The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Vayigash: What the tears reveal

In last week's Torah portion, we saw Joseph hiding his tears from his brothers and his Egyptian colleagues. In this week's Torah portion, the tears flow too deeply to hide. As you will recall, the last portion ends with Joseph's goblet being found in Benjamin's pack. None of the brothers are aware that Joseph ordered his servants to put it there. Upon being accused of theft, but before the "theft" was revealed, the brothers vow that if any of them stole from Joseph, the thief should be executed, and the other brothers sold into slavery. Upon being arrested for the theft, Joseph made their vow more lenient, asking that the thief be enslaved, and the others go free. Upon revealing the stolen goblet, Joseph insists that Benjamin be his slave. As you will recall, Jacob was reluctant to let Benjamin travel down to Egypt until Judah promised to offer his life for Benjamin's life should anything happen to Benjamin in Egypt. And then this week's Torah portion begins.

The portion begins with Judah coming to Benjamin's defense before Joseph. Judah does not recognize Joseph, and thinks of him as second only to Pharaoh. Therefore, to contest his decision is to put his life in jeopardy, but he does not hesitate to step up. Judah relates his promise to their father, and mentions that his father, through Rachel, had only two sons. Joseph, Jacob assumes, was torn by wild beasts, and Benjamin is Jacob's new favorite. Judah assures Joseph that if the brothers return without Benjamin, their father will die of anguish. He tells Joseph that he has pledged his life for Benjamin's, and begs Joseph to take him instead, in order to spare their father's life.

This proves too much for Joseph. This whole ruse and subterfuge has been designed to prove to Joseph whether or not their brothers have made moral restitution since since abducting him and selling him into slavery. With Judah's testimony, he is convinced that his brothers have done so, and he cannot help but be overcome with emotion at this discovery. He fears that he is about to break down weeping, and sends his Egyptian servants away.

His sobs are so loud that everyone in his palace can hear them, but alone in the room with his brothers, he reveals himself to them. He insists that they feel no guilt at having wronged him, but assures them that God sent him before them to Egypt, to save all of their lives before the upcoming famine. He asks them to return for their father, and gives them choice land to settle in Goshen, in Egypt, to wait out the famine in some of the only fertile lands in the region.

With that, he embraces Benjamin, and the two of them sob on each other's shoulders. Then he kisses each of his brothers and weeps with them. The commotion is so loud that Pharaoh is alerted, and he invites the brothers to return to Canaan for their wives and children, and to bring their father with them, to settle in the best lands in Egypt. Joseph helps them pack for the journey, and tells them: "do not have anger or agitation along the way." [Genesis 45: 24].

The rabbis are fascinated with this advice. The history of the Jewish people is full of internecine conflicts, right up to the present day. The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. Jews who should have loved each other hated each other over issues that from a distance look like minutiae. Today in Israel, in Beit Shemesh, an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox girl was spat upon and called a whore by extremist ultra-Orthodox adult men for wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a long skirt that still was not considered modest enough by her bullies. Last night, there was rioting in Beit Shemesh as people protesting the girl's treatment, and those who harassed her fought in the public square. Police who showed up to quell the violence were met with rocks and flaming trash cans. The extremists within the ultra-Orthodox community there are calling for an exclusion of women in the public sphere, from public shops and public transport. In their journey to the land of Israel, they have quarreled along the way.

Too often Jews have forgotten that we are all brothers, and should love each other, and that we should not quarrel along the way to Israel, both the land of Israel, and the metaphorical Israel. Masons too sometimes gently need to be reminded not to quarrel along the way. We are all brothers.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mikeitz: Hiding his tears

In this week's Torah portion, Joseph spends two more years in prison before he is released. As you will recall from last week, the Pharaoh's wine steward forgot about him when he was released, after Joseph interpreted his dream. Two years later, Pharaoh himself has prophetic dreams. He dreams that he sees seven handsome cows grazing by the Nile, set upon by seven lean and scraggly cows, which devour the healthy cows. Then he dreams of seven lush and healthy ears of corn, which are devoured by seven weather-beaten, blighted ears of corn. None of Pharaoh's advisors can satisfactorily interpret the dream, and only then, the wine steward remembers about Joseph, and asks that he can be released to interpret Pharaoh's dreams.

Joseph is cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh relates his dreams to Joseph. Joseph interprets them both the same way: there will be seven years of abundance in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh to ration grain during the abundant years, to prepare for the upcoming famine. He suggests that Pharaoh hire a supervisor to administrate this process, and Pharaoh chooses Joseph as that supervisor. Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh, and is given power and authority.

When the famine arrives, it spreads throughout the region, and in Canaan, Jacob and his other sons are hard hit by it. Jacob sends his sons, laden with money and expensive goods, to Egypt to buy grain. He leaves his youngest son, Benjamin, at home with him, because he adores Benjamin too much to risk losing him. The sons arrive in Egypt and are brought before Joseph. Joseph recognizes the brothers who sold him into slavery and faked his death. They tell their story to Joseph, through an interpreter, and he asks them about their family, and where they come from. He accuses them of being spies, since they speak Hebrew and yet claim to be from Canaan. At this accusation, the brothers begin to argue with each other. Reuben tells his brothers that he had warned them not to do anything to Joseph. When Joseph hears this (the brothers do not realize that Joseph understands Hebrew), he runs away and cries in another room. He regains his composure and returns.

Joseph imprisons them for three days, and then releases them (with the exception of Simeon), demanding that they prove their story by returning home to bring their brother Benjamin back with them. The brothers know that Jacob is deeply reluctant to part with Benjamin. Joseph packs their bags with grain, and hides all the money they paid for the grain in the grain bags.

On the return journey, the brothers find the money in the grain bags, and they are horrified, thinking that they will be accused of stealing. They return home to their father with the grain, and tell them all of what happened, and that Joseph expects them to return with Benjamin in order to release Simeon from prison. Jacob is very reluctant to do this, but eventually, their grain runs out, and they are forced to return to Egypt. Simeon promises Jacob that if Benjamin is killed on their journey, Jacob can kill two of his four sons. Jacob sends them back with double the money, and they return to Egypt.

Upon their return with Benjamin, they are again brought before Joseph, who offers them a lavish feast. Joseph receives the returned money along with the new money, and asks them about their father. Then he looks over Benjamin and prays before the brothers that God would be gracious to Benjamin. Overcome with emotion, he again leaves the banquet hall and weeps in another room before regaining his composure and returning to the feast. Benjamin has been given five portions of food.

Joseph orders that their bags be laden with grain for their return, and he has all the money put in their grain sacks, and in Benjamin's sack, he places his precious silver goblet. Joseph has his guards chase after the brothers' caravan and overtake it, and they accuse the brothers of stealing the goblet. The brothers swear their innocence, and suggest that if they find a stolen goblet, that brother be executed and the others sold into slavery. The guards instead suggest that if they find the goblet, the one who has the goblet would be enslaved, and the other brothers would go free. The guards find the goblet in Benjamin's sack. They all return to the city.

Joseph judges them for stealing the goblet, and the brothers fall on their knees in supplication. At this moment, the dreams that Joseph had twenty-two years earlier, which so enraged their brothers in the first place, have come true. Joseph reiterates that they can all go free except Benjamin, who is to be enslaved to Joseph. Here the portion ends.

I find great emotional resonance in the two times that Joseph hides and weeps. He has been terribly wronged by his brothers, and yet, they have inadvertently set him upon the path that has lead to Joseph becoming a very fortunate and powerful man. Despite all they have done to him, Joseph loves his brothers and misses his father. Next week, we will see Jacob come down to Egypt himself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Meaning of Hanukkah

Tonight is Erev Hanukkah (Hanukkah Eve). Raised as a Secular Jew, I never really took Hanukkah very seriously. Hanukkah holds a strange place in the cycle of Jewish festivals in that the source material for its inception was written in texts that were de-canonized by the rabbis who redacted the Jewish Bible, the TaNaKh (TaNaKh is an acronym. Tav stands for Torah, Nun stands for Nevi'im, or books of the Prophets, and Khet stands for Ketuvim, or miscellaneous writings). The First and Second Books of Maccabees is the source, although those books were left out of the Bible. Josephus describes the incident in Antiquities of the Jews. The rabbis were uncomfortable with a holiday that could not justify its existence via Scripture. Thus, it is a minor holiday with a fair amount of ambivalence associated with it.

The incident that inspired the festival concerned a civil war between Hellenized Jews and more Orthodox Jews. In a sense, this conflict continues today with the disagreements between Secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. Hellenized Jews performed a less radical circumcision, trimming the foreskin rather than removing it entirely. There is some speculation that the total removal of the foreskin comes from this time period, as a strong stance taken against assimilation. In any case, the Hellenized Jews had the backing of King Antiochus III, who sought to subjugate the more traditional Jews. Matisyahu, a priest of the (Second) Temple, and his sons, revolted against the Hellenized High Priest, and Matisyahu's son, Judah, was known as Yehuda HaMakabi, or Judah the Hammer. After winning the battle with the Hellenized Jews, Judah the Maccabee secured the Temple complex, and declared himself the High Priest. Because he considered the oil for the Temple Menorah (lamp stand) that had been supplied by the Hellenized Jews to be unclean, he had to make new lamp oil for the Temple Menorah. Because they had been fighting during the festival of Sukkot and the related holiday of Shemini Atzeret, they had to celebrate these Temple festivals belatedly, after the battle. He was only able to secure enough new oil to last one day, and yet, when he went to burn the oil in the Menorah, it burned for eight days. This miracle later generations decided to commemorate every year on the anniversary of it as the Festival of Hanukkah, or Festival of Lights.

