Friday, October 28, 2011

Understanding the Tower of Babel

Although the story of Noah's ark is one of the Bible's most famous, there is more to this week's parashat than just that. God chooses righteous Noah to be the keeper of the world's species while the world is destroyed by a massive, forty day flood. It is up to Noah and his three sons thereafter to repopulate the world. Once humanity is reestablished, the people of Earth settle into a valley and consolidate their efforts to build a marvelous city. God looks down at the people and sees how progressive they are becoming. Acknowledging any task is within humanity's reach, God mixes up the speech of each of the builders. God spreads these people among the world, each bringing a different language with them. The unfinished tower is known as the Tower of Babel, for the people babbled with confusion in their scrambled tongues.

This scene at Babel is quite troubling. Why does God interrupt the people's uniting, an unachieved goal of humanity throughout all of history? The text offers that the tower is literally being constructed to ascend toward the sky. Perhaps, this type of progress is intimidating to God. In God's vision of the universe, humans are meant to be below the heavens. If this was offensive, was there fear that God's sovereignty was threatened? Weekly, Jews praise God for being almighty and the most powerful force in the universe. What if God simply stops anyone else from coming close? In this moment, people live in the same place, know of the same God, speak the same language, and work with each other. Instead of this ideal unity, humans are separated by nation, some hating others. Rather than building a beautiful city, humans destroy one another's beauties. Is it God's fault? The people of Babel do not believe this city is a threat to God. The people build this city to make a name for themselves. Maybe they are doing this in arrogance toward God, boasting how like in the image of God humans can truly be. On the contrary, the people may be proving that their post-flood society is worthwhile. After all, they know God believed creation was mess before Noah, they want to show that this previous mistake is actually a masterpiece in the making. Whatever the reason, humans were separated by language at Babel.

Can one ever really "try their best"? From this logic, it can be concluded God limits a human's ability to excel toward true divinity. For instance, doctors and scientists are slowly finding cures to the world's diseases, but can there be cures for every illness? New York City is a hub for culture, politics, and society. However, can it grow too great? Even on a personal level, there is so little knowledge that can be attained. A student may go on to be their high school and college's valedictorian, but even Albert Einstein was clueless to some wonders. There are times when people limit themselves, but another force could be at work. In Eden, Adam and Eve are granted a perfect world to tend to with one rule. As Eve breaks this rule, the idea of perfection disappears. At Babel, the people nearly reach this level of greatness again. Based on Judaic teachings, the Messianic Age, the return of perfection in the world, is yet to come. It is possible that God separated humans by language to challenge them. Some may find this cruel, but is an A+ truly an A+ if the teacher never makes tough tests or quizzes? Is it worth reaching a goal without work? In most people's live, success comes with effort and elbow grease. God is like a parent, and God just does not want to spoil the children of Earth. Suddenly, the so ever troubling puzzle of Babel never seemed so clear.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Four Types of People

In the world, people fall be classified into four distinct compartments. There are people who recognize good, knowing what is righteous but never following their impulses. There are few famous examples of these bystanders because they rarely attempt to change the world. Those who recognize good know how to save the world, but are too fearful or lazy to actually change it. Then, there are those who recognize evil. Although there are few criminals who think violently and refuse to listen to their impulses, one can want to do evil but not be able to acquire the materials to perform their crime. For these followers in society, there are two types of leaders; those who perform good deeds and those who create evil. The righteous are some of the most hallowed people in society. People, like Gandhi teaching that violence is not necessary to compel change, refuse to let the same old pass by in their lifetime. They do not allow a single iniquity stand overlooked. On the other hand, there are people who act upon evil. Like Hitler, these sinister beings rise up from the lowest depths of human nature. From shoplifting to genocide, evil doers ignore the principles and ethics of society to compensate their own motives, usually greed or power. Anyone from Beijing to Berlin can be characterized as one of these four types of people. There are no overlaps, for these qualities analyze a person's character, their integrity or lack of it.

