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September 20, 2007

In Quest for Meaning

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/in_quest_for_meaning_20070921

Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.

When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.

From a scientific viewpoint, "finding meaning" means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.

Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.

As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man's role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.

The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?

Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.

But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.

I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.

Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption -- the basis of all sacrificial rituals -- may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.

But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.

How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known -- the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?

The truth is: I don't, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions -- however essential for cognition -- are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.

Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?

I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac's binding): "And God tried Abraham, and said to him: 'Abraham!' and he said: 'Here I am.'"

I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.

What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that -- and all on account of some imagined sound saying: "Abraham! Take your son...."

But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle. Who is God? Our ideals, values and principles. What does it mean, "Sacrifice your son to God?" It means: Educate your children on certain principles and by certain ideals. Why is sacrifice and death involved here? Because living by principles is a dangerous enterprise in our world, and perhaps it has been that way throughout history.

"Here I am!" means I am perfectly aware of those dangers, and still I am committed to educate my children on the principles of civilized society, read: God's command.

In this sense, we are all Abrahams, and our children are all Isaacs. And we are still walking together, generation after generation, on that risky, yet promising road to Mount Moriah.

And what happens at the end of the story? An angel comes and says: "You did the right thing, Abraham, Isaac will live on." Then God promises Abraham to multiply his descendants and make them the blessing of all nations, which means: civilization survives; humanity comes out victorious.

True, a ram dies, but humanity wins.

Progress is a bloody journey. There are victims by the roadside, especially those who pushed hard, and those who carved new pathways, but the caravan makes it uphill okay.

Of particular significance are the angel's final words:

"And I will make you into a great nation and all other nations on earth will be blessed by you," in other words: "Forget about personal reward or personal redemption or reaping pleasure in paradise -- your reward lies in the progress of mankind."

It is a somewhat secular interpretation, I admit, but it is the only way I can make sense of the story, free of contradictions.

Justice? Reward and punishment? Sure! But on a collective, not individual scale. And it ties of course to Danny's story: His trust in humanity; his unyielding honesty, love of life, talking with strangers; befriending the suspecting; living his principles and drawing others to those principles.

He may have pushed too hard, at the wrong time perhaps, but the caravan goes on, inching its way uphill. Humanity will prevail: "Veyitbarchu becha kol mishpechot haadama" -- (and all nations on earth will be blessed by you). Amen.

Last month, I wrote a little poem on this tension between individual and collective notions of justice. It is dedicated to Danny and to all the Isaacs on the road to Moriah.


Shooting Stars
(To Daniel Pearl)

It seems unfair, a waste,
To journey like a shooting star,
One thousand cosmic years through space.
To smile one time, just once,
Emit your brightest ever light and swing
In daring curvature to nowhere,
Like that actor on the stage
Who ends the play to no applause,
And bows to empty seats, yet glows.

Unfair, a waste,

But a child may chance to stare
And see that daring curvature, remember?
Which may just set this child in motion
Remind him of those cosmic years, of freedom,
And jolt his mind to point up north
Beyond the curtain of prediction,
Dare to shed the bonds of earth
And bend the course of expectation.

Unfair? A waste?

My eyes to shooting stars, to motion.
My heart to one that just passed by,
Softly traveled, bright, secured,
Measuring the path of your world, oh God,
Like a wandering minstrel, with kisses.
For century after century
From way before the beginning of time.



Akeida -- The Sacrifice
(In memory of Daniel Pearl)

By Batya Dagan


A lamb is being caught in the thicket
trapped in the green
was it there all this time
when Abraham bound his only son
the light of his eye the heart of his life
to the altar he built
because so commanded his God
Abraham does not ask
does not wonder and just does
for God knows and he does not know
he only knows that his heart is exploding
that his veins are freezing
that his mouth is full of ashes
then God's voice is being heard
a voice sweeter that honey
clearer than a running brook
and the voice says to Abraham
leave the child alone
here in the thicket is your sacrificial lamb
my son my beloved the father of my nation
all I gave you you gave me
never will I try you again
but the sweet voice of God was not heard
when Daniel was bound
and there was no lamb in the thicket
only death was caught in the green
I am a Jew says Daniel
and to this altar he was tied
and on this altar he was sacrificed
and all of Israel is crying
and all of Israel is mourning
the loss of Daniel
Daniel who stood the test
and gave his God all that God gave him.

Batya Dagan is an Israeli artist and poet.



Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization committed to interfaith dialogue, and co-editor of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl."

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