 Because this all happened after the events in the Bible, this festival is not a holy day like the holy days delineated in the Torah. Jews do not need to observe Sabbath-like restrictions on Hanukkah.

Hanukkah was a minor holiday (even more minor still than Purim, which is also not delineated in the Torah). This is the way it would have remained if it were not for the Ashkenazi migration to Europe, and the later integration of Jews into European society. As European Christians converted the pagan observances of the Winter Solstice into an observance of the Birth of Christ. The Romans celebrated the Birth of the Sun on December 25th. As both the Sun and Christ are the Sefer Tiferet on the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah, many solar practices easily converted to Christian practices after the Christianization of Rome. Similarly, the festivals of Saturnalia among the Romans, and Yule among the Germans, were all adopted into the celebration of Christmas. As the Christians celebrated Christmas, some were disturbed that the Jews who lived among them did not celebrate with them, and this was often a source of conflict.

As Jews were emancipated from the ghettos in Europe in the 18th century, Jewish children and Christian children had social intercourse with each other. Jewish children saw the observance of Christmas (and the copious gifts received) among their Christian peers, and demanded a similar observance from their parents. As Hanukkah is observed for a week after 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, it often coincides with Christmas Day. It became a modern custom to give children a gift for each day of Hanukkah, to appease them away from Christmas envy.

So, while Hanukkah is a minor holiday, I have Christian friends who, with all sincerity, make a point of wishing me a Happy Hanukkah with far more gusto than anyone has ever wished me a Happy Shavuot, a much more important Jewish holiday. Hanukkah's temporal proximity to Christmas has elevated it above any reasonable stature it should possess.

Thus, as an adult Jew (and thus not likely to get eight presents), Hanukkah remained a minor holiday for me, and a fairly unremarkable one at that. That was, until last year, when I finally understood its meaning.

Last year, on Erev Hanukkah, I heard an interpretation of Hanukkah that rang true for me. I apologize that I don't remember where I received it. The interpretation regarded what the miracle of Hanukkah was. Traditionally, the miracle was that the oil lasted eight days. This interpretation went as follows: imagine that you are Judah the Maccabee. You only have enough oil for one day and yet you need to burn oil for eight days. What do you do? A pragmatic person would give up, acknowledging that there wasn't enough oil to light the lamps. Note that at this point in the story, no miracle had occurred, and none were promised to occur. Judah instead burned the oil that he had, conserving none of it. He devoted himself to the mitzvah (commandment) wholeheartedly without hesitation, even though he was, for all practical purposes, unprepared to follow through with it. The next morning, the oil should have been exhausted, but it wasn't. He could have unlit the lamps to conserve what remained, and yet he did not. He let them burn.

The next day, he let them burn. And the next, and the next. While the obvious miracle is that the oil continued to burn, the miracle of faith was that Judah, without knowing how long the oil would burn, trusted that he could continue to burn the oil, withholding any hesitation or fear that he would exhaust the supply. That is faith.

I was very conscious of this last year, when I was working at a company, and had a bad review in October. My boss had been recently supplanted by a new boss who was the boss of her and of everyone under her. The new boss had never met any of us, as he lived overseas. For some reason, he took an instant dislike to me. So while I had never had a negative review with the company before, in my semi-annual review in October, he arrived in person and absolutely excoriated me. He accused me of lying on my resume, of malingering, of faking knowledge I did not possess. It was a total shock, since my previous boss had been nothing but positive with me. At the end of the review, he told me that I had four weeks to show drastic improvement, or he would fire me. He wanted me to write a written weekly self-review, which he and my old boss would analyze, and at the end of four weeks, they would collectively decide if I kept my job. Four weeks later, I had sent four such reviews, and the only feedback I received was that the first one was too long, and to make the subsequent ones shorter. Two weeks after that, I had still not received any feedback whatsoever. And my old boss, and the HR director, both of whom lived on the West Coast, were scheduled to visit my office in Boston for a week. The week of Hanukkah.

They arrived on a Tuesday, and I asked them what their conclusions were, and they both told me that, unofficially, I shouldn't worry about keeping my job. I asked them when I would know officially, and they told me that my new boss was incommunicado. They had tried to reach him without success for two days. The next day I came to work and demanded an answer. At 4 PM, they asked me to come into their office to talk.

They told me that my new boss wanted to fire me, and that they wanted to keep me, and that discussions were at an impasse. They asked me what I thought. I told them that this was Hanukkah, and that in the Temple, Judah the Maccabee had burned the oil without knowing whether it would last more than a day because it was a mitzvah to burn the oil. I had been coming to work and working hard, not knowing each day for the last two and a half weeks whether or not I'd be fired that day. That morning, a co-worker had taken an emergency call from a hospital that had gone down due to a bad software upgrade of our software. The patient data system was not sending meaningful data. Patients could not have bed transfers, discharges, nor could they be admitted to the hospital. My colleague had asked me to jump in on the call, and in twenty minutes I had diagnosed the problem, walked them through a solution, and got them back online. At any moment during that emergency, I told them, one of you could have tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was fired. I knew that, and yet I did my job, and saved our client from a serious emergency. I told them that like the meager oil in the lamp stand, I continued to burn. They let me keep my job. That was my Hanukkah miracle.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vayeishev: Joseph and the meaning of dreams

One fourth of the Book of Genesis is dedicated to the story of Joseph. Fascinating, since he was not considered one of the Patriarchs. Indeed, there is no tribe of Joseph as there are for each of his brothers.  The tribe of Levi form the Levites who, because of their priestly duties, were not given a portion of the Land of Israel, and thus do not form a territorial tribe. The final two tribes, that of Ephraim and Manasseh, are the sons of Joseph, who got their own tribes, rather than Joseph himself.

So why does the Book of Genesis devote so much text to Joseph? Partially to explain how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, but there is more going on in the story of Joseph than a mere relocation story. Joseph's story is driven by dreams, both his and the dreams of others. God gave him the gift of prophecy through dream interpretation, and in the next four Torah portions, he uses this gift, at first injudiciously, and later more wisely.

Jacob regarded Joseph as a favorite, and this favoritism inspired jealousy in his brothers. Jacob gave him an extravagant brocaded coat (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים in Hebrew). This coat became a focus for his brothers' jealousies. Joseph received prophetic dreams that he would rule over his brothers and even his father when he was seventeen. A wiser youth would have kept these dreams to himself, especially if he were conscious of his brothers' attitudes towards him, but Joseph foolishly told his brothers his dreams in which he dominated them. In one dream, he appeared as a sheaf of wheat (Masons take note) standing straight up, whereas his brothers appeared as sheaves of wheat pointing in a circle around him bowing down to him. In a second dream, his brothers appeared as seven stars, his father the sun and his deceased mother the moon, all bowing down to Joseph. He told this dream to his father and brothers, and it greatly upset them, although his father suspended judgment at the time.

These dreams exacerbated his brothers' ill feelings towards him, and they conspired to murder him. One day, his older brothers were tending sheep when Jacob asked Joseph to check on them. The Talmud tells us that Simeon and Levi, the perpetrators of the massacre at Shechem, were the chief conspirators, intending to murder Joseph and cast his corpse into a pit. Reuben, on the other hand, intervened on Joseph's behalf, insisting that his brothers spare Joseph's life. Instead, Reuben suggests that they cast Joseph alive into a well that was dug, but turned out to be dry.

Wells appear throughout the Book of Genesis as a symbol of mercy in the midst of harshness, or of inheritance in the case of Isaac reclaiming his father's wells. Water in the desert is life in the midst of death, and is a symbol of chesed, or lovingkindness. Thus, a dry well is a symbol of failed chesed, or an attempt at mercy that does not contain true caritas.

Reuben planned to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. As we shall see, this plan does not come into fruition. The brothers strip him of his precious coat, and put him in the dry well. The Talmud says that Simeon threw Joseph into the pit, but Josephus says that Reuben gently lowered Joseph into the pit, as to save him from injury. Soon afterwards, an Arab caravan approached, bringing spices and incenses for trade. Judah decides that, rather than murder Joseph, he can sell Jospeh as a slave to the caravan. He receives twenty pieces of silver for the sale of their brother. Reuben returns to the pit to rescue Joseph and finds him gone, and tears his clothing in his grief. He says to his brothers: "The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?" [Genesis 37: 30].

As a ruse, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph's coat in the blood. They bring the coat to their father, and tell him: "This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no." [Genesis 37: 32]. Heartbroken, Jacob assumes that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts, and succumbs to a long period of mourning, tearing his clothing and wearing sackcloth. His grief is pitiful: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him." [Genesis 37: 35].

