Today, while riding into the city for a meeting in my efforts to raise money for the synagogue (if you haven't heard, a section of our ceiling collapsed in the Main Sanctuary, precipitating the beginning of a serious set of decisions about raising serious money for a serious over-haul of our facilities) I noticed for the umpteenth time how woefully digitized our culture has become. The levels of human alienation have reached new lows, I have to say, as eye contact on the trains is truly a premium, not because of fear or suspicion but because of the huge sucking noises being made by people brought down, down, down into the netherworld of their digital objects. Fewer people read books, I observed, and more flick and twit and click their way along the clickety clack of subway lines in electronic oblivion. It's almost as if eye-contact is too revealing, like ape-children finding one another after centuries being lost in the wilderness. The light of day is too crushing. The maddening draw of mammalian contact too threatening.
It's a bad situation.
It seemed appropriate that I found sustenance in ancient narrative. Like last year at this time, I have chosen to travel around with the Hebraist Umberto Cassuto's commentary to Genesis. I find his analysis, and his modern Hebrew, to be the linguistic equivalent of brushing my teeth with Tom's Spearmint Toothpaste. Call me nutty but it's that cleansing, that good.
Here he is:
I was reading his analysis of Noah, that "righteous man in his generation" and Cassuto pointed out, in keeping with Judaism's classic tradition, that Noah was righteous in "his" generation but when compared with Abraham, he might not be so valorous. Why? Because when God threatened to destroy the earth, Noah obeyed God's commands to build an Ark without questioning whether or not any innocent people would die in the Flood while Abraham, on the other hand, immediately commenced arguing with God about the justice of God's desire to destroy Sodom and Gommorah.
I knew immediately that I wanted to test a thesis. If I did a compare and contrast of these texts with my ninth graders later that day, would they "log into" as it were, the essential Jewish way of thinking? Would they see Abraham as the Jew?
I came back to the office after lunch with emails, phone calls, and various urgencies waiting. But my mind was set on testing the thesis and sure enough, by 6.45 pm, when the learning began, it was only a matter of minutes into the compare and contrast when one student, Eli, said, "Wait a minute. Why didn't occur to Noah that he wasn't the only 'righteous' person on earth? How could he have been the only one?"
The Jewish question, the Abrahamic question, had been asked. Umberto Cassuto smiled from the page. "Vengeance is mine" says Moses in Deuteronomy 32.35, in a passage from his final oration. In my excitement that the unmistakable Jewish mind had emerged into the discussion, I immediately sought the context. And so reached for the text, which I herein quote in full:
"Ah, the vine for them is from Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah; the grapes for them are poison, a bitter growth their clusters. Their wine is the venom of asps, the pitiless poison of vipers. Lo, I have it all put away, sealed up in My storehouses, to be My vengeance and recompense, at that time that their foot falters. Yea, their day of disaster is near, and destiny rushes upon them." (Deuteronomy 32.32-35)
Crossing the street between classes, I saw our security guard who, this time last year, was beside himself with superstition and excitement about the 2008 Presidential elections and it suddenly occurred to me that it had been awhile since we stood in the street and shouted "YES WE CAN!"
So I did. And we laughed. And then I thought: "What happened to that? What grotesque self-satisfaction took over our lives that we simply elected a man to the White House but forgot to remember what it was WE ALL WERE SUPPOSED TO DO?"
Before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, he says to the Divine Self in Genesis 18.17: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?" God here consciously draws Abraham into his deliberations, asks for him to weigh in on the efficacy, if you will, of the Divine Justice, as it is to be meted out.
This is the Covenant. A privilege to Abraham. Noah's lack. Our destiny. As a people. As a generation. Our instruments, our iPods, our Blackberries, our Idols of denial in the face of a great evil that lurks in the land, calling out for our acts of justice and lovingkindness.
The loneliness of this faith. The power of its reality.
I wondered if they'd ever wash away in a flood. Or if they would be instruments of righteousness. Or idols, mere idols, of our refusal to eradicate injustice from the world. Sitting with the students, watching them, in real time, bring Torah to life, I thanked God for the train; and the book; and my fellow citizens, lost in the darkness of their digital objects, faces turned down, in, toward a light that burned blind, blind, blind.