A Midrash On Relation:

“So Long Rabbi Avtzeluches”


Can you believe that even after the above fiasco, the insurgents mustered enough votes to invite that Rabbi Avtzeluches back? (Thank goodness it would prove to be her swan song.) And even after being advised she needed to come across a tad less creative (and a whole lot more scholarly/rabbinic), this is what she comes up with for the do-over:

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Shabbat shalom, my friends, it’s wonderful and an honor to have been called back to visit with you again. This week’s Torah reading contains a familiar but enigmatic verse, from Exodus 31:17, “Uvayom hash’vii shavat vayinafash -- On the seventh day, God ceased His work and rested.” Now interestingly, this text expands upon the more concise account given in Genesis 2:2, “Vayishbot bayom hash’vii -- He rested on the seventh day.” “Shavat,” in the Exodus formula, and “vayishbot,” in Genesis, are the same verb (from which, of course, the word “Shabbat” or “Sabbath” also derives).

But the additional verb in today’s passage, “vayinafash,” adds a new and significant dimension. It comes from the root “nefesh,” which we usually translate, “soul.” And according to a little known midrash, the verb “vayinafash” can be either transitive or intransitive: “intransitive” implying that at that instant, the Divine Essence “ensouled” or individuated Itself; or “transitive,” meaning that on the seventh day, God imbued our already independent physical selves with an exemplar copy of His Own Divine Essence.

Now here is the important point, my friends: Either way, transitive or intransitive, the addition of the verb vayinafash turns a passive, sabbatical moment, one of cessation and replenishment, into an active, seminal one; a creative encore if you will—kind of like the one I’m having here today!

[She looks up hopefully, but we are not laughing. So she gives up on levity and manages, for a while at least, to sound half-way intelligent.]

For God does not just rest from His labors on Shabbat, you see; He becomes, pari passu, both the Subject and the Object, the Energy and the Mass of His own handiwork. In short my dear friends, God passes the creative torch over to us! (Or even more transitively speaking, we pick it up and run with it.)

I’m not suggesting here that God bows out of the creative process altogether on the seventh day. For as we say in our morning prayer, “Uv’tuvo m’chadeysh b’chol yom tamid maaseh b’reyshit -- In His goodness, He renews daily His physical creation.” (And as we also recite on our joyous occasions, “shehecheyanu v’kimanu -- He both fashions and sustains us” in our physical parameters.)

But I’m going to ask you now to think of this physical world God creates and sustains (including our own physical bodies) as but the backdrop for a second wave of creativity—Part Two in His/Her/Our ongoing evolutionary process. Picture the whole magnificent package, “the heavens above and the earth below, the world and all that dwell therein,” as but a spiritual staging ground, a tabula rasa if you will. On which the most generative element, the very stem cell for all our future growth is—and this may surprise you, my friends . . . our physical (individual) self-interest! The very thing we bit into (or bit off) when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

[By now, more than a few of us are nodding off, so she may be worried this is going over our heads.]

Stay with me here, please, I know this is getting a bit complicated. In the cosmology I’m asking you to entertain, Adam and Eve turn God’s orderly physical creation into their own tohu vavohu (primordial soup)—a world of material shortage and economic need; from which raw material they will now be charged with renewing daily the work of . . . relational creation!

For in the Garden of Eden, you see, we were like all the other animals—the top dogs perhaps; but from a spiritual point of view, still just half-baked. It was only outside Eden’s safe and comfortable confines, at the synapse between the physical/sensational and the economic/interpersonal/relational, that human life as we know it could truly begin.

And it’s at this point, I must give you fair warning, that the midrash and indeed my own theology are about to take a truly radical turn. For if you’ve followed what I’ve said so far, what some call “original sin” now becomes, a fortiori, the very fruit of Adam and Eve’s ineluctable thrust for relation. THEIR STEPPING UP, not their falling down! And yet, my dear friends, this important, indeed courageous evolutionary breakthrough does not sit well in heaven! (And here, you see, is the biblical rub—and the real falling down:)

“So you want a RELATIONSHIP,” booms the Lord of Genesis to Eve. “Well suffer the pain of childbirth—then you’ll have something to relate to your husband (and all those little ones) about! And you, Adam, will have to clothe and feed them. You may rue the day Eve convinced you there was more to life than frequent, unprotected and truly shameless sex!”

[Much awkward stirring, but now she definitely has our attention!]

“You say you ate of the forbidden fruit in order to be like God? The truth is, you want to surpass God. For I, the Lord, AM ONE. Now good luck to both of you.”

If this sounds disrespectful, my dear friends, I beg your forgiveness. But since you are evaluating me as your potential spiritual leader, I owe you at the very least some honest self-disclosure. For I believe a rabbi’s job, male or female, is to claim and speak her truth!

