21 May 2011
What Is Now
"Because," David argued patiently with his little son, "because a Jew must get ready for the other world, and one can prepare for the world-to-come only by reading the law and obeying its commandments, by being pious."
This exchange, which occurs early in Elias Tobenkin's "God of Might," summarizes Judaism's essential principle of Torah's purpose. All we do here is a preparation for a better world.
I've been up since 4:30 am, watching the world wake up, yet again; listening to the birds alight from their slumber and create their own rapture; and, reluctantly, toiling in opposition to the noise of Flatbush Avenue, its ceaseless sounds of metal and fossil fuel, consummations of this world, with seeming little regard for what might be.
We keep a gravestone on our living room floor. It's a portrait of Hank Williams carved in granite by our friend the artist and musician Jon Langford. "We Live in Two Different Worlds," it says, and Hank's smile hauntingly enlivens the cold, gray rock. The world we see with man's refusal to curb his appetite for violence; and the distant shores of possible peace. The world of righteous condemnation by the brilliant and pure; and those who wade into the waters of complexity, taking great risks to salvage hope and peace.
It's a bit odd, I admit; perhaps even morose, to keep a gravestone in your living room. On the other hand, it's not an actual gravestone but a piece of art, which is the point. And as a compass of one man's vision of another man's lyric sung by another man whose visage stares, daringly past the present and into an unrealized future, I remain humbled and frustrated but certainly not bowed by our collective inability to simply get it right.
So perhaps it makes perfect sense that Leviticus, the Book of the Priestly Pure, ends with curses and warnings of bitter condemnation for those willing to thwart God's Law. An explosion of anger and vituperation at man's incessant failures; dire predictions of the cursed downfall of humanity in all its willful imperfection.
The Sages understood something we might consider. They called this book "Torat Cohanim," the Book of the Priests. And it is ordered the third of five, or right in the middle. That might mean that its message is central to Torah. But it also might mean that its message is absorbed, buffered, tempered, hidden, even reined in. Dire warnings often lead nowhere. Careful and intentional action usually wins the day. "Everything is seen, permission is granted, the world is judged with goodness, and everything depends upon the majority of deeds," say the Sages in Pirke Avot.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin brings a teaching from the Talmud to elucidate this point. "A tree planted in impurity reaches out and God prunes the branches of his merits by rewarding him in this world so that in the next world he can be judged for what he is: a tree planted in impurity. Similarly, a tree planted in purity reaches out and God prunes the branches of his sins by punishing him in this world, so that in the next world he can be judged for what he is: a tree planted in purity."
We can never be sure what rewards or punishments await us. An honest, clear-eyed focus on life's paradoxical realities reveals this as truth. "We live in two different worlds, dear, my world is honest and true. Sweetheart, remember, when your world gets lonesome, I'll still be waiting for you."
Of course, we can only act on, and know, what is now.