Joseph, meanwhile is taken by the caravan to Egypt, and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and a Captain of the Guard.

At this point in the Torah, there is a rather bizarre digression about the duties of Levirate marriage (there is a whole tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the complex rules surrounding this obligation). It is important to remember that these peoples were extremely patriarchal, and their responsibilities to each other were very much dictated by the requirements of patriarchy, in ways that seem very odd to us today. When a woman was widowed, it was the responsibility of her brother-in-law to marry her, thus ensuring her protection.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah will dictate the rules of yibbum in the following way: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.". [Deuteronomy 25: 5-6].

While this seems disturbing to a modern sensibility, in the culture of the Ancients, an unmarried woman had no protection in society, especially if she had no sons to look out for her. Defending her from the isolation of widowhood, the brother of her dead husband could marry her, impregnate her, and these children would be legally  considered the children of her dead husband. This would restore not only her status, but the posthumous status of her dead husband. Men lived in fear of not producing progeny, and this method could ensure that a man could produce progeny after his death.

Incidentally, a brother could refuse to marry his brother's widow. This refusal is called chalitzah in Jewish law. The Talmud actually prefers chalitzah to yibbum. In a public ceremony, the widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law, and then spits in his face, and announces to the crowd that this man refuses to take her as a wife, and he confirms this. In the current Orthodox version of chalitzah, the widow spits on the ground, not in her brother-in-law's face, and the witnesses say "May it be the will [of God] that Jewish women be no more subjected to halizah or to yibbum." Thus, in Masonic ritual, the removal of the shoe is referred to as "a testament in Israel".

Judah, the progenitor of the Jewish people, does some pretty disreputable things in this section, and is depicted in a very unflattering manner. In the authorship theory of the Torah, it is believed that two factions of Torah author are in conflict with each other: the clerical faction and the political faction. In this theory, at the time ascribed to when the Torah was written down, the Levites controlled all religious practice and the tribe of Judah controlled the Kingdom of Judah, which was in power. Thus, the Priestly author was skeptical of political power, diminishing Judah, and the Political author was skeptical of clericalism, diminishing Levi.

Judah leaves his brothers and sets off on his own. He marries and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and because he is wicked, is struck down by God. Judah insists that his son Onan marry Tamar. Judah does not object to marrying Tamar, but he does object to having her children and having them be regarded as Er's children. He marries her, but practices coitus interruptus when having sex with her, ejaculating on the ground instead of inside Tamar. This dereliction of duty offends God, who strikes Onan dead.

In some Christian societies, masturbation is called onanism after this Biblical passage, and because Levirate marriage is not well-understood anymore, it has been misinterpreted that God kills Onan either for using a birth control method, or for masturbating (fairly odd considering the passage). Even some Orthodox Jews regard masturbation as the sin of Onan, and even go so far as to regard nocturnal emissions as sinful. I think that, considering what the Torah says, these extremist interpretations are wildly off the mark. If Levirate marriage is understood, the passage is pretty clear and direct. Onan was killed for refusing to give Tamar children who would be considered Er's children.

As Shelah was still a child, Judah told Tamar to live with her father until Shelah grew to adulthood. Judah worried that Shelah would die like his brothers, and was basically blowing Tamar off. Judah's wife died, and Judah did not marry Tamar and Shelah as he had promised. Tamar disguised herself as a  veiled prostitute (זוֹנָה in Hebrew). She is later described as being dressed like a hierodule, or sacred prostitute (קְּדֵשָׁה in Hebrew). This is a strange word, as it is the feminine form of the word sacred. Certain pagan women in ancient Canaan would have sex with worshippers in fertility rites as part of worship. In this tradition, they covered their faces (and thus were anonymous, encouraging any woman who wanted this form of pagan religious devotion to do this without loss of reputation).

Judah offers her a goat for solicitation, and gives her his seal of authority, his cloak and his staff (the symbols of his authority) as a deposit until he can provide her with the goat, and has sex with her, impregnating her. If she were a zonah, or regular prostitute, Judah would be guilty of fornication, but if she were a kedeishah, or sacred prostitute, he would be guilty of blasphemy as well.

Judah tries to provide the goat to the sacred prostitute, and get his deposit back, but nobody is aware of her existence. He is forced to give up and abandon the symbols of his authority. A few months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and Judah (not knowing that he is the father) is indignant, and insists that she be burned. The rabbinic commentary is divided as to whether burned meant burned to death, or branded. Upon her arrest, she offered the seal, the cloak and the staff to the men who arrested her, claiming that the owner of these items is the father of her child. Judah is exposed as a fornicator, a promise-breaker and a hypocrite.

Tamar gives birth to twins. One boy, Zerach thrust his arm out of her womb, and the midwife tied a crimson string around his wrist, claiming the boy as the firstborn. But the infant pulled his arm back in, and his brother, Peretz left the womb before him. Peretz was an ancestor of King David.

Joseph thrives as the servant of Potiphar in Egypt. The Torah suggests that the Lord caused Joseph to have success in all his undertakings, and Potiphar realizes that Joseph is blessed by the Lord, and gave him responsibility for the entire household, making him head butler of Potiphar's estate. God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph, making him extremely successful and prosperous. Joseph grew to manhood, and became extremely attractive, and Potiphar's wife became infatuated with Joseph. She demanded that Joseph sleep with her, but he refused, insisting that he had earned the trust of his master. She finally jumped him, grabbing his cloak as Joseph fled without it. Incensed, she told the household that Joseph had tried to rape her, and she gave his cloak as evidence of his assault. Potiphar, trusting his wife, had Joseph thrown in prison.

Joseph befriended the warden of the prison, and pretty soon, the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. God blesses Joseph, and he ends up running the prison. Later, Pharaoh's wine steward and baker are imprisoned. Midrash suggests that there was a fly in the wine and a pebble in the bread. Another midrash suggests that they had conspired to poison Pharaoh, and a third midrash says that they had attempted to seduce Pharaoh's daughter.

One night, both men had prophetic dreams they could not interpret. The wine steward dreams of a vine with three branches. As he watches, buds form, blossoms bloom, and the branches fill with grapes.  Pharaoh's cup appears in his hand and he took the grapes and squeezed them into the cup and handed it to Pharaoh. Joseph interpets the three branches as three days. In three days, the wine steward will be pardoned and restored to his previous position. Joseph tells the wine steward that when this happens, to remember Joseph in prison and to tell Pharaoh that Joseph is innocent and should be freed.

The baker dreams that three baskets of white bread are on his head. In the top basket are Pharaoh's favorite breads, but that birds were eating it out of the basket. Joseph interprets the three baskets as three days, and says that in three days, Pharaoh will hang the baker, and that the birds will pick at his carcass on the gallows. Nice, I know.

Three days later was Pharaoh's birthday, and he released the wine steward and the baker from prison. He restored the wine steward to his former position, but he executed the baker. The wine steward, in his excitement about being freed, forgot all about Joseph, leaving him to languish in prison.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Installed in the East

Last night, I was installed as Worshipful Master of Samuel Crocker Lawrence Lodge in Medford, MA. Two weeks ago, I attended a Lodge of Qualification, and took the Chair Degree. This degree is very old: there are records of it being performed going back to the 1730s. It stands in a grey area in Freemasonry in that Blue Lodge Freemasonry comprises three degrees, and this is not one of the three, and yet it is required for anyone who would be Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge. William Preston, in his Order of Harodim (his idealized versions of the Blue Lodge degree), offers five degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow of the Craft, Master Mason, Past Master, and Holy Royal Arch. In its earliest days, the Holy Royal Arch degree had as a prerequisite that the candidate be an Installed Master (either a sitting Worshipful Master or a Past Master). As the appeal of the Holy Royal Arch spread, lodges were installing Worshipful Masters merely as a bureaucratic measure before Exalting them in the Royal Arch degree. Some lodges in the 18th century were reprimanded for installing six or more Worshipful Masters in a night.

To mitigate this, a Virtual Past Master degree was designed as a substitute for the Chair degree, and this solution is the way the contemporary York Rite handles the requirement in the Royal Arch degree. While I have been elected to Cambridge Royal Arch Chapter in Cambridge, MA, I have yet to take any degrees, so I say this without any direct knowledge, but I have been told there is some overlap between the Chair degree and the Virtual Past Master degree. I made a conscious decision not to take the Virtual Past Master degree until after I had taken the Chair degree. Readers of this blog know that I am extremely active in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, both in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction and the Southern Jurisdiction in the United States. I actually joined Freemasonry intending to be a Scottish Rite Freemason. When I first learned of the York Rite, I was disinclined to join due to the Christian requirement in the Knights Templar order. (To be honest, there are many Jews who have become Knights Templar. The obligation requires a Sir Knight to lift a sword in the defense of Christianity. I know many brothers who regard the Order of the Temple degree as the single most beautiful and inspiring and impressive degree in all of Freemasonry. That being said, and with all due love and respect to my Templar brothers, I am disinclined to become a Templar for many reasons I would be happy to expound in a future post should my readers desire for me to do so).

