Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Vagabond

The Echoes of Eden Project

Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Vagabond

On a lonely dark road, swift movements, footsteps, a thud… silence: a corpse.

Who was he? Presumably, the kind of person who is alone in the dark of night, the type of person who wanders from town to town, the type of person who does not really have a place he calls home; a vagabond.

His death may not necessarily be mourned. His friends and family have lost track of him, and he has been swallowed by anonymity. When people do see him, they avert their eyes. He reminds them of something they would rather not see: the human condition in a particularly compromised form. He reminds them of their own vulnerability. Most prefer not to look; some throw him a few coins and turn away feeling better about themselves. They move on, to their warm homes, to their loved ones. He, too, moves on - to harm’s way and the dangers of the street and the night.

It is easy to move on; we have almost no choice. We try to forget, until we hear about a victim. We are forced to face the knowledge that this corpse was once a human being, like ourselves, with the breath of God pulsating in his lungs. This man was a son of Adam, and like Abel, he was also lured by his brother out of the city to a field – and to his death. “The sound of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground,” God admonished Cain – and all of us. The nameless corpse cannot be disregarded; this crime cannot be ignored. The question is, do we hear this blood crying out? And if we do, isn’t it really ‘too little, too late’? Did we do everything we could to avoid this tragedy? Did we care for this stranger as we should have? Did we invite him to our homes? Did we find him a job? Did we try to help him heal his tattered life, or did his tattered clothes scare us? Did we simply turn away?

The Torah addresses the question of accountability in such cases through a rather elaborate ritual, a demonstrative process that is meant to be both educational and, it is hoped, transformative: The distance from the scene of the crime is carefully measured by rope, and the nearest town is accused of indifference, of criminal negligence that borders on complicity. Indifference contributed to this tragedy, and the town’s elders must wash their hands and declare their innocence - if their conscience allows it. Maybe this will prevent the next murder.

In a section of the Torah that discusses the large, important institutions of public life, the individual may be easily forgotten. Parshat Shoftim establishes the framework of the Jewish polis: the judiciary system and police force, the powers and limitations of kings and prophets. The inclusion of the guidelines for cases such as that of our vagabond specifically in this context teaches us a powerful underlying principle: The singular purpose of all of the instruments of power is to protect the individual, especially the weakest, most anonymous members of society. If we do not protect the weak and vulnerable, what type of society have we created? The king and all of his horses and all of his men are not merely symbols of civic or national pride. Their purpose is to protect the people, to create “top-down” morality. This is their mandate, their raison d’etre. This same parsha commands the kings of Israel to keep their true purpose in their sights at all times: the king must carry the Torah is in his heart and his arms. The Torah puts clear limits on pomp and circumstance, protocol and ceremony.  Responsibilities far outweigh the privileges of Jewish kings and leaders.

For many people, the essence of Judaism is its moral teachings; for others, ritual seems more important. I once heard my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, illustrate the Jewish concept of the balance between these two aspects: It is well-known that priests are commanded to avoid contact with the impurity of death. They do not attend funerals or visit cemeteries, except for their closest family members. The High Priest may not defile himself even for those closest to him. However, The Talmud teaches that when the High Priest comes upon a corpse out in the fields, he is commanded to personally bring the body to burial. Even on the eve of Yom Kippur, when the hopes and spiritual aspirations of the entire nation are all focused on him and channeled through him, if he happens upon the corpse of a lowly, anonymous vagabond, the High Priest must defile himself, pick up the body and physically bring the person to a dignified burial. In what he admitted was an embellishment of the Talmudic passage, Rabbi Soloveitchik illuminated this basic principle of Judaism: the dignity of a man who may have been scorned, a man who no longer feels any pain, takes precedence over the most important participant in the most spiritually charged scene of the year, the Yom Kippur service. Human dignity trumps ritual. The nameless hobo is more important than the High Priest.

Sometimes we forget the great humanism that lies at Judaism’s core; sometimes we look away. Sometimes the vagabond is pushed just beyond the verge of our peripheral vision, and we never need think of him again, until……swift movements, footsteps, a thud, silence. A corpse.