Before one can sort people into these classes, they must consider the difference between good and evil. If good is following the way society generally works, then American citizens might still rely on slaves imported from Africa. Good is fighting for what one considers right. Unfortunately, there are two sides to one fight and both consider their viewpoint good. On issues where the debate is heated, such as raising taxes versus cutting government spending, good and evil are dependent on the person. Perhaps, one could only follow their personal ethics system. The big bad wolf is the clear antagonist in "The Three Little Pigs", but he was simply seeking revenge on the pigs who perhaps hurt his pride in some way. Similar to such a fictitious fable, true goodness rises above wickedness by the end of time. When faced with such conflicts, good actually is the quality to follow one's heart. While some feel the Occupy Wall Street protests are inhumane, others are fighting for what they believe will redeem the American economic system. In the end, one side will win or gain more through compromise, but both forces are voicing what they feel is right.

Even though the definitions of good and bad are vague, there is one fact that is certain. The recognizers in life are not acceptable. It is never okay to be a bystander, yet they are a majority of the world's population. Being inspired is great, but it does not actually change the world. Who is one to tell others they can not change the world by themselves? Someone thought of the wheel, and fire did not just appear on its own. From these simple amenities, one can learn that heroes are everywhere. Change does not need to be massive, but starting small is starting somewhere. For instance, if someone believes the environment is a worth cause they should start in their home. The change they create in their home expands to their neighborhood and then to their town, state, country, and finally the world! Standing aimlessly without strong convictions is useless to the world and oneself. Anyone can be a leader. Leaders fight for what they believe in and against what they dislike. For anyone who reads this, help fix the world. All it takes is a little elbow grease.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Does Sorry Cut It With God?

At this time of year, the Jews do more than celebrate the new year. A new year becomes an opportunity to start anew. On Rosh Hashana, God opens the Torah, the Book of Life. According to mysticism, God watches us all a little closer over the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is said that God weighs a person's bad sins and good deeds against each on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is sealed and our destiny for the year is certain. Yom Kippur means the Day of Atonement. On this most holy day of the year, we apologize for our sins through praise of God. Whether or not one believes in God is actually irrelevant, for reevaluating one's actions and relieving guilt is always providential for success in life. It is helpful though to literally talk out one's sins with God. In this role, God becomes the omnipotent therapist in the sky.

How forgiving is God? Apologizing is not simply enough. In order to properly atone for one’s sins, the problem must first be recognized and then corrected. The Jews say the world stands on three things; Torah, Avodah (worship), and Gemulit Hasidim (acts of love and kindness). When the Torah’s law is broken, the entire pyramid is thrown off balance. To fix this, Jews praise God on Yom Kippur and are granted a new slate for the year. God will forgive atoners under any circumstances. After the concluding service of Yom Kippur, the responsibility of redeeming oneself falls on the sinner. Performing the positive mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah is fully relieves someone of their wickedness. Regardless of the degree of evil, a person should always strive to help others. It is impossible to atone for every sin on Yom Kippur, but the study of Torah, praise of God, and love to others increases God’s forgiving nature.

What happens when a society begins to run amuck? According to the book of Jonah, God allows them to correct their actions prior to further punishment. God sends Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh about the consequences of their wrongdoings. At first, Jonah ignores God's request and attempts to run away. However, Jonah realizes it is impossible to escape God as a storm is cast upon the sea. A fish swallows Jonah for three days. At the end of this time, Jonah promises to go to Nineveh. He saves the city and himself. As individuals, atonement is simple, for the power is entire our responsibility. In groups, it is difficult sometimes impossible to tell another person how to improve their morality. If this is true, why do Jews go to synagogue for Yom Kippur services rather than worshipping with a deep, personal connection to God? As seen in the horrors of the Holocaust, it only takes one, evil soul in all of Europe to rupture the tranquility in a society. Humans excel and fail as a coalition. Therefore, setting a time of year to reanalyze our society's fallings is just as essential if not more so than atoning as individuals.