I later learned that the degrees of the Royal Arch Chapter are pretty much essential to Freemasonry, and, previous to having taken them, I would regard the Royal Arch degree as the repository of knowledge essential to becoming a fully-informed Freemason. Albert Pike understood this, and created his own version of this degree, spread out in the 13th and 14th degrees of the Scottish Rite, the Royal Arch of Solomon and Perfect Elu degrees. Having attended these degrees, I understand that they tell a Royal Arch story, but probably not the same, nor in the same depth as the Royal Arch Chapter does.

In the USA, due to a truce between the Scottish Rite and the York Rite, we regard the three degrees of Blue Lodge Freemasonry as the whole Masonic curriculum, with the higher degrees regarded as Concordant rather than central. I am of the opinion that the Blue Lodge is merely the first book of Freemasonry, with the Chapter degrees (or their equivalents in the Lodge of Perfection in the Scottish Rite, or the Lodge of St. Andreas in the Swedish Rite, or other analogues in other rites of Freemasonry) being the second book, the Council degrees (or their equivalents in the other rites of Freemasonry) being the third book, and some version of the Chivalric degrees being the fourth book. The Scottish Rite adds a fifth book with the Consistory degrees in the Southern Jurisdiction, but since the other rites do not, I will not comment on how central they are to Freemasonry as a whole, regardless of how clearly essential they are to the Scottish Rite.

So I have taken the Chair degree, and in February, I will take the Mark Master degree, and start my York Rite journey, taking the Virtual Past Master degree as an Installed Master. Long story short, I avoided the York Rite originally because I thought erroneously that I was ineligible, and then waited until I was an Installed Master as not to spoil the Chair degree by learning too much about it in the Virtual Past Master degree.

Last night was very special. The District Deputy Grand Master attended, and I had an installing suite of officers consisting of good friends and mentors to me in my Masonic career. Many cherished friends and brothers attended, some of whom were at my Raising. I catered the dinner, and stayed around to clean up the lodge room afterwards. My friends at Amicable Lodge offered me a new pair of gloves and an inscribed gavel with my name, the name of the lodge, and the Square and Compasses on it.

I have made a two year commitment to be Worshipful Master at Samuel Crocker Lawrence Lodge (assuming my brothers re-elect me). I understand that being Worshipful Master is not about having people call me "Worshipful", or parading around in a top hat. As much as the Chair degree and the Installation are impressive rituals designed to impress upon the incoming Master the seriousness of his office (and provide esoteric knowledge designed to aid him in his tasks), the job of Worshipful Master really begins the first time the cell phone rings and there is a crisis on the other end of the phone.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Vayishlach: Wrestling with an angel

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob returns to his family in Canaan after twenty years of servitude to his uncle Laban. His brother, Esau, from whom he hed fled for his life after cheating him out of his father's dying blessing, now dominates the region of his family, and Jacob is terrified that Esau still wants to kill him. Jacob has been blessed by God with wealth and a large family, and they are in a large caravan when Jacob sends forth messengers to Esau to announce his return and to offer gifts of livestock and slave girls. Esau informs the messengers that Esau will send 400 men to greet Jacob. Fearing that the 400 men will slay him and his family, he splits the caravan into two groups, reasoning that if one is massacred, the other might survive. I have mentioned previously that the rabbis of the Talmud regarded Esau as the embodiment of evil, and the father of all the enemies of the Jews. In the rabbinic commentaries, the perfidy of Esau is emphasized, and illustrates the source of Jacob's terror.

At the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob puts the two camps on the further bank, and then crosses again alone to wait out the night. He prays to God, asking Him to remember His promise to Jacob during the dream of the Ladder.

Just before dawn, an angel appears in the guise of a man and wrestles Jacob. The angel initiates contact, engaging Jacob in grappling to test his resolve. Jacob wrestles the angel through the dawn, and ultimately the tables are turned and the angel struggles to flee from Jacob's grip, but Jacob will not let him go until the angel gives him a blessing. The angel dislocates Jacob's hip with a touch, but Jacob will not let go of the angel. The angel changes Jacob's name to Israel (Yisrael means one who wrestles with God), and prophesied that Jacob would become mighty before God and man. Jacob asks the angel his name, but that knowledge is forbidden him. Jacob named the place Peniel, or the Face of God, declaring that he had seen the Face of God and had withstood it [Genesis 32:31]. Jacob walked with a limp, with great difficulty, from that day forward.

Israel is the name of the whole Jewish people, of whom Jacob is the father. We are the people who wrestle with God. We do not come into faith naively. We question everything. We criticize, analyze, doubt, argue, question and ponder every detail of the revealed texts, and our own traditions. A Jew can doubt the existence of God and still be a Jew. A Jew has grabbed an angel and has wrestled with it. Sometimes the angel grabs us, and sometimes we cling to the angel long after it wishes to depart. We do not let go until we receive a blessing, however begrudgingly given. This defines us as a people. We are a nation of God-wrestlers.

Esau, the next morning, runs to meet him and kisses him, and they both hold each other, weeping. The anti-Esau crowd has a hard time with this. There is one midrash that Esau attempted to bite Jacob, and that Jacob's neck turned to marble, that Esau's teeth broke on the marble, and the bite appeared as a kiss to someone observing from far away. I find such interpretation repellant. Esau kissed Jacob. Esau forgave Jacob. This is one of the most precious moments of redemption in the Torah, and should not be trivialized. Esau refused Jacob's gifts, saying that he was sufficiently wealthy without them.

Jacob tells Esau that seeing him is like seeing the Face of the Divine (and Jacob should know). Esau offers to escort Jacob and his family, but Jacob declines. Again, the interpretation is that Esau plans to waylay Jacob and steal his riches (which he could have done by the banks of the Jabbok, but did not). Jacob travels to Sechem and sets up roots there, buying the land he is to live upon.

Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by the prince of Sechem (himself named Sechem). The Torah does not always have contemporary meanings to terms, but in this case, Sechem has sex with Dinah by force, even though the Torah tells us that he is in love with her. Sechem's father asks Jacob if the prince can marry Dinah. In ancient patriarchal societies, a rapist could escape punishment by marrying his victim and paying her father a large bride-price. This seems pretty disgusting from a modern perspective, but in ancient times rape was seen as as much a crime of property as a crime of violating one's person. A daughter who was not a virgin could not normally marry.

Sechem begs Jacob for permission to marry Dinah. The sons of Jacob agree on the condition that every man in the city of Sechem get circumcised. Sechem agrees on behalf of his people, persuading his people that the wealth of Jacob could add to the wealth of the city. Every man in the city agrees to undergo circumcision.

While they are recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, enter the city and murder every man in the city of Sechem, including Sechem and his father, and took Dinah home with them, along with all the plunder of the city, its wealth, its livestock, and its women as slaves. Jacob is furious. He excoriates them for disgracing him and his family, and for inviting scorn and retaliation from the other peoples of Canaan. Simeon and Levi reply to their father: "should he deal with our sister as an harlot?".

Jacob and his family flee to Beth-El. Eventually, Rachel dies, and Isaac dies of old age. Esau and Jacob bury their father together. The Torah portion ends with a description of Esau's household and wealth, and the agreement that Esau will move to Edom to separate his household from Jacob's. It is mentioned that among Esau's Edomite descendants is Amelek, the great enemy of the Jewish people.

I think the anti-Esau crowd use this mention to justify why they despise Esau so much, but nobody can control whether or not they have evil descendants. But it does set the stage for much of the drama to come, when the Israelites free Egypt and engage in war in Moab in Edom.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vayeitzei: Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

Fearing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob flees from his parents' home in Beer-sheba, hoping for sanctuary (and a possible future bride (or two)) from his maternal uncle Laban. Jacob has been fighting his brother since they were in their mother's womb; indeed, although Esau was born first, Jacob was born clinging to his brother's ankle. This archetype of feuding twin brothers exists in many legends in many cultures. Rome was founded by one of two feuding twin brothers. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were twins in the Sumerian epic, as were Ahriman and Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. In this case, Jacob has extorted Esau's birthright and has stolen his blessing from their father through fraud, and his mother warns him that Esau will kill him unless Jacob flees the country, so he flees.

After the end of last week's Torah portion, the reader must be wondering how ethical and how spiritual this scoundrel could possibly be. It doesn't take long before the sun sets and Jacob is forced to find a place to sleep. Fetching a stone for a pillow, he lays down in a familiar place (The King James Version calls it "a certain place" [Genesis 28: 11], but from the Hebrew, it seems the place is familiar to Jacob). Although his life to come, for decades, will be in a foreign land surrounded by people he cannot trust, for his first night away from home, he can sleep in a familiar place, even if in the wilderness.

In his sleep, he has a vision in his dreams. In the Jewish tradition, very few prophets behold God while awake. Most behold God or have visions in their dreams. The rabbis of the Talmud therefore regard Divine visions in dreams as being less definitive than Divine visions had while awake. Nonetheless, Jacob's vision has entered our collective psyche, and has had great influence on Kabbalah, as well as Freemasonry.