Friday, August 2, 2013



God gives man choices; these are described as blessings and curses, or life and death. Remarkably, mankind has always needed to be encouraged to choose life. This seemingly automatic, rational choice has never been the “no-brainer” it should be. Why would any sane person choose a cursed path that leads to certain death over the blessed path of life? Apparently, the choice is somewhat more complicated, and our judgment curiously clouded. From time immemorial, the Tree of Death and its luscious fruit looked like the gleaming and attractive choice - more delicious, more desirable. In addition, a seductive, serpentine salesman hissed in our ears about how the fruit of this tree could solve all our problems, enlighten and empower us.
Those of you who rushed to consult your Bibles because you do not recall reading about a “tree of death” are partially correct: there was, indeed, a tree of death, presented by God Himself as the antithesis of the Tree of Life. Clearly, in order to allow man to make a choice between these two options, this tree needed a more palatable image, and so it was marketed and promoted as a “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. While many of us often think of this tree and its fruit as a viable option to the other choice, and conveniently refer to it in shorthand as a tree of knowledge, it was, in fact, the tree that represented a confusion of good and evil, a tree whose fruit distanced us from the source of life itself – clarity and understanding, proximity to God and holiness. This tree and its fruit are the physical representation of the choices that lead to death – of experience without understanding, of knowledge without wisdom, of information devoid of values. 
This choice, this path in life, has not changed much since the days of Adam and Eve: Even today, in the information age, the toxic cloud of confusion created by the amalgamation of good and evil casts a massive shadow that obscures our sightline to true knowledge and real life. Contemporary examples abound: In our generation, computer technology and the internet give us access to information in staggering quantity, but good and evil are often combined and confused. Is all the information we access reliable? Do we want our children to take in everything the internet has to offer? Can we ourselves, as intelligent and discerning adults, accurately evaluate or adequately assimilate all of the words and images we are fed? Is it any wonder that one of the most successful computer companies in the world (the creator and manufacturer of the machine on which I am writing these words) represents itself by a fruit with a bite missing – perhaps depicting the forbidden fruit?
What the Torah teaches us is not that the internet, or any technology, is evil or forbidden. The image of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the confusion that is to be found in many different aspects of human life. We are warned that the source of truth – absolute truth – is accessible to us, but the fruits of the tree of death continue to entice and attract our attention and imagination. Why are we attracted to this fruit? Are we hard-wired to self-destruct? Were we created with a death wish? Is the urge to experience the fruit of the ‘tree of death’ an attempt to anesthetize ourselves, to punish ourselves, or do we simply desire what we cannot have? Do we fancy ourselves to be gods? Perhaps all of these motives combine; perhaps the confusion of motives is one more result of having ingested, of continuing to ingest, the fruit of the tree that confuses and clouds truth and reality, and leads us astray from our life-source, to death.
As man becomes more and more sophisticated, as we obtain and attempt to synthesize more and more information, our need for clarity becomes more and more acute. All of our sophistication has not made us immune to confusion; in fact, we may say that the opposite is true. Now more than ever, we need a healthy dose of the fruit of the Tree of Life – of clear morals and values that can equip us to make sense of the glut of information that is the defining trait of modern life. Our choices often seem so much less cut-and-dried than they were in the Garden of Eden; our lives seem to be composed of so many shades of grey. Moshe’s message is that complex moral dilemmas can be distilled into one question: Which choice will lead me closer to my spiritual source of life? The Tree of Life, Torah and its immutable moral guidelines, provides this clarity. From the dawn of creation, evil has been dressing up, making promises. To choose life, we must focus on the word of God and not the slick salesman selling snake oil; his promises are empty, and the potion never works.
The choice that confronts the People of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land is the choice that confronts us, individually and collectively, to this very day. Once again, two paths diverge from the junction at which we are poised. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past? Will we, once again, choose death? Moshe reminds them, and us, of the choices, and of our capabilities. He calls upon them, as he calls upon us, to rise to the occasion, to raise our heads above the cloud of confusion and not to lose sight of the Tree of Life, the moral compass with which we have been armed. Above all, Moshe reminds us that we are capable of making the right choice – but it is a choice. God, for His part, is rooting for us: “Choose life.”