03 April 2010

Omer 4: Unbroken Spirit

Omer Day Four

We took a break from our study of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah this Shabbat morning and read YL Peretz's classic tale, "Bontsha the Silent," an examination of the quality of meekness and silent suffering taking to an absurd extreme.

The "kotzer ruach" or downtrodden spirit which the Israelites were said to suffer under Pharaoh's service ultimately had to end with rebellion, an essential step toward a realized human dignity that was required for redemption. Humility is one thing; silent suffering, on the other hand, for no other higher purpose, yields, for Peretz, nothing more than mockery and derision from, of all places, the Heavenly Throne.

Our main character Bontsha has nothing and asks for nothing. As a result, his lifetime is spent in unimaginable suffering. And yet, at the end of his life, when he dies and stands before the Heavenly Court and is offered anything in the Kingdom of Heaven for his unmitigated, life-long suffering, he asks for a warm roll with butter. His meekness is understood as a kind of pathetic derision. There is laughter--the only response to such tragic nothingness.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us, in an essay on the Omer, that the Jewish worldview is not divided radically between two extremes--pure meekness and pure saintliness but rather melds the qualities necessary for redemption in a perspective rooted in the here and now.

Acquisition is necessary for economies to function, but they needn't be bogged down in total greed. The human being creates boundaries, limits to one's desires, but needn't eradicate them totally to live in a redeemed world.

Desire when channeled recognizes that we accumulate goods and experiences in order to satisfy our own urges but also to serve others and allow them to be satisfied as well.

Generosity, therefore, becomes the operating principle, even in a world where things are acquired, if one recognizes that the ability to acquire--both the desire to have and the object sought--derives from the Source of Life.

That our own desires spring from the Source of Life means that one can learn to transcend one's "kotzer ruach" or "broken spirit" on the way to finding one's place in the world as we know it and in the world as it ought to be.

That we left Egypt once is a testimony to an unbroken spirit. To boldly assert our place in the world and role as agents of history to bring further redemption is our mandate, during the Omer period and beyond.


DPGreenberg said...

Meekness doesn’t seem to have been an issue affecting the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt. Pushed along by a self-involved deity and led by an authoritarian proto-general in Moshe, they nonetheless kvetched their way through and across the desert. At the end of the journey, they fought their way into a land already occupied by another people. In the process, they may have given the world its first glimpse of irredentism. In this traveling circus, everyone was everyone else’s worst role model. A few Bontche Schweigs in the crowd might have been a good thing.

And this is the basic problem I have with Pesah, a holiday which I nonetheless observe [albeit with increasing irritation and hunger as the week progresses]. We want it to be about freedom. To me, freedom means democracy and democratic values, but where is there a hint of a democratic creed in this tale? Are the rank and file given a choice about enlisting in Elohim’s army? That’s largely achieved by a series of scare tactics and threats. This is forced redemption, which isn’t redemption at all.

When our boys were growing up, there was someone at our seder who, at some point, always turned to the young in attendance to remind them that freedom is a universal theme that we must be vigilant to protect wherever it is threatened. But I don’t think that is what the biblical story is about. It’s about audacity, even arrogance, which I’ll concede are sometimes necessary to get things done. Unfortunately, we Jews have been reading our own press clippings for so long that we don’t seem to understand the difference anymore. As a result, Passover has become the principal holiday of Jewish hubris and the more we tell this fraught, contradictory story and call it something it's not, the more hubristic we become. Next year to keep my sanity, I’m going to propose that we only tell the story in order to take it apart.

Rabbi Barat Ellman said...

Of course you should take the story apart. That is the beauty of it and indeed of the Torah - no one layer says everything. It is built on and thrives on the internal contradictions which reflect the contradictions enbedded in being human. To damn the story as one about "a self-involved diety" and "an authoritarian proto-general" is to read superficially -- there is as much criticism of these traits as there is extoling of them -- likewise re the invasions or conquest. Look at Gen 23 for an alternate vision of life with non-Israelittes or, for that matter the critique found at the end of Gen 34 which may be read a a typeology of cthe conquest. So, YES do deconstruct. That is part of the message. moadim l'simcha.