The Consolation of Judah

We will sit on a wall and watch
as the hills of Jerusalem
beneath our worried boots
press forgotten family
to their breasts,
Dan slithering in the dell,
flashing fangs of Benjamin
ivory in the hidden light,
sons of Asher spilling like coins
under Yissaschar’s wise gaze,
burying the Mount
like an undamned river.

 

We will bow our heads in shame
when the myths part the mists,
brilliant as amethysts,
fresh as tomorrow’s morning,
untasted as Leviathans,
perfect as a fifth-grade friend,
their eyes still limpid gold,
from the face of Chizkiyahu.

 

Like gems in a breastplate
will fly the dappled banners,
like bright acacia beams
will their columns march,
as we suddenly notice
the mud on our soles.

 

But undeserved mercy,
the smile on the face of a mourner,
reinforcements from over the ridge,
are the cloaks of argaman
they will place over our shoulders.

 

They will kiss our humble tears, saying:
Though you were alone
and weary,
and your pieces mortared with hatred—
though your children were lost,
and you backs raw from each other’s grip—
you, little lion,
Judah cub,
lowly and empty,
orphan of kings,
have done it.

For the Messiah, or Whomever

Some aren’t born to yearn or fear,
nor to grip the grasping thought,
but to place their dead bones here
and ignore what through them’s wrought.

Some live not as noble force,
acceleration summed and formal;
they find once they’ve run their course
they were friction and the normal.

Some don’t sup or pray
with half their parents’ devotion;
they will not see the sun-soaked bay,
only mud’s erosion.

They are tossed as pebbles beneath the tide,
weight against the flow,
and when dead rise it’s their only pride
that when pushed they did not go.

Not all stories share the wisdom of the sages,
nor all tales speak of ancient lovers.
Some yarns don’t deserve the pages,
but are bound to knit the covers.

Our hearts numb at the end of time,
we are prepared to wait for never.
We are the death that comes for death;
we fight for the Messiah, or whomever.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Slouching Towards Moshiach

If the Messiah were to ride into Jerusalem tomorrow on a white donkey, it would be a terrible disappointment. We live in the best of times and the worst of times, and this makes us busy. Some of us are busy building, and some busy tearing down. Some trowel the mortar of the status quo, while others push at revolution’s sad spoon. Each of us pushes, in our own small (or, if we want to get really destructive, big) way for “making the world a better place.”

What is “making the world a better place” beyond a repugnant cliché? For many, we refer not to the moral good per se but to the alleviation of physical (and now, increasingly, mental) suffering. It is exactly this that will distract us from Moshiach. He will offer to reveal God within the world and we will say, we are too busy fixing our own suffering and the suffering of others. He will assure us that with God’s revelation within the world suffering will burn up like a cloud shredded by the morning. We will tell him that sounds terrifying because then there will be nothing for us to do.

In short, our joy, as noted in many Science Fiction films, seems to derive from our imperfection, because a human being cannot be perfect and be human, and if the messianic age is an eternal life of goodness, then by definition is cannot be a human life, and the Messiah’s imminence begins to sound like the looming existential impotence of death, like a crushing boredom that will not let us wring free.

But Moshiach is not death because what we take for life is not life. We have chosen, in our modern pursuits, the life of the body and the life of the soul, but not the point of their interweaving that in earlier times was taken to constitute a man.

The soul and the body make a strange pair. They are opposites, spirit and material, form and matter. Yet, paradoxically, the more they are themselves, the more they are each other. In other words, the essence of the soul is close to the essence of the body, and vice versa, whereas at their superficial points of coarsest expression they are as far from each other as East and West. It is the secret of the body that it needs a soul, and the secret of the soul that it needs a body, but both must leave the house in the morning and go to work and pretend they wish the enemy’s destruction. Or something.

Look, because bringing the Moshiach is the hardest thing in the world(tm), it shouldn’t surprise us too much that our natural tendency is to sort of work around the edge of the idea, getting as close as reason dares and always circling around the center point. That’s why we cannot just apply our soul’s choice and will to make decisions that reveal G-d in the world but must be distracted by dumb garbage that involves either the body or the soul screaming at the top of their lungs but never at each other.

