Dark Times of Great Resolve
I watched this woman’s speech and her description of the people who took time out of their otherwise miserable and meaningless secular lives to encourage her to commit suicide and began to feel at once that we have been again visited by the generation of Noah, obsessively vain, wasteful of life and absent any redeeming quality. As I sat and lathered myself in the perfume of my own self righteousness, a halting biblical encounter disabused me of this notion. I was reminded by means of a force that physics has yet to encounter of Nathan’s admonishing of King David. For those unfamiliar, Nathan had come to king David to tell him of an incident where a rich man had taken the lamb of a poor man, the only thing the poor man possessed and a creature who gave the man his only source of companionship. The rich man had taken it in order to slaughter and serve it to a traveler he was entertaining, even though the rich man had more than enough of his own livestock to accommodate the traveler. Upon hearing this, David seethed with anger, it burst upon him, and he demanded that the rich man be put to death, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” 2 Samuel 12. And then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” An allusion to David taking Bathsheba as his wife after killing her husband, the story of the poor man and his lamb was entirely pedagogical. David had sinned against the Lord and he admitted it.
And so as it was with David, it was with me. “You are these people!” And this here is a public admission of guilt for having at times been superficial. Though I have never conceived of suggesting a person suffering from a disease or any “deformity” should commit suicide nor have I verbally ridiculed them, I have, in the not so distant past, judged people on their physical appearance, including myself. If there is anyone reading this who has never done that, you are likely one of the Lamed Vav.
So as went my anger at others for their iniquity went my sentiment about this generation being irredeemable, a psychological circumstance suggesting that sinners demand more mercy than they would ever concede.
But the irredeemable aspect of the generation of Noah was their ability to stand in face of the reality that “they are the men!” and, with a shrug of conceit, reply “so what?” Their wickedness had become such a part of them that the concept of wickedness itself was incomprehensible. They possessed no capacity for self reflection, no squirming in the face of their iniquity, no dark nights of the soul where their sin was always before them.
This brave woman’s testimony further reminded me of a Talmudic tale of a Rabbi of great esteem who encountered a man on the road. Because it is said that the Talmud wastes no words, I will quote it in its entirety. Watch the video first then read the story below. Look deep into the words of the story, for there is much more there than its literal interpretation, and indeed, the story of the woman in the video is in the story of the Rabbi.
Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, my master!” R. Elazar did not return his salutation but instead said to him, “How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”
“I do not know,” said the man. “But go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!”
Realizing that he had done wrong, R. Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, “You are right. Forgive me!” But the man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'”
R. Elazar kept on walking after him until he reached his city. The residents of the city came out to greet him, saying, “Peace be upon you, O Teacher! O Master!” Said the man to them, “Whom are you calling ‘Master’?” Said they, “The person walking behind you.”
Said he to them: “If this is a ‘Master,’ may there not be any more like him in Israel.”
“Why?” asked the people.
Said the man: Such-and-such he has done to me.
“Nevertheless, forgive him,” said they, “for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.”
“For your sakes I will forgive him,” said the man, “but only if he does not act this way anymore.”
Soon after this R. Elazar entered the study hall and taught: “A person should always be pliant as the reed, and let him never be hard as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, tefillin and mezuzot.”
—— TALMUD, TAANIT 20A-B
There are many interpretations of this story; one being, and the most relevant to our purposes here, that the Rabbi saw a spiritual ugliness in this man and that he commented on this man’s appearance to shake him out of complacency. But why, if there were such an overtly and obvious spiritual ugliness, did this man so quickly forgive the Rabbi for the sake of not himself but other people? And indeed, if there were a spiritual ugliness in this man, does the evil inclination of man still not lie in the purview of the Almighty, He who created him and all his faculties?
So there are seemingly conflicted strains of thought running through these stories, just as their are seemingly tense, conflicted, sentiments which are evoked by the woman’s testimony.
There is first, as in the case of David, an overwhelming sense of anger and a demand for justice. Is it not written, :”Justice, Justice, you shall pursue it”? It is written; but there comes a time when Justice will pursue you, and it happens to follow, in pretty regular fashion, right after you take it upon yourself to vanquish the wicked.
There is second, as in the case of both the Rabbi and David, a sense of guilt and self reflection, a momentary pause where we survey our own moral landscape and find it wanting. For in the examination of the other, there is always an examination of the self.
And there is the third, the act of forgiveness, a fundamental aspect of Torah and Jewish thought. As it is written above, that is why the writing utensils of the Torah are pliant and easily malleable, because though there is, as a matter of definitional necessity, a center of mass around which forgiveness can operate, forgiveness and its corollary, repentance, are the purpose of the world.
And there is a fourth, the fundamental strain that if the man was spiritually ugly, as the people who abused Ms. Valequez without doubt are, how do we greet them on the road? Are we not too the man? I haven’t the foggiest clue.
The generation of Noah knew nothing of this. And if they did, they ignored it. Indeed, it is worse if they knew of it and ignored it, than if they were merely ignorant. They weren’t ignorant; they allowed their evil inclinations, an inclination ALL of us posses, to run the show. And in the limelight was a saturated sense of apathy; they didn’t care; and inversion;what was evil was lauded. Some commentaries suggest that even Noah himself was not immune to it. For though Noah was the most righteous of his generation, he would, in relation to Avraham or Moses, seem a cretin. His greatest fault, it is said, was that he did not petition the Lord for the sake of the world like Avraham at Sodom and Gomorrah, nor like Moses after the Sin of the golden Calf when he very defiantly said to G-d himself that if He destroys the people of Israel that he(Moses) should be blotted out of G-d’s book. Noah was apathetic but certain of his righteousness.
I don’t know if Ms. Velasquez has forgiven the people who so viciously assaulted her sanctity as a human being. I don’t know if the people who so assaulted her have repented. But I do know that repentance and forgiveness are the purpose of the world. The ancient sages of Israel attested to this and the whole history of mankind seems a portfolio of evidence of the fact.
I fear, though, that today’s generation has become more like the apathetic and myopic generation of Noah, incapable of real introspection, captivated by the glitter of movies and songs with no content beyond the superficial, a collective Miley Cyrus paying just enough lip service to the idea of innate and invisible purpose and beauty to keep the anemic body of western civilization alive: sentient parasites, after all, are smart enough to not kill their host. And so modern discourse is a poesis of the aesthetic built from the wood that once buttressed fortresses of permanence and conceptual grace.
And in their dark anonymity, they ridicule and abuse an obviously radiant soul because the Vessel which contains it is not sufficiently sculpted in Greco/Romanesque form.
It is said that the difference between the Greek and the Jew is that the Greek saw and the Jew heard; the Greeks sculpted, and the Hebrew is commanded to “Hear O Israel, the Lord your G-d the Lord is One.”
There is nothing new under the sun.The rays of the sun caress all the features of an imperfect world and reflect its light to the eyes of men, whereupon inversion, and a series of algorithms that science has yet to explicate, an image is produced in relation to the position of the subject. Men then make judgments of things. Things. The Hebrew word for “thing” and “word” are essentially the same: Davar. And thus it is said that G-d created the world by ten utterances. Men make judgments therefore on words. But under G-d, as the author of Ecclesiastes understood, where the sun’s rays are dimmed and the rich and precious wine contained in an unimposing, unfashionable earthen Vessel can be consumed, there is all the possibility of new concepts in the form of words, and it is by words that the light of a soul is judged, should be judged, by others.
Men and women make judgments on words. Close your eyes and listen to Ms. Valasquez speak…