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Surviving catastrophe

In Parashat Noach, drug humanity undergoes two great catastrophes. The first is the flood – the holocaust that annihilates all of humanity and all land-life except those who survive in Noach’s ark. The second catastrophe is the dispersal of humanity to all ends of the earth as a result of the collapse of the Tower of Babel. In last week’s parashah, Parashat Bereishit we learnt of the first crisis in human history –  man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden following Adam and Eve’s sin. These are the first three catastrophes that visited humanity.

Apart from these three catastrophes described in the Book of Genesis the Pentateuch’s central narrative revolves around a fourth critical event—the Jewish people’s slavery and their subsequent exodus from Egypt. Upon contemplation, clearly the slavery in Egypt and the exodus from it were meant from the beginning to enable the Jewish people to reach the heights they rose to. Following this same line of reasoning, properly understanding and rectifying each of the first three catastrophes can lead to improving reality.

Deepening our sense of these four crises will allow us to see how each is an archetype for the various crises and catastrophes we have faced in the past and are experiencing in the present, both on the personal and the collective levels.

The first catastrophe:Paradise lost

The first crisis is the loss of a dream. Although in the Torah the Garden of Eden is described as a concrete reality with trees, man, woman and the serpent, nonetheless no GPS has ever navigated us to the Garden of Eden and no one has ever photographed the cherubim guarding the path to the Tree of Life. It seems therefore, that the Garden of Eden remains a utopian reality that has receded into another dimension of reality, but the gateway to this dimension is blocked to our access. In the same way, we can say that before Adam’s sin and before his expulsion from Eden, our world was not within reality and there was no road that led from the Garden of Eden to the geographic regions familiar to us. This is implied by the verse, “And every plant of the field was not yet on earth… and man was not….” Our present reality did not exist because human consciousness had not yet accessed it. After the primordial sin and after Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden the image was reversed; Eden receded into theory while our globe assumed reality. In fact, the Arizal said that before Adam’s sin, reality was fourteen levels above where it is now; the reality inhabited by Adam and Eve remains beyond our hand’s-reach – the numerical value of “hand” (??) is 14.

Today, Utopia is considered a theoretical ideal. But, the truth is that this ideal did actually exist in the past in the form of the Garden of Eden, which is why it continues to play a very important role in our present state of consciousness. Although we live in this world, we are not from here; we have all been exiled from Paradise. But we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgic musings and live in a dream-like state; rather we must take action in reality as it is now, where we now find ourselves. “God sent him from the Garden of Eden to cultivate the land from which he had been taken.” This is our rectification!

We all begin our lives with the expulsion from Paradise: the soul has been exiled from its utopian world and has hit the harsh reality that we are all familiar with. From now on, our entire lives are dedicated to our rehabilitation from the trauma of our burst bubble. Even in our present situation, like in Eden, there is a serpentine catalyst precipitating our expulsion, in the form of our evil inclination. The more this serpent succeeds, the more our initial innocence is defiled and we find reality to be even more cruel and alien, leaving us to work and cope with rectifying the crisis of our lost paradise.

The second catastrophe: the destruction of the world

The second catastrophe is the destruction of the world. Adam says, “I was expelled from paradise,” but Noach was not expelled and was not transported to a different level of reality; his entire world was destroyed around him. Before the flood the world was not a nice place to live in, and certainly could not be described as idyllic. Yet, the world was inhabited, it was filled with people and animals, there were bustling cities and a steady din of life. But after the flood, the world was barren and a dreadful silence filled the air. Only one small family, who had been spared the forces of chaos that raged over the earth for an entire year in an ark carrying an entire zoo of animals, had to begin building a new world.

Not everyone has to go through such a crisis, but many people can relate to the idea that their world has been destroyed. For example, someone who has lost his entire family and now, after his own personal flood has to begin anew. This is a very challenging undertaking, which requires rallying the energy to start over. Some are tempted to try to escape reality by turning to alcohol and rolling around drunk, as did Noach … But, there is really no choice left. The old world has been destroyed and no longer exists, and now you’re left to build a new world upon its ruins. The previous generation has been destroyed, and you—who were part of that generation—are its rectification, provided you have an optimistic approach. We need not go to great lengths to find examples of a modern-day Noach; it is awe-inspiring to see the many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, who lost all they had—their family, wives, children, possessions—and recovered to build their lives all over again.

