Friday, January 6, 2012

Parashat Vayechi: The End of Myth

For Congregation Ner Shalom, January 6, 2012

ונהר יצא מעדן
Why is brevity such a challenge for me? When it comes to Torah, to Hebrew, to Kabbalah, to anything Jewish? "Keep it short," my trusted advisors tell me, usually to no avail. What is it about our tradition and our tribe that keeps me gushing like a river? Santorum, the economy, gardening: I can muster a respectable number of sentences on any of those. But give me a topic that's Jewish and watch out.

An inmate at the county jail wrote to me a couple months ago and told me that he's decided that Judaism is the True Faith. I wrote back to him that in my eyes there are many paths that can expand one's experience and bring one closer to God, if you want to call it God. "Although," I did have to allow, "I myself have been Jewish since I was born, and I'm not bored yet."

So what keeps me so enchanted? One piece, I think, is the way in which our tradition, or our special vantage point, imbues every element of the day-to-day with something mythic. That is, we live in the mundane, but we have this awareness that we - and everything else - have a non-mundane origin and a non-mundane edge. We were launched by something great and cosmic.

This week, we Jews, we followers of the True Faith, complete the reading of our great volume of myth, B'reishit, the book of Genesis, which opens Torah and throws wide all of our teaching. It contains the Creation of the Cosmos and that quiet moment just beforehand. It provides all the stage-setting for the world as we know it, or at least the world as our ancestors knew it. It answers core questions of existence: What is light? What is life? What are we made of? Where does death come from? How did animals come to be? And plants? And suffering. How did we come to be separate from God? How did we come to be separate from each other?

The people who figure in Genesis are not just literary characters. They are mythical. They are archetypes, urforms. They aren't there just to move a plot. They are there to be revered. They are nearly deities - embodying elements of nature and of humanity and of the divine. Even their names suggest mythic qualities. Adam and Eve - earth and life. Abraham - great father. Sarah - the queen. Isaac is mirth and Jacob the heel-grabber apparently has something to do with the frustration of following and the deep human desire to overtake. The book of Genesis includes a race memory of ancient migrations, recounted in Abraham's lech lecha journey to Canaan and Jacob's hunger-driven move to Egypt. And it recalls natural disasters of the distant past: the flood story of course, but also the nasty volcanic end met by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And the many genealogies scattered through the book? An ancient Near Eastern directory of how the tribes and nations of the day were related to each other linguistically, culturally, genetically.

And what about the idea of Eden itself? Could it be a distant memory of pre-agricultural times, before humans either needed or assumed mastery over the garden and the plants and creatures in it? A time when we, like all other animals, survived on what the earth provided us of its own will, and not of ours?

Genesis swirls around like a dream. But at its end, in this week's portion, Vayechi, we reach a turning point. We begin to feel the mythic dissipating; we begin to wake up. Jacob, on the eve of his death, speaks to each of his sons, articulating something of their nature or predicting something about the location, livelihood or cultural character of that son's future descendants, setting the stage for later Israelite history. And launching us into the more recognizable world we live in. The advance of history over mythology; of event over dream.

In fact, Joseph is the turning point. While his ancestors' names had obvious mythic resonance, his own name, Yosef, means "add-on." He's the annex, the bridge to the next thing. And while Jacob dies at the fantastically old age of 147, his son Joseph dies this week at 110 - a rare but not mythical age, as was proven by our friend Elsie Rich, who also died this week, also at 110. Jacob belongs to the world of myth. Joseph, like Elsie, belongs to us.

With Joseph's death we take a deep breath and look across the white stretch of parchment to the book of Exodus, or Shmot. And yes, there is much legendary quality to this book also. A burning bush, plagues, a sea parting and a great hero and prophet, the likes of whom has never been seen again. But I see Exodus as something more like the Odyssey. The story of the human race scraping up against the mythic, navigating paths that lead right past the divine. But nonetheless a human story, with believable human protagonists. And once Moses dies, at the end of Deuteronomy, we are inescapably in the land of history, plain and simple. Where we still live today.

But that makes this world sound awfully unmagical. Isn't this ground holy ground too? Isn't all of Torah holy, even though only some of Torah is mythic. Don't we endeavor to find, and sometimes succeed in finding, a mythical, holy quality to everything? If so, what is the source of all that holiness?