The body taken roughly on its own will, for its own good, reject Moshiach. Not the truth of the body, which points toward the soul, but the thing materialists think makes the whole man. These bodies are terrified of Moshiach. The time will come when they are not needed. A Messianist’s input isn’t needed on this. It’s happening already. With “smarter” AI developed all the time, machines are quite likely to continue taking away more of the body’s work. What used to take a farm full of workers now takes a man; some factories are nearly completely automated; McDonald’s has started rolling out its kiosks. What, if we are not at work, and sustaining food is so cheap, are we to do with our time? The Messianic age of delights common as dust weighs on the soul like the void.

The soul taken on its own also rejects Moshiach. It is a being of pure will; it claims that the apparent facts are irrelevant before the inner truth of a man. And this superficial soul is just as busy as the superficial body. While the body is busy at work or play, the soul fights against reality. Practical concerns are, for it, notwithstanding. Thousands of years of viewing the sexes in one way must come to a close. Money must be paid with no concern of where it comes from. Love can solve all problems because all problems are soul perspective problems; problems of those who want the wrong thing. The soul, too, is afraid of Moshiach removing its purpose. Then, there will be no beauty higher than G-d, and no need to seek out a unique story or point of view. There will be no compassionm, empathy, or love to set us apart and define us. It will be obvious to all that many of the things we love now are empty compared to the eternal Creator. What is desirable will be objective and shared. We will not desire otherwise.

If man is a body, he will be replaced by machines, and if man is a soul, he will be replaced by angels and spiritual realms.

If we do not have a purpose when Moshiach comes, what purpose do we have now?

And indeed, what applies to man applies here to the whole world alike. Why is Moshiach a time when the world becomes more itself rather than simply ceasing to be? Perhaps the “Chad Charuv” is the Messianic Devourer, come to return the world to naught, for it no longer serves any need.

But on the contrary: we and the world have purpose as a soul and a body, tied together at their cores.

The reason why man becomes more a man and the world more the world when Moshiach comes is because Judaism is a monotheism that believes G-d actually created and sustains the creation. This is more revolutionary than it first sounds. A G-d who actually creates the world in its entirety, who creates everything and is bound by nothing, therefore creates for some end. And the end is Moshiach.

What is Moshiach? Moshiach is the commandments carried out.

What are the commandments carried out? A soul in a body, fulfilling their purpose.

And because the commandments are the soul and body fulfilling their purpose, the soul and body are not merely means to an end but part of the end itself. The commandment is only performed if it is performed by a soul in a body. And so these things persist.

Soon a time will come when all of our causes and protests and well-reasoned positions and well-sculpted muscles will be unnecessary.

Soon a time will come when everything we think we live for will fade away to dust.

Why are we not terrified?

Because though ranks of infinite angels cry out to G-d with divine wisdom, souls in bodies are why they exist. The robots are coming to do our work, and our various protests will soon be pointless. But the printing press has not turned the scribe obsolete, nor has a machine been found that can tie the Tztizit with intention. Never will the Seraphim’s perfect prayer be as essential as a half-asleep Sh’ma that falls from our cracked lips.

That a soul says the Sh’ma, is necessary.

That the lips are involved, is necessary.

This is all that matters.

This is what we must live for, if we want to want Moshiach.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

News of the World

There’s a subreddit called “Uplifting News” that annoys me. It’s supposed to be an escape from the humdrum litany of murders, wars, etc. that is the news cycle; “There are still good, honest, compassionate people in this world and this is a place to share their stories,” says its description.

Have some headlines from the front page on July 4, 2014:

9 yo forgoes presents for his birthday, asks for dogs to be saved from kill shelters instead

Starbucks Praises Barista Who Defended Breastfeeding Mom

16-year-old with 3 college degrees gets perfect SAT score

US Navy gets its first four-star female admiral

Okay, I get it. Great things are happening to some people, and other people are doing great things. It’s not uplifting, though, because it doesn’t deal with the source of the sadness. I doubt anyone rational listening to the evening news ever thought, “Wow, everyone on planet earth is either suffering or causing others to suffer.” In fact, the suffering is newsworthy precisely because it’s different and new, a bright light illuminating the grey, benign mediocrity in which, thank G-d, most of us get to live.

I am downcast (assuming, for a moment, that I’m not a masochist looking for misery) because good news happens to exist, and in an ideal world, good news must exist.

