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From the artificial seven-day week, to its refusal to recognize any deity within the forces of nature, the Torah pioneered the idea that G-d is not found within nature. G-d is not in the ocean or the sun, or any physical force. When Adam was created, he was not described as being an animal (though physiologically we are, indeed, animals) — but was instead described as being made of dust, and also ensouled by the divine breath. G-d in this world is only found inside each person.
As Rabbi Sacks points out in a brilliant piece, the descendants of Avraham who were rejected from the covenant that became Judaism were similarly described as being like animals, great men of nature. In any other culture, being a passionate man who was a great archer would make one a hero – think of Davy Crockett and many other classic and folk heroes. But not in Judaism. The archer, Ishmael, was likened to a wild donkey, while the great hunter in the forest, Esau, was described as having “game in his mouth,” evocative of a cat with a bird in its teeth. Both were rejected, replaced by Isaac and Jacob, respectively.
The contrasts with animal behavior run deep. Animals are not thinkers: even animals that prepare for winter do so as a matter of instinct, not strategic planning. So, too, the ancestors that were excluded from the covenant were driven by their momentary passions: Ishmael was guided by his anger: “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Gen. 16:12) And Esau was perhaps even worse. Esau’s eagerness to obtain lentil soup, a desperation that caused him to sell his birthright, shows us that Esau truly met the aspirations of 21st-century millennials: Esau lived in the moment.
Within nature, time horizons are necessarily short. In the “might makes right” violent perspective of Ishmael, or the hunter of game, intangible long-term belongings are unimportant. After all, as Esau says, “I am on the road to death, of what use to me is the birthright?” But we are all on the road to death. The question is whether or not we value the things we do in our lives, and understand that our accomplishments and relationships live on in the people and institutions and things we build in the time we have. We concur with Esau that we are all on the road to death; we differ in that we recognize that it is what we do along the way that matters.
G-d does not want a people who are in sync with nature – He had that in Ancient Egypt, a people completely in harmony with the Nile and the natural pagan deities. The god of the Torah wants people who seek to have a relationship with Him. This is why, as Sacks points out, our matriarchs were largely infertile, and they had to seek a relationship with G-d before they were able to bear children. For Jews, the things that come naturally to most people do not happen automatically for us; G-d wants us to ask, to pray, to engage with Him. And so He challenges us accordingly. The Torah is telling us that we are to aspire to a higher existence, and that means seeking out the divine, not communing with nature.
The Torah is telling us that to be a Jew, one must aim to be more than an animal, to see nature as something to improve, not something to emulate. This runs counter to the entire pagan world within which Judaism was born, and finds new relevance today, in a world that is so obsessed with neverending obeisance to Mother Earth that we have taken to giving proper names to every passing weather system.
It is “only natural” for man to seek pleasure, to live in the moment, to have as much fun as possible before he dies. None of these are Torah virtues. For Torah Jews, happiness is the byproduct of a life of good choices, a life in which we do our best with what we have. And so we take the long view; as links in the chain between the past and the future, our responsibilities go back hundreds of generations, and stretch forward into the generations to come. Anything we do to jeopardize our relationship to G-d means that we jeopardize the investment and dedication and suffering of all who came before us, and risk making our children and children’s children disconnected from G-d and His Torah. Endangering the future endangers our present, because if we act like animals, if we act in harmony with nature, then we become nothing more or less than our environment, actors within nature itself.
The Torah charges us otherwise: to be G-d’s own lieutenants, responsible for improving and completing the world.