In the vision in the dream, a ladder is standing on the ground, and the top of the ladder reaches up to heaven. As he watches, God's angels (malachey Elohim) are ascending and descending the ladder. Suddenly he notices that God (YHVH) is standing over him. God introduces Himself as the God of his father and grandfather, and tells him that He will give Jacob's descendants the land he is lying upon, and they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. They will spread forth in the four cardinal directions, and all the tribes of the earth (kol-mishpechot ha'adamah) will be blessed through Jacob and his descendants. God tells Jacob that he is under His protection through his journeys and until he returns to his homeland.

This image of a ladder to heaven cannot fail to catch hold in the psyche, and many traditions have been fascinated with this metaphor. In the Kabbalah, there is a diagram of the Tree of Life, with ten steps going from the material world (in Malkut, or the Kingdom) to the highest reality distinguished from non-reality (Keter, or the Crown). I have blogged about this diagram many time previously. There is a tradition that suggests that ascent up or descent down the Tree is the same as the angels ascending and descending the ladder, showing us how to do it.

Interesting then that Freemasonry has two differing traditions about Jacob's ladder, one of which has three rungs and one of which has seven rungs (7 + 3 = 10).

In the York Rite Entered Apprentice degree, the candidate is told that Heaven is accessible by Jacob's ladder, and that it has three rungs, called Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Theological Virtues from 1 Corinthians 13. Much of the description of these virtues is taken from Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians. I regard this chapter as having some of the most beautiful language of the New Testament. It is important to note that Charity refers to caritas, rather than the modern conception of charity. The parallel Hebrew concept is chesed (חסד). The parallel Greek concept is agápē (ἀγάπη). It can be translated as lovingkindness. The Kabbalists regard chesed as the highest intellectual consciousness, acting without any cause except love.

In Preston's original lectures, and also in the Emulation ritual, the ladder rests on the Volume of Sacred Law sitting on the altar, rather than on the ground. Thus the Mason has access to the ladder only through the study of scripture, or through attendance in a tyled lodge with the Volume of Sacred Law open.

In the 30th degree (Knight Kadosh) of the Scottish Rite, in Albert Pike's version of the degree, the candidate is shown a ladder with seven rungs, one for each of the three Theological Virtues, and one for each of the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. He gives them Hebrew names:

  1. צדקה, (tsedakah) a word that means charity (in the modern sense), but also truth, justice and righteousness.
  2. שוה לבנה, (shavah lavanah) literally, "merit the white", which Pike translates as "Pure or perfect Equity".
  3. מתוק, (matok) pleasantness or amiability.
  4. אמונה, (emunah) faith, or as Pike translates, "Good Faith".
  5. עמל שגיא, (amal saggi) a lofty effort, or as Pike translates, "Much Labour or Exertion".
  6. סבל, (sabbal) a word meaning a bearer of burdens, or as Pike translates, "Patience or Endurance".
  7. Three words: גמול, and בינה, and תבונה. (gemul, binah, tevunah) The first is deed or action, which Pike translates as "Elaboration". The second is wisdom or insight, which Pike translates as "Prudence". The third is understanding, which Pike translates as "Discrimination" [Thanks to my friend Shawn Eyer for these translations from Tom Worrell's excellent article in Ahiman, Vol. 1: A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences].
Pike also associates these seven rungs with the Seven Liberal Arts, in descending order.
  1. Astronomy
  2. Music
  3. Geometry
  4. Arithmetic
  5. Logic
  6. Rhetoric
  7. Grammar.
Since the three Theological Virtues are in both the three-rung and the seven-rung versions, I don't think the Masonic rungs added together correlate with the Tree of Life in any simple manner.

When Jacob wakes from his dream, he exclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." This to me is the most meaningful line in the whole Torah portion. God is everywhere. We say that so glibly but we rarely sense the full extent of this. Jacob is suddenly aware of the full extent of this. Genesis 28: 17 tells us that Jacob was afraid, but the Hebrew uses the word יירה, (yirah) which means both fear and awe. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes this word not as the fear one feels when his life is threatened, but rather the fear that comes when you think you are alone, and you suddenly realize that someone else is in the room with you. This is the fear in Psalm 110: 10 (Psalms 111 in the Christian reckoning): "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In the Hebrew, it is Yirah YHVH. Rather than being afraid that God is going to harm you, it is the sudden awareness that the Ineffable One is in your presence, and you in His. This is what Jacob feels when he wakes from his dream. He says, "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Genesis 28: 17].

The gate of heaven (sha'ar hashamayim) appears a lot in Kabbalistic literature. There are great books called "Sha'arei Or" (the gates of light), and "Shaarei Tzedek" (the gates of righteousness), and "Sha'arei Emunah" (the gates of faith). Indeed, by the word "gate", the Kabbalist refers to a sudden transition to another state of consciousness or an alternate reality. This concept of gates reminds me of the famous quote of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes, though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region, though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Here is a gospel choir singing Psalm 118: 19: Pitchu li sha'arei tsedek, avo vom odeh Yah. Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Toldot: Usurpation of primogeniture

The Book of Genesis has two great themes that run throughout. The first is the usurpation of primogeniture, or the second-born son stealing the birthright of the first-born son. The second is a man, fearing for his life in a strange land, pretending that his wife is his sister, and the consequences of that deception. In this week's Torah portion, we see both themes played out.

Cain is the first-born son of Adam, but Abel gets God's blessing. After Abel's murder, Seth is given Adam's blessings usually received by the first-born son. Ishmael is the first-born son of Abraham, but Isaac receives Abraham's inheritance and his blessings. The Talmudic rabbis interpreted Ishmael to be the progenitor of the Arab people, and the Koran agrees with this interpretation. By being born of Hagar, Sarah's servant, he loses the privileges of being first-born when Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and baby Ishmael from Abraham's household, sent into the wilderness to their probable deaths. God saves Hagar, and promises her that he will create a mighty kingdom from the descendants of Ishmael. Meanwhile, Isaac, after a certain awkward moment on Mount Moriah, becomes the inheritor of Abraham's wealth, land and servants. When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael cooperate in burying their father. Ishmael transcends his rejection by the household, and honors his father, and his brother in this process. Abraham had imperiled the lives of both brothers, and yet they both work together to honor their father's last wishes.

In this week's Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca have children after twenty years of struggling with infertility (just as Abraham and Sarah struggled with infertility). Rebecca has twins, who fight each other in her womb. God tells Rebecca: "And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." [Genesis 25:23].

The first son was born hairy, with red hair all over his body. The parents name him Esau. The second son is born holding onto Esau's heel with his hand, and is named Jacob ("he will heel" in Hebrew). Esau becomes a mighty hunter and traveller, and Jacob is scholarly and never roams far from his home. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.

An important note should be stated here that colors all that follows. Jacob is later renamed "Israel", and will be the progenitor of the Jewish people. Esau, in the Rabbinic tradition, becomes the progenitor of the people of Edom ("red" in Hebrew), and is later considered to be the father of the Romans by the rabbis of the Talmud. To the rabbis of the Talmud, Rome is the source of everything that is wrong with the world. The antipathy towards the Romans and towards Roman oppression is consistent throughout the Talmud. For mediaeval rabbis, Rome was the Catholic Church, which was ungentle to European Jews. The Talmud was heavily censored in Catholic countries, and the rabbis could complain about being oppressed if they used code words, and Esau became a code word for Ashkenazi Jews for oppression by the Christians in Europe (including the Russian Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, which often perpetuated blood libels and pogroms in the areas they controlled).  Therefore, the rabbinic treatment of Esau is harsh; it seems insanely harsh today taken out of historical context. What we see in the rabbinic commentary is not so much that they are villainizing Esau as the actual brother of Jacob, but rather a catchphrase for all oppression the Jews have subsequently suffered in history.

Secondly, Jacob gets his fortune, his favor and his authority through guile, deceit and extortion. If Jacob is Israel, that makes the father of the Jews look really bad. His place in his family (and therefore in the world) comes through extorting his brother and deceiving his father. The rabbis often defend Jacob by attacking Esau.

So when Esau comes in from the field famished, and begs Jacob for a bite of the red stew (literally, "red stuff") that he is simmering, Jacob demands Esau's birthright as the price for food. The Torah depicts Esau as on the verge of death from hunger. Jacob insists that Esau swear an oath to grant Jacob his birthright before he is willing to feed Esau. Esau gives up his primogeniture, and only then, Jacob feeds him lentil stew and bread.

Previously in the Torah, Abraham twice ventured into foreign lands due to famine in his land, and each time, he insisted that Sarah pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. He explains that if the people knew that the beautiful Sarah is his wife, they would kill him in order to have Sarah for themselves. To modern sensibilities, this seems very cowardly, especially since in each instance, Abraham prospers because of the deceit. Both times, the king or Pharaoh tries to marry Sarah, and gets visited upon by plagues and disasters as Divine retribution for adultery. In each case, the monarch figures out that Sarah is Abraham's wife rather than sister, and angrily expels them both (but not before they amass great riches).