Great things only exist in some ways and from some perspectives. The nine-year-old is kind, but not necessarily all dogs should be saved from kill shelters, and one wonders if forgoing one’s own gifts at such an age is even healthy and what his motivations are. Starbucks praised behavior that is controversial and whose righteousness is up for debate; the sixteen-year-old’s smarts are good only for him until put to some altruistic use; people are happy that the navy has four-star admirals, and happy that it has a female one, but generally not both. If the news meets some arbitrary standard or perspective, it inspires us. It can just as easily not meet that standard, leaving us just as cynical as before.

Suppose you’ve never seen or heard of a triangle, and I show you some examples of all different sizes, angles, colors, and materials. The more examples you see, the more you’re certain that triangles have three sides. But you can’t know for sure. Perhaps what I’m showing you are atypical triangles, a particular subset that happen to all have three sides, but the next triangle in the series will have four sides. It is only when you decide from the beginning that “all shapes I’ll see that have three sides I’ll call triangles” that a triangle must, by definition, have three sides. Without this a priori determination, the most you can ever say is “all triangles I have seen have three sides.” This is much what science says about all physical realities, even incredibly consistent ones like gravity, e.g. “all unsupported objects I’ve seen around here fall toward the earth, and not away from it.” This is consistent enough to be relied upon, but never makes the leap to becoming a must, a Truth (perhaps all we are experiencing is an incredibly long run in a random process, like getting a hundred heads in a row when flipping a coin, especially since we’re prone to underestimating how common long runs are). It seems the world is not a good place because we see good things happen. If you look up “news” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t say “good.”

By the way, it’s not that some bad news ruins whatever good we find. Even if all headlines were uplifting headlines, I suspect we wouldn’t be happy, for the reason that all human attempts at utopia end in disaster and our representations of a peaceful, happy world (e.g. Disney World) come off as sort of creepy. You don’t get mugged in the street in the Disney world, but you do feel trapped, because you have a potential for selfishness and evil, a potential unmoved by bright colors that festers under the watchful eyes of park security, enforcers of an inhuman order.

No, until it must be good, it isn’t. Until we must be righteous, we aren’t. The next piece of news could always be bad, and if it isn’t, we might feel driven to make it so. Just as one who says a triangle has four sides is a madman, so must be he who says there is evil in the world. We don’t just need more good things to happen; we need to see everything differently.

Tanya, over two hundred years old, says we need to be happy. Or, more accurately, that depression is evil, and one ought to embrace its alternatives, joy and something called merirus (lit. bitterness). Depression is lethargy, whereas joy and bitterness are mirror images, positive and negative energy fueling improvement with hope or regret.

The author’s descendent and successor says that merirus is not for our generation, and that we must focus only on joy and the positive. It’s not, G-d forbid, that Tanya’s advice is less true now; we have changed. When men were men, contrition was sobering and drove one to the right path. Today, remorse is more likely to build and build until it drowns us in fear and self-absorption.

The Rebbe could have stopped there, and left us with another uplifting headline – Jewish Leader: “Life To Be Lived Focusing On Positive Future” – and the departure from merirus would based on non-uplifting technicality, i.e. we happen to be weaker than previous generations; another piece of surface-level good news generated at random.

But the Rebbe doesn’t stop at the first reason. In the system by which the seven millennia of human existence correspond to the spiritual rhythms of the seven-day week, we live in Friday afternoon, a time to prepare for the cosmic Shabbos, the coming of Moshiach; traditionally, the time for stock-taking and regret is Thursday night, as far into the week as possible without interrupting Friday’s royal preparations. Since we live after Thursday, so close to the time of redemption, we ought to prepare for the future, to taste of it by living joyously in the present. Because when that day comes, the world will express only G-dliness, true perfection, and death will be swallowed up forever.

In other words, the Rebbe defines the triangle from the get-go. What is a world? A perfect place, a place without evil. That is the Truth, as absolute as the infinite G-d it reflects. And since our knowledge of G-d and His plan allows us this a priori definition of reality, the uplifting news can actually serve its purpose; every three-sided triangle aligns with what we know to be true.

The headlines of /r/UpliftingNews are not random breaks in a fierce story; they are the true intention of the Storyteller finally coming through to his audience because they must, because that is the point of all His trillions of words. The child’s altruism, the company’s praise, the teen’s brilliance, and the navy’s appointment pierce the illusion of randomness and technicality: in the world’s perfect state, people will be selfless, empathetic, and brilliant; femininity, with its greater inherent spirituality, will supplant masculinity as the main mode of existence.

All these things were recorded as the true definition of our world thousands of years ago. Pick up a holy book, and read all about it.

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.