The third catastrophe: dispersion

The third crisis is dispersion. In the generation after Noach all people spoke “a single language and similar words.” They all lived in one place forming a single society. However, their unity was based on the city and tower they had built with the purpose of defying God. This time, the catastrophe did not come in the form of exile or destruction, but as dispersal. Instead, of one nation there were now seventy, each with its own distinct language, its own country and its own culture. This crisis may seem easier to cope with than the expulsion from Eden or the destruction of the world, but it should not be viewed lightly: the social framework changed completely and social codes had to be rewritten.

How can dispersion be repaired? Can it be that diversity is the goal? Immediately after the flood at the end of parashat Noach, the first patriarch appears: Abraham. According to the sages’ reckoning, Abraham was present during the construction of the Tower of Babel, standing as a lone revolutionary in opposition to the Tower’s builders. Abraham, followed by Isaac and Jacob, heralded a real unity that can reunite a dispersed world. The three patriarchs, from whom the Jewish people were destined to come, will eventually achieve a rectified state of unity – not an imaginary humanistic state of superficial peace void of submission to God’s sovereignty, but a state of harmony at whose center stand the chosen people who declare before all that, “God is One and His Name is one.”

It is not hard to see crises of dispersion plaguing societies throughout history: a once unified society, or state, or empire deteriorates into opposing factions as the social fabric is unwound. Taking the place of cooperation based on constructive positive communication are opposing rhetoric; as if they have begun to speak different languages, people stop listening to one another, until the only level of communication that remains is rock-throwing (a description given by the sages to the collapse of the Tower of Babel). What is true of society is true of the individual. We have all seen those poor souls who are torn between the various voices within, their inner peace disturbed, and their character in turmoil. One often finds them wandering aimlessly around the world, hard-pressed to pick up the pieces of the broken lives that are no more. Dispersion, whether it befalls a society or an individual can be rectified by discovering a central backbone to reorganize and unite the shards.

The fourth catastrophe: enslavement

At the end of the era of the Patriarchs, the Jewish people moved to Egypt and the coming generations were enslaved by Pharaoh, creating a fourth type of crisis. No dream had been shattered, no world had been destroyed, and no dispersal had taken place, but exile and bondage had infiltrated the people’s consciousness. An entire nation became totally enslaved in substance and spirit through laborious drudgery that breaks the body and gives no respite to the soul; one cannot breathe because every drop of air and attention is dedicated to Pharaoh, so much so that one forgets one’s identity, even one’s sense of self, with one’s very heart being replaced by a totally foreign mentality.

Only the Exodus can rectify this situation. Yet, despite the various miracles and wonders that transpired during the Exodus, the greatest marvel is the very exit of a “nation from within a nation” as the Jewish people was born from within the straits of the Egyptian exile. The essential image associated with rectification by the Exodus is that of Moses—a Divinely appointed redeemer sent to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. In addition, the redemption process must have a goal, in this case, the giving of the Torah, “When you take the people out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain.” The process is complete when the Jewish people enter their homeland, the Land of Israel.

Perhaps we consider ourselves to be freemen, but the truth is that many of us are actually enslaved (in fact, who isn’t?). The taskmaster is not just a “Big Brother” from without, but the many diversions and pressures that fill the crazy world in which we live and infiltrate our sense of self. The anxiety caused by our finances, the need to work hard to make enough money, can turn an individual into a slave. But, even when money is not an issue, we are still an overstressed generation. Worries and constant tension burden us like an iron yoke and the sages state that the yoke of the government and the yoke of making a livelihood leave no room for the yoke of Torah. The mind is never at rest to relax and focus on what really matters. In addition to all this, we are all tied down by the constraints of social conventions, influenced by the cheap pop-culture we are bombarded by (be it consciously or unconsciously) affecting our thoughts and behavior. It is this modern taskmaster sporting a broad smile and a golden whip from whom we need salvation!

Catastrophes in modern Jewish history

With this model of four types of catastrophe or crisis before us, we can better understand the processes that have affected the Jewish people in recent history.