Well the God I worship is the Master/Mistress of all—the physical/sensational and what I’m calling the interpersonal/relational. And from that broader perspective, you see, the petty, jealous and vindictive god in today’s Torah portion [audible groans here, and from the balcony, one shrill “WHAT DID SHE SAY?”] . . . is a creator who has lost his way! I must tell you, in short, that if you do call me to this pulpit as your Rabbi, I will no longer be capitalizing that one’s g!

[With this, the Sextant, Mr. Perlmutter, starts ominously toward the dais, but Rabbi Frumowitz, from his newly upholstered Emeritus-seat, waives him off. As the ruckus continues to swell, Avtzeluches stares out at us, seeming flustered. Then finally, raising her arms and leaning into the microphone, she capitulates.]

O.K., sha, I didn’t mean to antagonize you. We’re all still Jews here, so you don’t have to agree with me. But my friends (or should I now say, my “detractors”), it looks to me as if, in the course of subjectivizing the very objects of his creation, god’s own objectivity has abandoned him. Maybe just the thought, the aspiration to such indigenous, intervivos effect—to the shared risk that is the hallmark, the sine qua non, of Adam and Eve’s bold relational vision—proved too slippery a slope; down which his singular essence just could not transition.

But by now, you see, Adam and Eve’s relationship was simply too far along to abort. So, constricting himself, god storms off in a huff . . . and has been laying down the law from a safe distance, ever since. “VAYINAFASH!”

[Despite the flourish, she pauses here as if out of steam. Maybe it has just sunk in that her employment at this synagogue definitely has been aborted! As she rummages distractedly through the remainder of her notes, the President consults with the Chair of the Ritual Committee: “Should we cut off her mic.?” he asks.

But Rabbi Frumowitz, the last one from whom you would have expected forbearance at this point, leans in and says, “All right, just let her finish. I must say, she’s not entirely ineloquent; at least she knows her Hebrew.” “And her Latin and her French,” the President now thoughtfully concurs.

Rabbi Avtzeluches pauses further for a slow sip of water—a pregnant pause, it turns out. For her worst is yet to come:]

Whatever the explanation, my friends, since that ugly scene in the Garden, the lord of scripture has never been quite the same. Indeed, as we see in today’s portion, it isn’t long before he—let me just call him “little god” for present purposes . . . [so many loud gasps here, she has to shout out the rest of this sentence] . . . repents of his solitude and asks the Children of Israel FOR THEIR HAND IN CHOSEN-PEOPLEHOOD.

[Whereupon, stunned (uncertain whether she has just flattered us or added insult to the blasphemy), we emit an eerily unison, “Huh??”]

Yes, but even as his Higher Self is now courting us, at Sinai, with the Ten Commandments, little-god is attaching to them a congenital string: In the event of disobedience, he vows TO VISIT THE INIQUITY OF THE PARENTS UPON THE CHILDREN. And by that pronouncement, ladies and gentlemen, psychology is born!

[An alien silence settles in. We are puzzled, genuinely confused by this reference to psychology (a respected field in this congregation). What could she mean by it? Clearly savoring the moment, Avtzeluches takes yet another slow sip of water before enlightening us.]

Psychology, you see, is the very impact of our ensuing misbehavior unto the third and fourth generations. We thus become the instruments of little god’s impassioned discipline, inflicting his collective punishment on each other. And to our great shame . . . and this, my friends (not our genitalia), is the real source of that shame . . . on our own kinderlach (offspring)!

[From the balcony again, “I hope I didn’t hear the word I think I just heard.”]

Our therapists call this “displacement.” We displace (i.e., dump) onto our significant others every grievance we have ever suffered (or imagined) at the hands of Mom and Dad. In that way, we continue to act out our unresolved vertical (intergenerational) conflicts horizontally (within our own marriages).

Soon enough, our children get sucked into the pernicious process, initially as mere props for the drama now going on between their Mom and Dad. Until somewhere in their adolescence, they begin to parlay that horizontal tsimmes (commotion) into their own set of vertical grievances . . . against us. Etc. and boring etc., l’dor vador -- from generation to farblondzhet (befuddled) generation.

[Several people are now walking out, but the ushers are doing nothing to stop them.]

It took one for sensation, two for relation; and three or four such stiff-necked generations to enmesh ourselves in the neurotic conundrum. The upshot, my friends, is that we now waste half our lives and money in therapy, trying to distinguish our actual, real-time issues from things that are old (or someone else’s). And only by unraveling this great psychospiritual puzzle (which other traditions call karma, by the way) will we begin to free ourselves and our progeny from a covenant in sore need of renegotiating.

For we’ve been backpedaling since the day Adam and Eve called sensation into the service of latent relation. Our emotional exile is a vestige of little god’s primordial hurt feelings. And it’s high time we helped him (and each other) get over it!

Shabbat Shalom.