’s true we are far from perfect, we can even use the word evil to describe mankind, but that’s not a reason to give up. Because there is something else, a G-dly spark, a G-dly image that defines us. We are like G-d! And you know how G-d created the world? According to the Zohar, G-d created and destroyed universe after universe until creating the world as we know it. But G-d didn’t just move on; He took the fragments of the broken worlds that preceded this one and used them as the building blocks to create a new and better world. Recreation, G-dly recreation, is not dividing the world between good and evil, it is not ignoring evil, it is not escaping evil, it is taking all that is evil, all that is bad, all that is sadness, and integrating it into something magnificent.

Bereisht bara Elokim. Ki B’tzelem Elokim asah et ha’adam. A spark of that G-dly creative power is found in each and every one of us. Can we open our eyes? Can we see how unmitigated selfishness is also an expression of a growing sense of self-worth? Can we see how growing anti-Semitism is a call and a challenge to better define what it means to be a Jew and what exactly we’re fighting for? Can we see how each person carries a treasure, a perspective, a way of thinking that only they do, and our pushing them away prevents us from infinite wisdom? Can we see how our own tragedies and hardships have shaped us into who we are today?

Today, we are celebrating the upcoming marriage of Jonathan Groner to Rachel Rosenheck. This is not their first marriage. You both, like all human beings, carry years of your own life along with you. There were setbacks, undoubtedly. But you didn’t allow the past to hold you back and at the same time, you didn’t run from the past or hide from it either. You both have beautifully integrated your individual pasts into a hopeful shared future. Like G-d, you have created a new world out of destruction.

***

A few thousand years after the flood, there was another man who shared Noach’s mindset. Someone who had no patience for evil or weakness. The great prophet Eliyahu also saw the world in a binary of good and evil. Because he was so outspoken, he was forced to hide himself in a cave, far away from civilization – his own form of quarantine. What would Eliyahu eat while he was hiding from this evil world? How would he sustain himself as he tried to banish evil from his life?

וְהָעֹרְבִ֗ים מְבִאִ֨ים ל֜וֹ לֶ֤חֶם וּבָשָׂר֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וְלֶ֥חֶם וּבָשָׂ֖ר בָּעָ֑רֶב

It was the raven that brought him food, it was the raven that brought him sustenance, teaching him the lesson that Noach never learned. That there is no evil, there is only opportunity for redemption. An arev is not b’ra, in evil, that is a distortion of the lettering. A raven is an arev, a mixture; a combination of good and evil, of integrating the lessons learnt from the past into our future, of integrating our weaknesses into our personality in a healthy fashion, of seeing the good and G-dliness in everyone.  

So the truth is, calling this Baltimore football team, a team that rebuilt despite heartbreaking setback, a team that reflects undying hope and an ethic of never stopping, calling this team, the Ravens, is actually a perfect name for this team.

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted—evermore! Evermore!