Posts Tagged ‘chesed’

On The Nature Of Evil…

May 6, 2019

When news broke of the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448 page report on aberrations in the presidency of Donald Trump, I indulged in a bit of schadenfreude, imagining how its evidence of the president’s lies and myriad misdeeds under the aegis of his craven administration might justify the suspicions that have become a noxious atmospheric miasma over us since the 2016 presidential elections.

Even as that report comes closer to the light of public scrutiny, we are still in the dark as to its true content because Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate regarding only his redacted version of it. His four-page version and verbal interpretation appeared manipulated to exonerate the president of treasonous activities. By doing so in classic stonewall mode, he revealed his true role as President Trump’s tool and de facto private attorney. This was made abundantly clear when he then refused to testify before the House of Representatives who had originally requested his cooperation.

While we wait to see whether Robert Mueller will be permitted to present his teams’ original version of their report to Congress and the issue of impeachment is tossed around by both governing bodies like a hot potato, many of us can agree that the reality we’ve always taken for granted is undergoing a paradigm shift.

As we are bombarded daily in mainstream and social media by frightening and often incredible developments in both domestic and international spheres, we are finding it more difficult to maintain our equilibrium and react rationally.

Though I risk sounding melodramatic, some days it feels as though life is coming to resemble a dystopian nightmare right out of those speculative science fiction novels in which the tropes of good and evil are woven into characters to reflect the cycling mores and mercurial nature of human history.

This impression assailed me earlier this week. I was out for a walk when I encountered a neighbor whose character has always been a bit dodgy. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he sniffed the air, then prosaically announced, “the devil is walking among us. Can’t you feel it?” What does one say to that? I just nodded, smiled politely and kept walking, marveling silently at the fragile line between reality and fantasy.

Still, that conversation and others shared with acquaintances in person and online these past couple of years have made me curious; have we been gradually spiraling back to a Dark Age mentality despite our technological advances, or perhaps by virtue of them?

With no offense intended towards those whose deep faith admits only God’s Goodness, I can’t help wondering: is what we know as Evil a sociopathic manifestation of the shadowy face of a God inextricably bound to, yet struggling with its own duality of Good and Evil?

Are our inclinations towards evil (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-ra’) and our inclinations towards good (Hebrew: ‘yetzer ha-tov’ (inclination towards good) actually two sides of that same ‘face’? Since we are capable of surrendering to both of these aspects with equal passion, we must recognize that we have two tasks to address. Our first task throughout our lives is to choose how we will behave and accept the consequences of our choices. Our second task is to understand how our actions affect that balance and work to heal the damaged before it is beyond repair.

Accordingly, the scale shown above is suspended by a ‘yad’ or Torah pointer whose black and white wings symbolize the duality of good and evil. Its pans support two Hebrew letters that represent the spiritual energies of Strength (Gevurah) and Lovingkindness (Chesed). The former is dragging down the latter indicating that these two energies have come out of balance negatively affecting world events.

This illustration is a detail from Leviticus: Parshat Shemini in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It has been adapted to serve this essay.

As an illustrator and writer, I primarily draw and write in metaphor. My readings in Holocaust literature where God is alternately blamed and absolved of responsibility for those monstrous events are what led me to these notions.

So I’ve imagined that Evil’s destructive energy seems to emerge periodically throughout time, wreaking terror and havoc among us. When it is quiet, for periods of years, decades or centuries, good, productive energies are free to flourish. Meanwhile, that Evil aspect does not sleep; it is infinitely creative, intricately plotting and setting its compromised players on the world stage in the manner of a chessboard where its next move will again guarantee its own terrible victory over good.

Just as astrologers look to the positions of the stars to explain the vagaries of world events, scholars of Jewish mysticism understand them in terms of the dynamic ten sefirot or universal spiritual energies that underlie all life.

In this post Cold War era, while we sustain horrific memories of World War 2 and the Holocaust, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, we remain entrenched in relentless Middle East wars and diplomatic brinksmanship.

Willfully ignorant, the noisome Trumpian doctrine has emerged, currying favor with dictators, stoking the fires of moral degradation, racism, isolationism and a ‘fake news’ agenda that is encouraging an alarming rise in hate-driven mass shootings, cruelty towards immigrants, and dismissal of the health/welfare concerns of most Americans. These are the rumblings and tremors of Evil preparing its next move; one that will undermine democracy in our generation and become our legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Just yesterday, an illustrator friend whose thoughtful, well-crafted work reflects her own perceptive view of our current new-world order,** suggested that we may be living in a 21st century version of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Can we single out ten righteous men in our administration from the corrupt swamp that is our Republican Party ?” she asked.

She was referring to chapter 18:20-33 in the Book of Genesis where Abraham argues with God who had decided to destroy those ancient cities as punishment for their evil ways. The patriarch challenges God to withhold that destruction if he, Abraham, could prove the existence of at least 10 righteous men within them. Of course we know that the cities were destroyed, but a few individuals were warned to escape and so were spared.

Though her question was rhetorical, neither of us could think of even five people in the administration who fit that description, an idea that doesn’t bode well for our country from a biblical perspective.