Continuing this trend, Isaac and Rebecca experience famine, and go to Abimelech (Hebrew for "father-king"), king of the Philistines, for relief.  Again, Isaac imitates his father, and to protect himself from the Philistines' attraction to the beautiful Rebecca, pretends that she is his sister rather than his wife. This time, Abimelech catches the two of them in flagrente delicto. He is furious. He is outraged that through Isaac's deceit, his own people might have been subject to Divine retribution for adultery. This time, the deceit is detected before any plagues or disasters happen. Abimelech protects them from harm, and their household grows very prosperous. This prosperity provokes jealousy among their Philistine neighbors, and there is an ongoing conflict over the wells that were dug by Abraham a generation ago, and plugged up by the Philistines after Abraham's death. Isaac digs two new wells that his neighbors squabble with him over, and then a third that goes uncontested.

The symbolism of the wells is fascinating. There is a contemporary book called Our Fathers' Wells about the symbolism of the wells you inherit from your father and of the ones you dig yourself.

Isaac moves to Beersheba, and is visited by the Lord in the night. The Lord introduces Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac's father, and tells him not to fear, that He will bless Isaac and provide him with many descendants for his father's sake. Isaac builds an altar and digs a well on the spot.

Esau marries two Hittite women whom Isaac and Rebecca dislike. The Torah notes that these two wives were a source of spiritual bitterness (מֹרַת רוּחַ) to them, giving rise to endless "Jewish boy who marries gentile women" jokes.

The Torah portion ends with another usurpation of primogeniture. The now blind Jacob is on his death-bed, and asks Esau to go out into the field and hunt game for him, to feed him a final meal, so that Jacob can give Esau his dying blessing. Rebecca, overhearing this, gets Jacob to fetch her two goat kids from the flock for her to prepare. She cooks a goat stew for Jacob, and has him dress in Esau's clothing while Esau is in the field, and she covers Jacob's hands and neck with the goat skins so that he  feels hairy to the touch, as Esau is hairy.

Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, pretending to be Esau. Isaac asks him, "who art thou, my son?" Jacob replies, "I am Esau thy first born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me."

Doubting him, he asks Jacob to come closer. Touching his son, he determines that the voice is Jacob's but the hands are Esau's. Isaac asks again: "Art thou my very son Esau?" and Jacob replies, "I am."

With this assurance, Isaac eats the food and then blesses Jacob: "God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee." [Genesis 27: 28-9].

Following this, Esau returns from the field and brings his prepared game, cooked as his father liked it, to Isaac. Isaac demands to know who is addressing him, and when he finds out that it is Esau, he has a fit of violent trembling. He tells Esau that he has put all his spiritual focus into the blessing that he has just given, and has no power to make a second blessing. "And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father." [Genesis 27: 34].

But Isaac cannot. Sadly, he tells his weeping son, "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.". [Genesis 27: 39-40].

I find tears welling up in my eyes as I write this. I feel tremendous pity for Esau. But the rabbinic commentaries do not.  The kind ones mention that God's prophecy from Genesis 25:23 once spoken is here made manifest. The others feel that Esau deserves his fate and worse. I'm very uncomfortable with the scorn heaped upon Esau (and there will be more next week) in the commentaries. My rabbi likes to gently remind us that the Torah is more than a literary work, and more is going on than just the narrative. If Esau = Edom = Rome = The Inquisition, then it is justified that Esau is defeated here, and that, even if not, the prophecy stands.

The Patriarchs of Genesis are not saints. They lie, they cheat, they extort and they deceive. They have petty squabbles. The great astonishing fact of Genesis is not that holy men met and were blessed by God. It is that human men met and were blessed by God, with all their flaws intact. A morning prayer says that it is because of God's Divine goodness that we are blessed, and not by our deeds, actions, thoughts and intentions. In a sense, the abuse visited upon Isaac from Abraham at his binding carries over into another generation, and God is present at the worst as well as at the best of times in their lives.

The Torah portion ends with Esau determined to kill Jacob (once Isaac dies) for stealing his blessing. Jacob flees for his life, and at the advice of both of his parents, joins his mother's family to live with his uncle Laban (and hopefully find a wife from that family). Jacob gives him a further blessing for the journey (or is it the same blessing reiterated?): "And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham." [Genesis 28: 3-4].

Esau, seeing how upset his parents are with his exogamy, marries one of Ishmael's daughters.

Next week: Jacob's ladder.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chayei Sarah: Walking After the Lord

In the Talmud, Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Haninah was asked about Deuteronomy 13:5 (13:4 in the Christian Bible) says, "Ye shall walk after the Lord your God". How are we supposed to walk after the Lord when Deuteronomy 4:24 says, "For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire"? Rabbi Hama's answer is central to Judaism, essential to how to act and how to live considering that we are created in the image of God (בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, b'tzelem Elohim) [Genesis 1:27].

Rabbi Hama suggests that when we emulate the attributes of the Lord, we walk after the Lord. For example, we should clothe the naked in emulation of the Lord in the Garden of Eden: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them" [Genesis 3:21]. We should visit the sick because God sent angels to visit Abraham when he was recovering from his circumcision [Genesis 18:1}. We should comfort mourners in emulation of Genesis 25:11: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac". We should bury the dead since God buries Moses after he dies: "And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day". [Deuteronomy 34:6, although the King James Bible uses an uncapitalized "he" without referring to whom the "he" refers to. In Jewish tradition, it is God who buries Moses].

All of which goes to show that "the image of God" is more about a wider ontological frame of reference than merely the corporeal. Kabbalah teaches that the higher worlds are realms where patterns, ideas, impressions and archetypes are the building blocks, the way that atoms and molecules are in the physical world. God is pandimensional, and therefore the image of God is as well. The worn-out metaphor (which to everyone's horror, some people take literally) of God as a king on a throne does not work here. God is woven into the fabric of the way that consciousness interacts with the material world, but it is not productive to consider the physical existence of God as separate from nature. The Talmud regards the physical metaphors, such as the hand of God, the face of God, or the eye of God, as metaphors not meant to be taken literally. The metaphor is important, sometimes crucially important, but we must not confuse the map with the terrain. There is a lot of rabbinic writings about what the different anthropomorphic manifestations mean, but Maimonides warns us stringently not to consider them as having material existence.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayeirah: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

At the end of the last Parashah, Abraham and all the men in his extended family, their servants and employees all get circumcised. Recuperating, the Lord in the image of three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, visit him. This is where the Jewish mitzvah of visiting the sick comes from. Interestingly the angels in the Torah are referred to as "men" or "strangers", but very rarely as angels. And yet it is understood that they are angels. Even in his recuperative pain, Abraham leaps up and runs to receive the angels as his guest, which the Talmud explains by saying that the angel Raphael healed Abraham. He gives them bread and water, tells Sarah to make them wheat cakes, wanders into the flock to select a young calf to slaughter, and gets milk, cheese, and butter to serve the angels. From this, Jews are taught to be hospitable to strangers, who might secretly be angels.

The Lord has two astonishing pieces of news for Abraham. The first is that his wife, in her nineties and well past menopause, will give birth to a son. Sarah hears the angel Michael telling Abraham this, and she laughs in surprise. This startles the angel: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh."

I love this exchange. It's so human, and shows that God back then was still unused to interacting with humans.

Because of Sarah's reaction, the boy will be named Yitzchak (laughter in Hebrew), the name which is Anglicized as Isaac.

The second piece of news, given by the angel Gabriel, is that the Lord intends to destroy the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, because their citizens are cruel and inhospitable. The midrash tells a story that Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went to visit Lot in Sodom and was caught giving food to a beggar on the street. A Sodomite threw a stone at Eliezer, making him bleed. The Sodomite took Eliezer to court over the incident, and the Sodomite judge found Eliezer guilty of receiving a bloodletting without paying the bloodletter. In response,  Eliezer then struck the judge in the forehead with a stone and asked the judge to pay the Sodomite.

Another midrash tells that Lot's daughter, Paltith, encountered a poor man who entered the city who was now starving to death because he had no money for food. Each morning as Paltith went to collect water, she would hide bread in her bucket and sneak it to the starving man. After a few weeks, the Sodomites were astonished that the man had not died, and began to suspect that someone was feeding him. The caught Paltith giving bread to him, and as a punishment, stripped her naked, smeared her all over with honey, and strung her up at the gates of the city until the bees had removed her flesh. Her piteous cries were what the Lord was referring to in the Scripture when He told Abraham, "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know."

Despite the notoriety of these wicked cities, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of the cities of the plain. "And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
 הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

"Hashofet kol-ha'arets lo ya'aseh mishpat." The three letter sequence in Hebrew Shin-Peh-Teth is given as "shofet", meaning judge, and also, with the prepositional prefix "mi", gives "mishpat", meaning justice. Abraham is challenging God, ha-shofet kol ha'arets, or the Judge of all the earth, to do (or make) justice, or mishpat. This is the first time in the Bible that God has been challenged by a righteous man. Mishpat might need more explanation. There are three types of laws in the Torah:

  1. Mishpatim, or ethical laws. These are the laws that any ethical, rational person or society might come up with on their own. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal.
  2. Zakhorim, or laws of remembrance. Jews are commanded to connect with their ancestors and to remember their tribal history. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that God freed you from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
  3. Chukim, or esoteric laws. These are more mysterious, and do not make sense at face value. Do not wear linen and wool in the same garment. If you become ritually impure through exposure to a human corpse, the priests will, in preparation for this circumstance, have prepared a mixture of the ashes of a red heifer, with herbs and other ingredients, and a volunteer will smear the mixture on you, and a day later, you will be ritually pure, but the volunteer will become ritually impure by doing this.
Of the three, the Chukim are the most controversial, and some rabbis do not accept that any rules are Chukim, but rather put them in the other two categories. The more rational Jews are slightly uncomfortable with Chukim, and the more mystical ones (like the Hasidim) tend to deep-dive into the Chukim.

