06 July 2012

Unalienable Rights

That God can make a donkey talk, as he does in this week's Torah portion, Balak, brings to the murky surface of religiosity in a secular age the utter weirdness of divine thoughts in un-holy places.

Walking Surf Avenue on the Fourth of July this week, absorbing the overwhelming mass of a fast-food consuming mass of humanity, I found myself wondering about the prophecy of a Jewish mayor attempting to outlaw large sodas.  Call me crazy but this was actually a topic of conversation in our family.  The rights and wrongs of it.  The one kid we haven't sent off to camp yet asked very precise questions about this proposed policy and for a nine year old, exhibited an eager desire to absorb its social dimensions and implications.

For instance:  just as one may weigh the costs of people smoking (long-term effects on the health care system of cancer treatment) so too may one weigh the costs of people eating and drinking foods that cause obesity.  To what degree, as chief executive of a large public health system, is it a mayor's responsibility, to bring out into the open the lack of discipline people exercise with their eating habits?  If the poor use public hospitals; if the poor derive benefit from a Medicaid system; should not the poor be engaged in a broader debate about the very choices they are making over what goes into their bodies?  

But further:  aren't fast foods cheaper?  More accessible?  If so, why?  What does it say about the very structures of our economic system that bad food is more accessible and readily available than good food?  And is that always true?  How and where do the poor live?  Is there time to cook?  Is there enough room to sit at a table and eat?  Who's going to cook if the adults are working all the time to make ends meet?  And if they're not working, who can afford all that good organic food that the bourgeois love to eat?  How far are affordable grocery stores from working kitchens in well-designed homes that encourage a thoughtful, wholesome approach to eating and living?

And why all those goddamned tattoos?

Look:  I realize it was just the Fourth of July.  That the goal was to ride the Cyclone, catch a ballgame and see some fireworks.  But with a city at our feet to ask such fundamental questions of life, it feels like a real sin of omission not to engage.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

I have a love/hate relationship with these lines.  There are days when I love them, particularly when I want to be left alone.  And they are days when I hate them, particularly when I don't want to leave YOU alone.  

I hold this truth to be self-evident:  that because all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, we need to get involved in the situation when injustice denies the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness and, to be clear, buying a Big Gulp, a Nathan's hot dog, and bag of potato chips is not what the Framers had in mind when they talked about Happiness.

Neither are endless tracts of land, gin and tonics, Mercedes SUV's, and tax shelters in the Cayman Islands.

The Sages argue over the meaning of Balaam the prophet and whether or not this non-Jew had come to curse Israel or bless Israel.  And ultimately, the general view is that the broader story is about the tension between Divinity and human wisdom.  Balaam was considered a "sorcerer" (these thoughts arose at Coney Island, afterall) and just as Moses took on the sorcerers of Egypt to reveal the truths of the God of Justice and Freedom, so too does God intervene through the medium Balaam's donkey to convey a greater truth, a truth which, paradoxically, is missed by the Israelites in the closing passage.  

"While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god."  In a dramatic climax of sexual transgression and violence, Pinchas impales an Israelite man and his Moabite lover, stabbing both "through the belly."  It is a Principle of Grotesquerie that shocks the mind.  Both the mindless satisfaction of the self and the fanaticized murder to rid the culture of the impulse.

I'd imagine that most Bar Mitzvah kids don't study this passage too closely but they might consider it next time.

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה--All of Israel is responsible for one another.  This is a Talmudic principle.

Living with each other in crowded cities; going to schools together; riding the trains; sharing the sidewalks; cheering for the home team.  Knowing what we know by living so closely to one another, it is any surprise that in the Haftarah the prophet Micah is chosen to soothe us with his words of radical simplicity:

"He had told you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you:  only to do justice, and to love goodness, and walk modestly with your God."

In the re-write of the Declaration, the Framers might have considered adding that line.  One wonders what nation would have grown from a watered garden of rhetoric such as that.

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