Is It Better To Be Alive?

Noah's ark is probably the most popular of the Genesis stories. Here was one man in a generation of evildoers who merited salvation. He builds an ark, saves himself, his immediate family and representatives of each family of the animal kingdom from the flood that destroys all land-living creatures. God then "remembered Noah and all of the animals in the ark" and the flood receded.

What exactly did God remember? After all, He had Noah build the ark in the first place, so what had He to suddenly remember in order to end the flood? And what did the animals do to be "remembered" as well? Finally, wherein lied Noah's goodness that saved him?

According to Rashi, the animals merited salvation because they did not conjugate during the entire time of the flood. Thus, these animals demonstrated self-control and merited saving. It is significant that Noah's merit is minimized in this Rashi.

Ramban has a fundamental problem with this approach. After all, he says, animals do not have free choice at all, so how can one speak of their performing a "good" deed by refraining from conjugating during the flood?

Rather, says the Ramban, God remembered the original reason He created the world, and decided to preserve it and save Noah and his shipmates. God saw the life on the vessel and remembered why He had created life in the first place.

Fair enough, but I would like to suggest a combination of the Ramban's and Rashi's approaches, I believe that Noah was saved because he was a thoroughly good man. He was untouched by the violence, promiscuity and evil abandon of every single other person. It was so bad, say the sages, that the animals were corrupted as well. Noah was the opposite, he walked with God.

But I will venture to guess that Noah was depressed. He was depressed because he felt powerless to change anything. He sighed when he read the news, he groaned when another outrage took place, but he felt unable to do anything to influence change. Thus, the source of his depression was a complete absence of hope. Example: Noah did not have children until he was 500 years old!!! The others of his time got around to it in 1/5 the time. Why so? Perhaps because of his depression and pessimism.

You see, depression's worst symptom is functional paralysis. The depressed person just wants to sleep, physically or energetically. This aspect of Noah never fully left him. It would neatly explain why, after the flood, he took to getting drunk. The depressed person may seek an escape. Without a sense of hope for a great future, life can be painful.

So much so that the sages make the following incredible observation: "It would have been easier for a man had he never been created in the first place. But now that he is created, he shall search his deeds." Pardon me, but is that not like an overly sarcastic "Thank you very much?" If it would have been easier for us to not be here, why do we thank God every day for creating us?

The answer is hinted at in the word "easier". Let's face it, life requires effort if you want to accomplish anything. And the only people who accomplish things are those who believe great things are possible. Depressed people do not accomplish, because they don't even try. They are not bad people! They are just, well, depressed. Noah was thoroughly good. His problem was depression-induced functional paralysis. This was a man who waited 500 years to have kids. God had to jump start him. So he told him to build an ark. Get going, get out there. Let your actions change your mood.

And thus, depressed Noah, built the most famous and important ship ever. I believe that's what God remembered. God's dilemma was whether there would be hope for the world if He saved it. He looked and he saw an astounding thing. A depressed, but good, man, broke out of his shell and did a brazen thing in order to save all the world. Noah could have said "Not me, God," but he didn't even peep. Moses, later on, tried to get out of his calling with excuse after excuse, but not Noah. He jumped. Yes, it took 100 years to build the thing, but one man making a cruise liner of that size would take some time!

When God looked at what Noah had made, at who and what he brought into the ark, at he had accomplished in order to save the world, God felt, as it were, tremendous hope. He immediately started the floods recession and the rebuilding of the world. Noah wasn't out of the woods, wasn't healed (as seen in the drunken episode after the flood), but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he hit that home run.

I might add that the animals were also part of this success story. At times we hear of dolphins saving a human from sharks, and of dogs sleeping on a baby who crawled out of the house in winter and keeping it warm. Animals, while they don't have free choice, can choose to save lives other than their own. I think that by refraining from procreating during the flood, this was at play. More pups and babies would have drained the food supply too much. The animals were determined to survive. Thus they, too, must have had that magic commodity, hope.

So when the sages say it would have been "easier" for a human to never have been created, they mean easier, not better. The Hebrew word for easier is, not coincidentally, "Noah". Thus, the phrase might imply that Noah was among those who would have preferred to never be born. "Noah is to those who would have never been born." But now that a man has been born, he must give thanks to God. Why? Because if we thank God for being born, if we value being alive, it is only because we have hope. And if we have hope, we will do things to fix the world.

Thus, the conclusion of the saying, "Now that he has been created, let him search his deeds." In other words, DO. Create, and you will develop hope. Motion creates emotion.

So to borrow the Ramban's idea, by giving thanks, or better, by admitting that God created us, we acknowledge WHY He created us, and that is to fix the world and do great things. Once we have that hope and that commitment to do, to accomplish, to never give up, it is clear to us what a blessing life is.

As the song from Damn Yankees goes, "Ya gotta have hope!"

Living Life at the First Level

The book of Exodus is not written in the proper order. We would expect it to follow chronological sequence, but in one extraordinary case, it is completely out of sequence. According to some commentaries, the commandment to build the Tabernacle was given as a reaction to the sin of the Golden calf. If so, the section called Terumah, which outlines all of these laws, should be written after the section of Ki Tisa, where the tragedy of the Golden Calf is retold. And yet it is written before. Why?