Abraham pushes the issue:
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. And he said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
Abraham challenges God to be merciful. The rabbis claim this is what differentiated Abraham from Noah. Noah accepted God's genocidal judgment without question, but Abraham demanded that God spare the cities of the plain for the sake of ten righteous people. This is the courage of Abraham, and why he is the ethical ancestor of three of the world's major religions. He did not accept God's judgment  without challenging God to be more merciful. He moved back the Prime Mover.

For this, Rabbi Abbahu in the Talmud says, "God rules humankind, but the righteous rule God, for God makes a decree, and the righteous may through their prayer annul it." This is what it is to be a Jew: we will even argue with God when we think God is being unjust.

Why does Abraham stop at ten? Maybe because ten make up a minyam, the quorum needed for group prayer? Maybe because there were ten humans on Noah's Ark, and therefore we know that ten survivors can rebuild civilization? Even Donovan gave Atlantis twelve survivors.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Truth and Fact

I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, and he used what I wrote in a blog post. This was in my original email:
As my friend, Dr. James Tresner says, there is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true. Interestingly, the Fall is treated very differently by Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who each have their own truth about the Fall. Religious truths can differ from poetical truths, but both truths resonate in the person who contemplates the truth in question. The legends of Hamlet, Luke Skywalker, and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker are true, even though none of them are factual (although the existence of Amleth of Denmark was most likely a fact, if Saxo Grammaticus is to be believed). Forcing the Fall to be factual is crazy, and makes for craziness. When believers try to force fact to succumb to truth, or force truth to succumb to fact, they can leave a trail of blood in their wake.
The sign of a civilized person is to allow others to have different truths than themselves, and to respect the truths of others, even when they differ from their own, especially when that respect is reciprocated.
Ignorance is ignorance of fact. A Pashtun soldier who does not know how to count to ten is ignorant. Superstition is ignorance of truth. People who think their Creator created their daughters with flawed genitalia that require clitorectomies or worse in order to be presentable are superstitious. Fanaticism is confusing the two and insisting that others do as well. David Barton is a fanatic, as was Lenin. Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.
On another blog, this quote, selectively edited, has sparked a new discussion.
On that blog, I wrote:
I am the writer of the quote listed as “Sullivan’s reader.” Jerry quotes me partially, cherry-picking that portion of my comment that supports the argument that Sullivan is an idiot, and removing the rest. This is intellectually disingenuous. A defense that the mental contortions of religious believers is equally mentally disingenuous does not mean that selectively editing what someone wrote in order to win an argument is not disingenuous.
I am not a Christian. I blog a lot about belief and atheism. While personally a theist, I feel at home among atheists and agnostics as long as they are not antitheist, and therefore hostile to my personal practice. I regard the story of existence from the Big Bang, through the formation of the sun and the earth, through the evolution of life on earth and the emergence of humanity to be a Creation Story more profound than that in the Bible. I have a math and science education, and my work is in medical software. I have never read this blog previous to someone notifying me that I got quoted here.
I place value in spiritual progression, which is hard to define. I would regard our consciousnesses as evolving over time, and just as vertebrates would be unimaginable in a world of blue-green algae, the further scope of higher consciousness is unimaginable to those who dwell in the righteous indignation of bivalent value systems (us vs. them). If you asked a paleolithic hunter-gatherer ten millennia ago to describe a skyscraper, they would have trouble doing so. Similarly, humans have always had trouble describing the future evolution of consciousness. That narrative is deeply flawed, and has often led to brutal ideological wars. At my current level of understanding, it makes subjective sense for me to work with the God metaphor in analyzing the trajectory of consciousness, both personal and global. I do not insist that anyone else does, except insofar as to show how it has been useful to me. The Christian metaphor does not make sense to me, and I don’t use it. I often find in conversations with antitheists that they argue with my religious beliefs as if they were Christian, projecting Christian belief onto my belief as if Christianity were the only possible theism. I think that is sloppy.
Jerry’s omissions in quoting me are striking.
Most of the posters vehemently object to any distinction between fact and truth. I call this a flat epistemology. It flattens truth until it is congruent with fact. My understanding is that truth and fact overlap, but are not congruent. As a theist, my understanding is theocentric. As annoying as that might be for an atheist who wants to argue with me, I cannot come up with a definition of truth that excludes Deity, just as I cannot adhere to an ontology that excludes Deity. Truth to me is a bridge between ontology and epistemology, whereas fact is entirely epistemological (and mostly phenomenological). When William Preston writes about Masonic ritual "imprint[ing] upon the memory wise and serious truths," he does not mean that it adds to the phenomenological data gathered in the mind of the candidate. Freemasonry depends upon the distinction between fact and truth, since Masonic legend contains many factually untrue propositions (which has often driven Masonic historians to despair), none of which falsify Freemasonry.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lech Lecha: Mechizedek and Initiation

This week's torah portion, Lech L'cha, gives us the start of the story of Abraham, back when he was young, when his name was Abram. I wrote about this back in May. Bereshit Rabbah tells the story that Abram's father, Terach, made pagan idols for a living. One day, Terach went away and left Abram to mind the idol store.  A woman came to the shop with a plate of flour as a sacrifice for the idols. Abram took a stick and smashed all the idols in his father's shop, and put the stick in the largest idol's hand. When his father returned, he demanded that Abram explain what had happened. Abram explained that the idols had fought amongst each other over the plate of flour, and the largest idol smashed the others with the stick. His father said, "Do you take me for a fool? Are these idols sentient beings?" Abram responded, "Listen to what you just said. You deny they are sentient, and yet you worship them."

The rabbis considered Abram to be the first monotheist, but the story the version in the Torah is a bit more subtle than that. The early Hebrews were henotheists, worshipping one God but allowing for the existence of others. This will come into play later in this blog post.

When Abram was seventy-five years old, God spoke to him and told him to leave his father's house, and for doing so, God would make him a great man, and the progenitor of a mighty nation: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." [Genesis 12: 2-3].

He took his cousin Lot, his wife Sarai, and "and the souls that they had gotten in Haran" and left for Canaan, to the city of Shechem. The men who worked for Abram did not get along with the men who worked for Lot, and in the interests of peace, Lot agreed to leave Abram's household and moved to Sodom, on the cities of the plain. Left alone, Abram got caught up in a regional war after the combatants captured Lot in his new city. Defeating the captors, he put an end to the war, and rescued the king of Sodom. The Bible describes the celebration:
And Melchizedek king of Salem [Jerusalem] brought forth bread and wine: and he [was] the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed [be] Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. [Genesis 14: 18-20].
There is a tradition that Melchizedek (literally, righteous or saintly king) initiated Abram into the Mysteries, and converted him from a henotheist to a monotheist. He initiated the ceremony of blessing with bread and wine. There is a midrash that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Adam, who did not die as the Bible suggested, but lived on far longer, initiating selected people worthy of the highest Mysteries.

The York Rite places great value in this legend (as does the Latter-Day Saints movement). In Psalm 110, David writes about the future Messiah: "The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: 'Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.'" Since then, Christians have used this as the basis for a legend that Melchizedek initiated Christ. Paul writes of Melchizedek: "First being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was." [Hebrews 7: 2-4].

I think a lot about Melchizedek, and what comprises the Melchizedek initiation. In the Jewish tradition, Melech (king) is one of the names of God. The word for saint in Hebrew is Tzaddik, and Deuteronomy 16: 20, which in English is "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," in Hebrew is "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.". The first two words, "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק", are transliterated as "Tsedek, tsedek," and is often translated as "Justice, justice." When words are repeated in the Torah, it is used for emphasis, and the Kabbalists pay special attention to words that are repeated, believing them to hold special information to those who meditate on their significance.

Saintliness is attributed to the highest form of humanity, but both God and certain men are described as righteous. In a sense, the name Melchizedek is a formula that bridges the gap between God and man, through righteousness and justice. I interpret the Melchizedek initiation as the revelation that God and man collaborate in establishing justice in this world, and the revelation that that thread that connects each man to his Creator is always in place, and is tangible to those who reflect upon its existence.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Noach: Horror or Cute Animals?

My synagogue celebrates the week that we read the part of the Torah, Parashat Noach, where the story of Noah and the Ark is told, by having a special Children's Sabbath. There are always adorable pictures of the elephant trunks and giraffe necks sticking out of the Ark. Kids are encouraged to name all the animals collected on the Ark. I find myself suffering a cognitive disconnect when I see the sense of celebration, because Noah was one of a handful of survivors of the worst genocide in the Bible.