The United States has long been a physical and psychological haven for immigrants and refugees fleeing their climate-ravaged and/or war-torn homes. Yet, despite our possession of updated papers and passports, given the machinations of our treacherous administration, where can or should we escape to? Who will offer us refuge?

In discussions with friends and relatives with differing opinions or of like mind, one dilemma seems clear; we cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that currently, life is but a nightmare from which we will eventually awaken.

If we reflexively act on our fears and prejudices, we risk our own safety and that of our loved ones. Rather, we must struggle not to remain quietly hopeless and helpless in the incomprehensible face of forces seemingly beyond our control to contain.

Moreover, if we surrender to those modalities, then destructive forces win by default. History will yet again be written by victors whose glorification of their deeds and questionable motives will leave our descendants to question its veracity and learn from our mistakes if they choose.

We will certainly vote with our consciences and/or our feet in the 2020 elections, even as we continue to struggle with the potentially corrupted results as we did in 2016 since there is talk of foreign governments again moving to interfere in our election process.

But this time we must truly understand that only through our unity and ability to question what we are told instead of grasping blindly to a limited ideology, do we hold the keys to repairing what we have allowed to break (Hebrew:’tikkun olam) and to overcoming Evil’s onslaught against our hard-won democracy.

**https://www.instagram.com/naomialiye/

*https://amzn.to/2VC70I7

Illustration: Between Choice & Consequence ©2019 Ilene Winn-Lederer

(more…)

Acts Of Kindness: States Of Grace?

March 30, 2014

Image

In our visual media-oriented world, we often encounter posters, bumper stickers or heartwarming newspaper columns that urge us to ‘Perform Random Acts Of Kindness’. When these first began to appear around 1982, it might have been in reaction to the pervasive emphasis on individual needs and rights that characterized the ‘Me Generation’. Even today, with so much news of domestic and political strife reported in that same media, it seems we still haven’t learned how to do so easily.

Isn’t it strange and sad that we should need to be reminded? But given the complex duality of human nature, the need to be reminded is nothing new. Morality stories dominate the Old and New Testaments with the patriarch Abraham most commonly cited as the archetype of kindness for his hospitality to three Angels in human disguise. For this next page in An Illumination Of Blessings, I initially thought to present his story for this blessing, but for the reasons explained below, decided that the tiny tent above the Hebrew text would suffice as a meme for it.

The concept of kindness was later refined and codified in the Book Of Ruth (Megillat Ruth).* Upon being told to return to her people after being widowed, Ruth, a Moabite woman insists on remaining with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Her statement, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God,” became the takeaway message that defined love, loyalty and the sincere concern for another human being’s welfare. It also painted Naomi as possibly the best mother-in-law in history!

I decided to illustrate this story not only because it exemplifies our capacity for personal empathy, but because it also references the concept of ‘gleaning’; a mandated** act of kindness towards the entire community of impoverished men, widows and orphans. Gleaning is the practice of allowing these individuals to reap the corners of one’s fields and orchards following the initial harvest. The stone wall (which represents the parameters of a field) behind Ruth and Naomi, the sprigs of barley, olives, figs and grapes are memes for this idea, as are the sheaf of wheat and pomegranate branch in Ruth’s hand. I included the pomegranate here for two reasons. First, because of its association with fertility. In the story, Ruth will enable the continuation of Naomi’s line, becoming great-grandmother of King David. Second, because of its decorative presence throughout Judaic art and history. With its alleged 613 seeds, it serves as a metaphor of the 613 mitzvot or commandments that we are expected to perform throughout our lifetimes. Through performing these mitzvot, often referred to as ‘sparks’ (nitzotzot) we collectively ‘lift them up to light and repair the world’ (tikkun olam).

The additional significant image in my illustration is the small Hebrew letter ‘chet’ (pronounced gutturally) formed by three sheaves of wheat that hovers above and between the two women. This letter is from one of the Hebrew alphabets that I designed in 2012 called ‘Shefa’(abundance) shown below:

Image

The letter chet begins the words ‘chittah’ (wheat) and chesed which means kindness or benevolence. It suggests the limitless loving-kindness that characterizes G-d and which, by extension, suffuses all of creation. The verse from Pirke Avot 1:2 (Ethics of the Fathers) attributed to the Second century High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon The Righteous) makes this clear: “The world exists through three things: Torah, Avodah (Temple service) and acts of loving kindness.” No matter how small or insignificant these may seem when they occur, each one is ultimately a part of the larger purpose for which we were created.

I am reminded here of the phrase ‘a state of grace’, which in Christian theology denotes an absence of sin in an individual. From my perspective, while Judaism dwells less on sin and redemption than on ‘kavanah’ or intention, this phrase can also describe the ideal, altruistic state of mind surrounding the performance of a mitzvah, an act of loving kindness.

May you be blessed with abundant mindful opportunities to fulfill and receive acts of loving kindness and, if you’ll permit me a bit of wordplay, a ‘taste of grace’.

* found in Ketuvim or the Writings volume of Torah.
** “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus/Vayikra 14:9-10