Last week I sat in three airports and could not escape the tinny, insistent sound of the television. It reminded me of one researcher who claimed that we are always dreaming, but because of the stimulus of the day, dreams can only peak through at night. The noise of the world shuts out our dreams.
Science favors the collective, the species. We are analyzed by groups, the behavior of crowds, evolutionary patterns, economic cycles. Swept up in the net of the social and natural sciences, the “I” seems to disappear.
Here the American and Jewish traditions join hands. A human being is a singular creation in the Bible. The first thing we are told about creation is that each person is in the image of God. When the great American poet Walt Whitman writes that he celebrates himself and sings himself, the accent is not only of the new world, but the biblical heritage.
A few weeks ago I had brain surgery to repair a breach that opened from brain surgery seven years ago. The experience gave me an insight into the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Gen. Ch. 22).
Commentators ask God how could have instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son, or why Abraham acquiesced. More rarely do we wonder about Isaac. Most assume that when Isaac survives he is traumatized and damaged. Some note that he and Abraham never speak again after this experience. How could he undergo such an ordeal and not be devastated?
The Talmudic sages enumerate three great miracles in the desert. First was the manna, which fed the wandering Israelites. Miriam’s well provided water. And there was the covering of clouds that offered shade. One interpretation of the sukkah is that it commemorates the cloud covering in the desert.
The Steipler Gaon asks an intriguing question and gives a beautiful answer. Why of all three miracles does only the cloud covering deserve a holiday? There is no festival of the manna or the water, only Sukkot remembering the clouds.
Is there another religious tradition with a major character named “laughter?” Yitzchak means “laughter” and alone among the patriarchs, his name is not changed — because God names him.
When God is bested in an argument in the Talmud, Elijah reports that God’s reaction was to laugh. In addition to lamenting the difficulties of the world, Jews have long learned that now and then you’ve just got to laugh.
‘I’m getting older every day,” the octogenarian repeats. Once valedictorian of her high-school graduating class, she now hugs a toy bunny to her chest. “What should I do next?” she asks, as if she’s at an amusement park instead of at a Jewish nursing home in New Jersey.
The geriatric assistant sums up my mom’s condition in one word: “confused.” Yesterday my 86-year-old parent believed she was in an airport; today, she may be Alice in Wonderland, bewitched by a rabbit.
Ecclesiastes is full of contradictions. Better the day of death than the day of birth we are told; but then we are reminded that a live dog is better than a dead lion. Everything is futile, we are told; but then we’re urged to obey the commandments — or to enjoy life with the one we love. Ecclesiastes teaches a great life lesson: No single value, idea or practice can be right for all people at all times.
Sooner or later, the enemies of the Jewish people become the enemies of the world. Nazism, Soviet communism, radical Islam. All single out the Jews for special obloquy, but eventually the world pays the price. This has led some to call the Jewish people the canary in the coal mine: the canary, with its limited lung capacity, dies to let the miners know there is lethal gas.
But despite everything the Jewish people have survived. Better is the image of the sentinel in the watchtower. We have seen the oncoming enemy and called out in alarm.