© 2020 Drew T. Noll

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Existential Threat to My Left Thumb

The first principle of existentialism, according to Jean Paul Sartre is, ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.’

He goes on to say, ‘The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.’

It appears to me that this is exactly what Hashem had in mind when he made the world. The problem is that it puts me square in the middle, in the center of Creation, and puts all of my faith in only one hand. Faith is an important element to understand in this dynamic. Having faith in ‘me,’ to make the right decisions, to do the right thing, is challenged daily by the thought, ‘who am I?’ Losing faith in ‘Me,’ causes the scale to tip to one side only; this is paramount to suicide of the inner self, ultimately leading to the potentiality of the real thing.

This is the line that we straddle when faced with everything from difficult life-altering decisions, down to everyday choices like, should I smoke that cigarette, eat that piece of cake, wear that outrageous hat, or avoid brushing my teeth. So, how do we arrive at ‘faith?’ In some traditions, it is felt that faith should be handed over completely to a higher being, as if this will absolve our responsibility for what we have done or even may do. This system works, but only to a point. The problem is that in that specific moment of conscience, when we ask ourselves in a split second if we are to blame or will be to blame, we still have to rely on ourselves to make the decision. Presuming to give it over to a higher power in that fraction of a moment is only an escape valve for the ego. What do I mean by that? I mean that if I am so pious that I can summon what I believe to be ‘my relationship with the Creator’ at will, I am essentially summoning my extremely tiny, little understanding of the Creator, and in doing so, I elevate my ego to be on par, in my own little mind, with that Creator, justifying (beforehand) any decision that I may ultimately make, and effectively denying my own free will process.

Looking at it from the other end, by saying that everything emanates from ‘Me,’ and as Jean Paul Sartre put it, ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself,’ the ego is the Creator and is responsible for everything in one’s life, as well as in all of mankind. Every individual is absolutely responsible, alone, for everything that happens to every person in the entire world. The problem with this strategy is that it is entirely too overwhelming to even start down that road; so, we rarely do, if at all. This, as well, effectively denies that same freewill process. Life is just too big to comprehend at either extreme of the scale and hence, we don’t, won’t, and can’t, leaving us with the distinct feeling that if we don’t think about it, it might go away, but it never does....

So why do we have these uncompromising extremes keeping us from following the one true path to peace, harmony, and enlightenment? Because, quite simply, we were made Be’Tzelem Elokim (in G-Ds image). We were made to be godlike. If we had evolved from animals, our sole purpose would be to survive and procreate. Since we are smarter than most (if not all) animals, we should be able to do that better than any animal on the planet. This, to some extent is true, however when does an animal contemplate either its Creator or the lack there of? When does an animal sacrifice itself for the sake of that Creator or become overwhelmed with depression, attributed by many to be, a lack of connection thereof? These are the extremes that we balance with every decision that we make. These are the extremes of living and this is the paradox of life. We are living in a constant state of flux between the two extremes and that process is what makes us Be’Tzelem Elokim.

Did you know that inside every cell inside your body there is DNA coding that is exactly the same as every other cell? That means that the same code that is in a cell of my right incisor tooth is in a cell of my left thumb. So, why don’t I have a thumb in my mouth and a tooth on my hand (G-D forbid!)? When, exactly, does the genetic coding decide to make a thumb or a tooth? Scientifically, we can’t answer that question. There are no markers that tell us how this works, even though we can see inside the nucleus of the atoms that make up the double helix chain of our DNA, we cannot figure out how this is even possible; and still, we live our lives every day as if it is the most normal thing in the world, to have a thumb and a tooth exactly where they belong. Sounds a lot like faith, don’t you think? We wake up every morning to find that we are pretty much the same as the night before. We rely on that fact, just to keep having faith that there is a ‘Me’ in the world.

Imagine that you wake up one morning, reach up to scratch your eye, and end up with your toe stuck up your nose. That would shake up your faith a bit, wouldn’t it? For that matter, how do you even know that your thumb is really a thumb? I had a discussion recently with a friend that revolved around the idea that molecules, throughout our world, are constantly trading particles back and forth. I heard specified once that it takes about two years for every molecule in your entire body, with the exception of a few bones that take longer, to be completely replaced. So, this now begs the question, ‘Who am I?’ When I eat something, it transforms to matter and energy. When I wake in the morning, I am no longer the same thing as when I went to sleep. All I can carry with me is ‘faith’ that I will still be what I think of as ‘Me’ in the morning. All I can carry with me is that when I look at my left thumb, it is what I ‘believe’ is my left thumb.

So, really, my perception of ‘Me’ is all there is of me. We walk that line, balancing from one non-existent leg to the other, and have faith that we are heading in the right direction. Sometimes we use our ego, and sometimes we give it over to a higher power. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to be reassured that we will wake up in the morning pretty much the same as we were when we went to sleep. We will stop at nothing to prove to ourselves and to the world that we exist, if only to be somewhat comforted as our true selves ride out the fleshy prison bake sale that we have agreed to inhabit for a finite period of time in this finite world. Just have some compassion, please, and don’t tell my left thumb that it isn’t really there. I would hate for it to disappear on ‘Me.’ There is no telling where it might wake up…

Shabbat Shalom! (because Shabbat may be the only thing that we know really exists in this world…)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sometimes, You Need to Leave Your Brain at Home…

Since the coming of the New (Secular) Year is right around the corner, I thought that I would look into the history of calendars around the world... a bit. Of course, the first thing that popped into my mind was the Mayan calendar and its apparent evaporation into nothingness in the year 2012 (and now it’s a major motion picture!). I have not seen the movie yet, but when I started researching calendars, I saw a funny little video review and that is where I got the title of this blog from! I guess the whole idea behind the movie is that the world is coming to an end and there was really no purpose at all for it to have existed in the first place… or, something like that.