Until the 19th century, the Jewish world in the Diaspora was centered around the good old shtetl—a dream that was and is no more. One can encounter vivid descriptions of the shtetl (whether from the memoirs of the Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, the stories told by Agnon or the artwork painted by Chagall), and receive the impression that this was a relatively utopian world, a dream with a whiff of Paradise (though certainly not everything there was always good). However that dream was shattered by the terrible spiritual destruction that visited the shtetl, even long before the Holocaust. The guise of the serpent in this tale (who seduced us to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge) was “the Enlightenment.” Jews suddenly found themselves outside the Garden of Eden, the old familiar fragrance of Yiddishkeit having disappeared. The cotton-wool that had shielded us was ripped open and foreign influences entered the Jewish home, casting so many Jews out of their tradition, out of the Torah, and out of this relatively sheltered and nurturing spiritual environment. Now, any attempt to return to the old Jewish shtetl is to no avail; we can never return to life as it used to be. Our only chance to repair are by toiling in the modern world we find ourselves today.

The second catastrophe is the Holocaust, in which the Jewish world was literally eradicated. Entire communities were wiped out and the human cinders that were retrieved from the ashes had to pick themselves up and begin a new life after their world had been destroyed, just like Noach after the flood. The only way for each of these survivors to continue was not to give in to the gloomy situation, but to realize that if they had managed to miraculously survive against the odds (even if they cannot fathom why they specifically survived while others perished) their task is to look forward and build a new world.

While the Jewish people were undergoing the catastrophe of the Holocaust, the Jewish community in the land of Israel began to grow, saved from the same fate by Divine providence. Despite the miraculous phenomenon of the Jewish return toZion, the establishment of the State of Israel is reminiscent of a disappointing Tower of Babel. Instead of explicitly founding the state on the basis of Torah, thereby recognizing and declaring that we are God’s people, an attempt was made to create a union held together by superficial, material cooperation, while the God of Israel and the Torah, the only truly uniting force behind the Jewish people, were deliberately left out of the picture. The first few years of the State’s existence seemed to prove successful, but the ensuing crisis of dispersion was not long in coming. After a short while came years of disappointment, as national unity began to disintegrate. The polarization of the various factions among the people grew and the national crisis manifested severely in the growing phenomenon of emigration; a phenomenon that transmitted a sense of futility to all efforts that were made. Rectification is by way of the uniting force imbued in our natures by the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by establishing our “National Home” on the foundation of our unique Jewish culture, raising the banner of Torah and faith as the flag of the rectified Jewish state.

Finally, we find ourselves grappling with the fourth crisis?enslavement. We may not always sense how enslaved we really are – and sometimes that is the greatest problem, which indicates that we have internalized a foreign culture; we talk and think in terms borrowed from a foreign mentality that binds and enslaves us. One of the strongest expressions of this enslavement is the fear expressed by the constant question of, “What will other nations say?” which quite probably has been the most consistent driving force behind the foreign and military policies of all Israeli governments since the establishment of the state. In order to correct the current situation we need to openly discuss the need for a savior, a king?the Mashiach?who will free our minds and open our mouths so that we may think Jewish thoughts and speak Jewish words. We need a redeemer who will extricate us from our cultural subservience and will lead a true revolution, until the Jewish people realize their status as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Exodus from the Egyptian exile was “with our head held high,” open, public, and with great fanfare, and so too will be our future redemption, speedily in our days, when everything will become clear for all to see.

The Exodus from Egypt was completed with the giving of the Torah and so too the climax of the ultimate redemption will be the revelation of a “new Torah”; the essence of the inner dimension of the Torah that we received at Mount Sinai.

3 Responses to “Surviving catastrophe”

  1. Thank you Rabbi Ginsburgh for this writing. Looking forward with much expectation to the revelation of the new Torah and the coming of Moshiach with you.

  2. Yoseph says:

    Wow! Wonderful! thank you for transcribing and writing so powerfully!

  3. Christina says:

    Dear Rabbi Ginsburgh
    It was brought to my attention over the weekend that we were born on the same day though 21 years apart. It is a bit in advance but happy birthday for your comming birthday. Sharing Psalm 67 with you for your birthday. Find the gift in it.

    Blessings!