One explanation is that the commandment was, indeed, given before the Golden Calf sin, but Moses did not tell it to the people until afterwards. The Torah is written according to when God spoke to Moses, and not when Moses spoke to the people. By this explanation, everything is in proper sequence.

But another explanation occurs to me. If the command to build the Tabernacle was, as stated, a reaction to the sin of the Golden calf, for the Tabernacle would forever be compromised. If God gave the people the Tabernacle as an atonement and correction for the sin of the calf, the Tabernacle becomes a permanent reminder of that sin.

This is why it is not written after the story of the Golden calf. A powerful life message is delivered to us through this positioning of the chapters. By writing the section of Terumah before the Golden calf, the Torah is treating it as if this is life as it should be lived. The Tabernacle is not a compromise, is the fulfilled center of the Jewish people. True, had they not sinned it would not have been necessary to build a Tabernacle. Nonetheless, now that they sinned, THIS IS THE IDEAL WAY OF LIFE.

In other words, we are where we are, and yesterday cannot be erased. Whatever life choices we make become the completely fulfilled life. Regrets must be thrown out the door.

In a similar vein, there is a Medrash, a rabbinical commentary which embellishes this thought. When God said to Moses, "build me a sanctuary that I may dwell therein," Moses wondered how human beings could ever build such a large structure. After all, "even the heavens cannot contain" God's Glory. God responds to Moses, I am only asking you to construct a structure with 20 boards on the north, 20 boards on the south, and eight boards on the west.

The commentary continues, when God asked Moses to bring a sacrifice there, Moses wondered how humans could ever bring an adequate sacrifice? God answers that all they need to bring is the daily offering in the morning, and the daily offering of the afternoon.

The great Chofetz Chaim explains the underlying message here. God wants man do the best he can with the limitations that he has. The athlete who was injured must find a new way of life that will allow him to be the best that he can, and he must never look back. The people need to accept that the world changed when they worshiped the Golden calf, and do the most glorious thing that they can: build a beautiful Tabernacle.

So instead of looking back at our promising youth, and regretting that the dreams we had then have become impossible, we should discover what new, glorious Tabernacle we can each create in our lives. Only look forward, only find the most fulfilling new dreams to guide us in our lives.

Judaism and a complete life

There was a person in the Tora who is regarded as being "complete." It is none other than the patriarch Jacob. That seems an odd choice, considering how very human and, seemingly imperfect, he was. After all, he tells the most brazen lie in the entire book of Genesis when he says to his father, "I am Esau, thy firstborn."

We see him taking advantage of his brother, we see him losing his temper with his wife. We see him fighting with the angel, and we see him making the cardinal parenting error, showing favoritism to one particular son.

What's more, his life was one big torment! From the moment he had to run away from his brother, who wanted to kill him, he had troubles. He was fooled by Laban into marrying a woman he did not want, he worked for many years, always protecting himself against being taken advantage of. Later, he spent many years believing his beloved son Joseph was dead. His life ended in exile, in Egypt.

Is that the complete life of a perfect person?

Yes, it is. Judaism does not define completeness and perfection as "success." Our modern definition, which usually includes a nice house, a nice family, some good cars and a membership in the synagogue or church, does not match what Judaism teaches. Those things are all good, but they are not all.

Think about this. Jacob was in love with Rachel. He worked seven years in order to marry her. On the wedding night, Laban, the father-in-law, pulled a switch. He sent his oldest daughter, Leah, to be with Jacob in disguise. How it was that Jacob didn't recognize her, we can talk about some other time! Nonetheless, it happened, and Jacob wasn't very happy in the morning. He found out that he had married the "wrong" woman, Leah, when he really wanted Rachel! He had been tricked, and he had a right to be angry.

And he was, and even said so to his surprise wife. According to the commentaries, he criticized her having pretended to be Rachel in order to get him. But Leah was no fool. These commentaries have her respond to Jacob with a very sharp comment, "And are you Jacob and not Esau?" In other words, you live in a glass house. Don't throw stones. You deceived your father to get something no less important, his legacy and blessing.

What a powerful commentary! To me, the most astounding fact of this story is that Jacob kept Leah as his wife! He had every right to opt out. This had been a false business deal, he had been tricked. Was it reasonable to expect him to remain married to a woman he did not want? And yet, he stayed.

And a good thing he did! Leah became the mother of six of the tribes of Israel. At the end of the day, God's judgment was that this marriage was a great thing.

This is the secret of Jacob's completeness. Jacob is described as having dreamt of a "ladder planted in the earth whose top reaches to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it." I believe those angels represent Jacob himself. There are times in life when he is ascending, doing good works and rising up high. There are also times when he descends, when he makes mistakes and finds himself in trouble. The thing that is crucial to Jacob, however, is that he always remains on that ladder. Jacob accepts the consequences of his actions, and when he feels himself descending the ladder, he always finds the way to turn around and go up again.

Jacob accepted that he was now married to Leah. True, he could've gotten out of it. Nonetheless, he felt that she was the corrective that God sent him. And from his acceptance, the children of Israel were born. The complete person stays on the ladder, accepts what God sends him and never gives up until he reaches that pinnacle.