Um… I beg to differ. I mean, how does that make any sense at all? The ‘official’ text that describes the movie goes like this: The end is nigh in this apocalyptic disaster film that mixes Christian values, Mayan mythology, and scientific theories about polar shifts. When four strangers journey into Mexico in 2012, they are drawn into ancient mysteries that foretell the coming of the End Times. OK, so the ‘Mayan mythology’ sounds good and ‘the scientific theories about polar shifts’ also sounds interesting, but I am not sure what it’s talking about with the ‘Christian values.’ What are Christian values, anyways? My understanding is that they are based on Jewish values (I could easily be wrong about this) and that is why they say, ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. Let’s just skip right to ‘Jewish values,’ so I am less likely to stick my ‘proverbial – end of the world’ foot in my mouth!

Calendars are an amazing thing that we don’t really give credit to for how we look at the world on a daily basis. I remember when I was in school that the calendar was dated BC and AD, meaning ‘Before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’ (Anno is Latin for ‘in the year’ and Domini is Latin for ‘of our Lord’). I guess they hadn’t discovered the zero yet, so the year AD-1 immediately follows the year 1-BC. Nowadays it is not PC to use these abbreviations and they have been changed to (quite pompously, as if they were always that way) BCE and CE, ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era.’ To me, that is kind of a joke. In essence, it was a way to take god-notions out of the schools and our lives, engineered by the secularists, separatists, atheists, and PC activists of the world. Why didn’t they just say something like, the year, 4.54 billion? Or even, 4.54 × 109 years ± 1% if you want to be more accurate? I mean, according to the ‘almighty’ Wikipedia, the age of the planet is based on (empirical) evidence from radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples. What more could you ask for when looking for a calendar?

I learned a story about Russia, when it was still the USSR, that when they were first building their country, they tried to change the calendar to a 10 day working week. Talk about Metric! Suffice it say, it didn’t work. Their concept was to completely take the idea of a god out of the picture, leaving only the ‘State’ in its place, and since the western world only used a 7 day work week, based on the Jewish concept of Shabbat of course, it had to go. Productivity was supposed to rocket through the roof like an ICBM, but instead, it went south like Cuba, so they changed it back. I guess they didn’t know about the 10 plagues or the 10 commandments or the 10 men in a minyan, or the 10 sayings of Creation, or... on and on...

So, while we are on the subject of Shabbat (the seventh day), the Jewish calendar happens to be based on the number 7 too. Day one started when G-D said, “Let there be light,” and day 7 (metaphorically) begins in about 229 solar/lunar years from now on the Jewish New Year(Rosh Hashanah and Adam’s birthday), which will be the year 6,000. I know, I know, maybe you are asking, “What about the time that came between day 1 and when Adam and Eve were born, day 6, in the Bible?” You might also be asking, “What about the 15 billion years that science says that the universe has been around?” MIT physicist Dr. Gerald Schroeder has offered this explanation from his book, The SCIENCE of GOD:

“The approach that the ‘six days were really six epochs’ has scant biblical basis. Ancient commentaries, those written millennia before the discoveries of paleontology and cosmology disclosed any hints that the universe was billions of years old, state definitively that the six days of Genesis were twenty-four hours each, the total duration of which was ‘as the six days of our work week.’” OK, that means that the ancient commentators all agree that a day is a day is a day! So, now Dr. Schroeder goes on to explain, “To measure the age of the universe, we look back in time. From our perspective using Earth-based clocks running at a rate determined by the conditions of today’s Earth, we measure a fifteen-billion-year age. And that is correct for our local view. The Bible adopts this Earthly perspective, but only for times after Adam. The Bible’s clock before Adam is not a clock tied to any one location. It is a clock that looks forward in time from the creation, encompassing the entire universe, a universal clock tuned to the cosmic radiation at the moment when matter formed. That cosmic time-piece, as observed today, ticks a million million times more slowly than at its inception. The million millonfold stretching of radiation since bohu (formlessness) caused that million-million-to-one ratio in this perception of time.” And then Dr. Schroeder goes on to show the math formulas that show the exact stretching of space-time since the beginning of the universe and how we perceive that time here on Earth, or in other words, 15 billion years of universe space-time = exactly 6 days on Earth! I guess you got to read the book...

What is interesting to me is that more people don’t know this... It seems to solve a lot of discrepancies between science and theology. Well, now we are broaching another topic, the topic of freewill, and I will save that for another time. What I want to do is to tie this into the parsha of the week, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26). I was reading something today about how Rashi explains that Jacob, when blessing his sons, in his final blessing included every son in each other's blessing. So all the brothers, explained the example I read, would be blessed with Judah's blessing of the strength of a lion. The Maharal of Prague goes on to say that Jacob's final blessing didn’t make the brothers equal in every area; but, each was strongest within the area that he was originally blessed with. So, what does this mean for us humans and our calendars? I think you are getting it now... Each culture has its own special qualities, but we all share the desire to understand the universe and our place in it, whether it be by measuring space-time, radio-carbon dating rocks, reading the ancient masters significant works, following our leaders with pious faith, watching and interpreting the stars, or pondering the beginning and maybe the ending of time in evermore unorthodox ways. Deep down, we are all looking for meaning — accept maybe the Hollywood Mayans. Or, I guess they could have just run out of chalk... actually, darn it, I think I might have left my brain at home again!

Shavua tov!