Parashat Noach gives us the story of Noah, the righteous man who was blameless in his age, who walked with God. Contrasting Noah was the wickedness of the rest of humankind. The daughters of men bred with divine beings (literally, b'nei Ha-Elohim, or the Children of God) and created a race of Nephilim. Nephilim are fairly mysterious. The word is translated variously as giants, as heroes, and as fallen angels. Some rabbis interpret the Nephilim as the descendants of Cain.

God gives up on humankind, due to the wickedness of man, and regrets that He ever created them. Think about that. How awful must they have been for God to give up on them completely, and to blot them out from all existence, along with all beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky? Almost as an afterthought, Noah finds favor with the Lord.

The rabbis of the Talmud are fairly critical of Noah. They worry that he did not do enough to save people from the Flood. He saved himself, his sons and their wives. The rabbis contrast this with Abraham, who begs for the lives of righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah whom he does not even know, or Moses, who begs for the lives of the entire Children of Israel when God wants to destroy them. They seize upon the phrase "blameless in his age" and argues that in another, more contemporary age, Noah might not be considered particularly blameless, but compared to how evil the antediluvians were, he was comparatively blameless.

God destroys humanity, with the exception of Noah and his family. God destroys all the animals, with the exception of the samples saved on the Ark. I have a tendency to dwell upon the awfulness of this event, because it weirdly seems trivialized in most depictions of the story. God drowns almost all living things that breathe air. The ancient Hebrews believed that land masses sat on top of a primordial ocean that could sweep across all land and drown the world. An experimenter can pour bleach on a Petri dish and kill the bacteria growing on it. A laboratory can inject all the rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees and dogs and rabbits and rats and mice with poison and kill the entire population (thwarting an epidemic, for example). But God killed everyone and everything, with the exception of a tiny sample. How can this not be regarded with horror?

The Flood eventually recedes, and Noah came out of the Ark onto dry land, and sacrificed one of each kosher animal and bird in burnt offerings. God smelled the "pleasing odor" and it moved Him to resolve never again to doom the earth because of man. Why? "The devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." He learns something about humanity: that as we become autonomous entities, we are going to do wrong as well as right. That with free will comes bad decisions. A baby is an unformed entity unshaped into a personality. But you can watch kindergarteners play in the playground and see that some of them are already mean people. Some have all the personality flaws that adults do. They are evil from their youth.

God gives Noah seven laws to live by, which are called the Noachide Laws. Jews believe they are the only laws in the Torah applicable to all people regardless of their association with the Jewish people.

  1. Remember Who God is, and do not worship something lesser that God Himself.
  2. Men are created in the image of God. Do not murder human beings. Masons use this in the ritual of the Third Degree.
  3. Do not steal the property of other people. Do not deprive others of subsistence.
  4. Be ethical and consensual in your sexual relationships. Some people interpret this to be a ban on homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, but I do not.
  5. Do not defile the sacred, or blaspheme the name of the Lord.
  6. Do not eat the flesh of another human being, nor eat the flesh of an animal taken while the animal is still alive. Some people interpret this to mean that the ingestion of blood is forbidden, but I do not.
  7. Courts of law should be established, and people should abide by the rule of law. I interpret this similarly to the theme of Aeschylus's Oresteia, where Athena demands that the Greek people mete out justice not by vendetta, but by impartial courts of law, unbiased on either side.
To enshrine these laws, God sets a rainbow in the clouds, as a sign of this covenant with humankind. The rainbow is not for us, but for God: "When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh." (Genesis 9: 14-15). I find that very interesting. Why does God need a reminder not to kill all of us? Without the reminder, how often does God want to slaughter us? Chris Rock joked that if you haven't thought about murdering your partner; if you haven't planned out the murder and planned where you would dispose the body and what you would say to the investigating detectives, then you haven't really been in love. To what extent is that the nature of God's love for us? We must frustrate God beyond imagining.

There are Jews and non-Jews who hold the seven Noachide Laws as being the basis of all ethical behavior. Chabad sponsors a group that seeks to encourage all non-Jews of their own free will to pledge to live by these laws.

The parashah also covers the Tower of Babel, which should be of interest to Freemasons, especially contrasted with the Temple at Jerusalem. I don't have much to say about the Tower of Babel right now. Maybe some other time. The parashah ends by introducing Terah of Ur (one of the largest cities of the ancient world), who with his son Abram and his grandson Lot (son of Haran), moved away from Ur on a journey to Canaan. Along the journey, they settled in Ḥaran (not to be confused with Terah's son).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Freemasonry is not a team

I'm fairly active on Facebook, and at last count, over 300 of my Facebook friends are active Freemasons, from all over the USA and all over the world. For a while, my operating procedure was to accept the friend invitation of anyone with the square and compasses on their identifying picture, or who had 50+ shared friends with me, all of whom were Masons. No longer.

The truth is that when men surround themselves with the visual emblems of Freemasonry the same way another person might surround themselves with the visual emblems of their favorite professional or college sports team, it is reasonable to wonder if their commitment to practicing the Royal Craft might be the same as their commitment to practicing the skills necessary to perform a professional sport. How many people wearing a Red Sox hat, scarf, jacket, keychain, wristbands, shoelaces, lanyard, and who have Red Sox bumper stickers on their car are capable of hitting a ball from home plate at the Fenway over the Green Monster? How many can collect a bunted ball and get it to first base before the batter reaches the base? How many know which pitcher to play and which to let rest for another game?

It takes no character whatsoever to cheer on Freemasonry as a fan. The Royal Craft and Sublime Art takes daily improvement. It is difficult; so difficult that most men are unsuitable for the task, and we never ask a man to engage in such a strenuous path, and if a man petitions us for the privilege, we investigate his character thoroughly, read his name aloud in lodge; and only after every lodge member knows the name of the petitioner do we have a ballot that must be unanimous to accept him. All lodges that actually practice the Craft educate their candidates in the workings of the Craft, that moral and intellectual discipline that makes us better men and Masons. Such Masons know their obligations and live by them.

Our history shows us that in a Masonic lodge, Protestants and Catholics who outside the lodge room were engaged in bloody, acrimonious, sectarian warfare, sat together as Brothers. Tories and Patriots, Federals and Confederates, slave-owners and abolitionists, cavalrymen and Native Americans, all sat together as Brothers. They understood that within the tyled lodge, different rules applied to them than in the profane world. They understood the Mystic Tie that binds us all together as Brothers, that they were Living Stones for that spiritual building not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

But is a friend list of 100+ Masons, and a profile decked with squares and compasses, sufficient to vouch for a man's progress in this Craft, enough to forego due trial, strict examination, or lawful information? Does it demonstrate the smoothness of his Ashlar?

Two recent incidents come to mind:
  1. I saw the status message of a Mason who had recently friended me (whom I did not otherwise know), and I was troubled by the sentiment. I don't remember the quote exactly, but it was something like "I wish that all men were Master Masons, under a common Father." I commented that black cubes exist for a reason; that there are men unsuited to our Craft, and they are met at the door by a man with a sword. His surprise and outrage astonished me. Had he been raised a Master Mason without anyone teaching him how our Craft works? We are an elitist organization, however meritocratic. We cannot accept the morally inferior, or Freemasonry is ruined. Anyone on earth can become a fan of the Boston Red Sox, but not every man can be a Mason, even if he earnestly desires to be. That should be obvious.
  2. On a thread I started, there was a political discussion involving several Masons I only know from Facebook. I noticed that the discussion was getting heated, and even though I thought I was right, I realized that I was offending other Masons, so I wrote the following: "My blood is up and I've gotten very passionate on this thread. I'm going to use the compasses to keep my passions within due bounds, especially with you gentlemen." After which, I no longer participated in the discussion. Instead of backing down, one of the other Masons responded with "you just don't get it," and after continuing to argue his point with several comments over the next few hours, defriended me. Charitably, I can imagine that, chagrined by his excessive passion, he defriended me so that he would defend a fellow Brother from his possibly intemperate tongue knowing that we had many points of disagreement, but I'm not sure my theory is correct. I was taught that, no matter what our political and religious differences are, we are still bound by the Mystic Tie, and that bond is stronger than our passions. That is basic to any practitioner of our Craft, and if not, no amount of gold and purple can make it so.
Where were you first prepared to be made a Mason? If you know the answer to that question, you know the unfortunate truth that men can be balloted upon, entered, passed and raised without ever being prepared to be made a Mason. A Freemason has been taught a secret set of techniques for moral, intellectual and spiritual improvement, for which he should have been carefully screened for his suitability towards their use, and he should be admonished to make daily progress in this skill set required to master them. Reading our great authors, like Preston, Oliver, Mackey, Pike, Wilmshurst, Pound, MacNulty and others, we learn that while many of us truly earn the privilege of the EA degree, very few of us ever really become Fellows of the Craft, and a true Master Mason comes along very, very rarely.

UPDATE: I received the following warning on Facebook about a scammer friending Masons and inviting them to join the Royal Owl Society:

To anyone who was added to the Royal Owl Society, please note, they are a money making operation. This is from one of their posts in the group: "We buy into $5000 Internet Marketing Training courses, and train members, but we never promote a specific business opportunity. Its strictly for educational purposes."