Well, let's look way back to Chapter 2 of Genesis, where it says,

ונהר יצא מעדן להשקות את הגן

"A river is pouring out of Eden to water the garden." In other words, Eden isn't strictly walled off. It leaks! It pours out into the garden, into the world. So what is the nature of this river?

Torah says that this river is the headwaters of four mighty streams*1* and that these four rivers encircle all the known world. So by this beautiful vision the entirety of the world we live in is surrounded by some flow whose origin is paradise.

The mystics go on to connect the four rivers with famous foursomes of our tradition. Not the Marx Brothers or the Beatles or the Golden Girls. But, for instance, the four rabbis who, according to Talmud, entered pardes, entered the orchard of paradise - Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya and Akiva.*2* And the four ways of understanding Torah represented by the acronym pardes or paradise - that is pshat (literally), remez (allegorically), drash (metaphorically) and sod (mystically). And the Four Worlds that stack like a layer cake or surround us like Russian nesting dolls: asiyah (the physical world), yetzirah (the emotional world), beriah (the world of vision),  and atzilut (the divine internal).

Through this stream of consciousness, our tradition suggests that the river that flows from Eden comes from a singular source, but then breaks up in order to permeate all our personality types, all our approaches to understanding, and all our experiences of the world.

Then, just when you think you've got a handle on it, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk adds one more twist. He re-reads the Hebrew word, nahar, "river," as the Aramaic word, nahor, "light." It is no longer a river emanating from Eden, but light. Or maybe a river of light. Divine light that nourishes the garden, that nourishes this realm we live in. Primordial light that can illuminate everything we experience in our lives.

I've been noticing the light a lot since I've been home, perhaps because everything that is lit is looking so different from how it did when I left a month ago. I've noticed the light striking the remaining red and orange leaves in our yard. I've noticed that the light is unexpectedly low in the sky and it shines more often in my eyes and makes me sneeze. I've noticed how rapidly the light shifts location and hue.

Noticing the way physical light affects our seeing in this world is a model, a Beta version, for seeing everything in a holy light. Looking at the light in this world is practice for perceiving the supernal light, the Edenic light, the or ganuz - the too-oft hidden light.

But wait, maybe we're getting far afield. We were talking about Jacob and his sons, I believe. What is the relevance of this description of a river all the way back at the opposite end of the book of Genesis?
Jacob is pushing his dozen sons out of the primordial nest into the future, where they will land - thunk - on the hard earth of politics and conquest and law. Out of the realm of magic and myth and into the realm of history. But that realm is not devoid of holiness, of divine light. We know this because the river that flows from Eden still flows. Torah uses the timeless participle yotze, "flowing out," in describing the river, not the past tense, yatza or vayyetze, "flowed out."

And so wherever Jacob's children, the Children of Israel, find themselves; wherever the children of Eden, all of us on this earth - plant and animal, find ourselves, the river of light continues to flow into us.

Jacob's sons are pushed out of the book of Genesis, some with their father's kind words, some with his harsh words, some with hardly any words and nothing like closure. In truth, we have all also been pushed out of the nest by the past with incomplete information and little preparation and nothing like closure. And we all are pushing a future or a dozen possible futures out before us. And we will never be able to give those futures everything possible to give.

But we can trust that there is a light that will shine from Eden. It will break through the dam of the text, pour from the scroll, and surge past us to flood our futures.

With this river of light, the inch of blank parchment between Genesis and Exodus, the division between myth and history, between the distant past and the not so distant future, ceases to be a sharp break. It is all of one flow. The light is still flowing from Eden, from the place of our dreams, from the beginning, from God's first words and it is watering our  gardens. And it will continue to nourish the gardens of the future, even when we and everything we've ever known have long become myth.

And so may we ride the wave like the fearless California surfers that we are (or wish we were), floating, flying with our arms outstretched like eagle's wings or like the fins of a manta ray, riding the wave from Eden, awash in holiness, bringing light into the darkest places.

Chazak chazak v'nitchazek. Hang on tight. Exodus is coming.

*1*The Pishon, the Gichon, the Chidekel (i.e. the Tigris) and the Prat (i.e. the Euphrates).
*2*You might remember this parable, that in this paradise one of them instantly died, one went mad, one destroyed the grass, and only Akiva came in peace and departed in peace.