Did you ever feel like you made the most perfect plan and implemented it to a tee, only to find that nothing, if not the exact opposite, actually occurred? Remember the Cone of Silence from Get Smart where Maxwell Smart, the goofy secret agent that fought the international organization of evil, Chaos, would insist with his superior, the Chief, to use the Cone of Silence? Then, do you remember when it was lowered over their heads, in order to hear each other they had to yell so that ‘we,’ on the outside, could hear everything that was said? I remember this being one of the most frustrating and at the same time hilarious things to watch. I sat there, maybe 13 or 14 years old, wanted to yell out at them that we could hear everything that they were saying, but even if I wasn’t on the other side of the TV screen, they wouldn’t have been able to hear anyways, because the Cone of Silence didn’t let any sound in!
This is one of those things that, even though is quite ridiculous, has deep ramifications in terms of philosophy and self awareness. How, pre tell? Well, there seems to be some kind of a social, psychological, environmental sliding scale of everything at work around us. I mean, there are ramifications to every action we make or don’t and those ramifications ripple out into the universe, creating all kinds of diluted havoc. I began to think about this idea recently, as I felt the sting of missing out on fostering and developing a relationship with my father when I had the chance to. He died when my kids were still babies and I still think about him almost every day. He came to visit me when I lived in Colorado a couple of times and as rare as that was, prior to that, when I lived in the same state of California, I saw him even less. The problem, looking back on it now, seems to be that I was so bent on making my ‘own’ way in the world that I couldn’t see what I was leaving behind. I guess that is a natural thing; you know, the young bull and the old bull duking it out for the attention of the women folk… Actually, it is really a lot more than that. Having been a young bull at one time, I remember how I felt like I was prevented from doing what ‘I’ wanted. Then, when I grew into an old bull, I began to remember all of the times that I was made to think that I actually did something, when it was the old bull, my dad, all along, just trying to teach me.
One of my earliest memories is when I learned to ride a bike. I had to start on a giant bike frame, many sizes too tall, and I couldn’t touch the ground when straddling the cross-bar. I needed a helping hand to get on and to get off of the bike. My dad held it up for me to get on and then pushed it along about as fast as he could run as I learned to balance on it. I could always just hit the brakes and he would slow down with me and support the bike while I climbed back down. I trusted that he would always be there. It was a given and I didn’t think a second about it until I found myself gliding one day, way faster than he could run. My dad had let go of me, allowing me to soar on my own. It was both thrilling and one of the scariest things that I can remember. I was really happy that I was finally doing it all by myself, but I was going to have to crash land as well. As my adrenaline soaked thought process rolled over the good and the bad of the situation, I started looking for a soft patch of grass away from the asphalt of the street in front of my childhood home in El Toro, California. I careened up a driveway toward my eventual bail-out location, thinking the whole time, “How could he just let me go like that?”
This week, Dude the dog had a similar setback. He began to itch at his tail and ripped the skin off it in one spot. I took him to the vet and now he has to wear one of those clown collars, much to his apparent chagrin… He even doesn’t seem to want to go for a walk anymore, maybe from the possibility that the neighbor dogs will catch a glimpse of his embarrassing predicament. Bongo, our other dog, was freaked out at the site of him when I brought Dude, with his special attire, home from the vet. It is a good thing that dogs don’t understand English, as we are all calling him horrible names like Cone Head, Astro-dog, and Queeney, while he bounces around the house… Poor guy! He also, just to rub it in even more, has a regimen of ointment and antibiotics that he needs to succumb to multiple times a day for a week... Oy...
I often think about how a dog must be feeling, in order to understand my own perplexing situations. For instance: I had a really hard time trying to understand something that was said at work last week. I was giving my condolences to a work-mate, since his father, a really special man, died. He said to me that his father was now in a “better place.” I tried to process that a little at the time, but it seemed that his world view wouldn’t allow for it, so I desisted out of respect. He is one of the German, Christian implants to Israel and I, in that moment, had another realization that Judaism and Christianity have very different world views about the afterlife. It seems that in Christianity, at least the type that my work-mate ascribes to, looks at the world like there is a cosmic battle between two equal forces of good and of evil. They battle in this world and once a soul leaves this world, it goes on to either Heaven or Hell.
In Judaism, it is much more complicated than that and, in my opinion, makes a lot more rational sense. Hell comes from the word ‘Sheol’ in the Bible. The word ‘Sheol’ comes from the word for fox or burrower in Hebrew. It also relates to the idea of She’elah or Question to return to the question of, ‘who actually does run the world?” Sheol is considered the Abode or Realm of the Dead. Heaven is called Olam Ha Neshimote or the Soul World. It is essentially a spiritual waiting room for each of our Neshamas (the soul that God blew into us) to wait in until Olam Haba, the World to Come, is manifest. This is the world that recombines our Nefesh or Animal Soul (The soul that God formed from the dust of the Earth), which is released from Sheol, since this soul essentially dies, becoming dust once again, when the Neshama goes to the waiting room. Olam Haba is the Next World where we are whole again, body and soul, so to speak. There is no permanent place of suffering in Jewish Philosophy and there is only a very few souls (Neshamas) that are discontinued due to their inability to wash off the muck of bad decisions in this world, which is called Ha Aretz (related to the word LaRutz – to run in Hebrew), the land of action. The vast majority of Neshamas spend some time in Gehenom or Purgatory in order to rid themselves of that muck, before continuing on to the Soul World to wait for Olam Haba (may it be soon in our times).
This is only the tip of the iceberg but I did bring up the idea of suffering, which is one of the most difficult things to understand. Suffice it to say that it is explained thoroughly and extremely rationally in a book called Derach Hashem (The Way of God) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who lived in the 1700's. I don’t have time to get into it here, but essentially we can understand suffering as spending a little of our sum total of profits from good deeds and ‘kept’ commandments here in this world.
So, what do I see when I see Dude suffering all kinds of humiliation at, what must seem to him, my hand? Of course I want him to be able to understand and to know that it is for his own good, so that he can heal and we can take that stupid looking cone off of his head. We pet him, give him lots of good attention, and in general, try to have compassion for him (except, of course, when we are calling him Astro-dog or Cone Head...). I guess that it is kind of like when I was riding my bike and my father let me go. I was mad at him and afraid, but I knew at the same time that this was the only thing that would allow me to soar on that old bike. We had to work together to know our own abilities and limitations, father to son and teacher to student. He had to have just the right amount of compassion and caring, as well as just the right amount of ability to shove me over the edge, to push me out of the nest, in order for me to grow and walk the line that I needed to walk (or bike ride as the case may be).
In this week’s parsha, Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12), Moses gets really pissed at God and starts to complain... "Moses said to God: Why have you done evil to Your servant; why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that you place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling, to the land that You swore to its forefathers'? Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people when they weep to me, saying, 'Give us meat that we may eat? (“Wa, wa, waaaa…”)' I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! (“Wa, wa, waaa…”) And if this is how You deal with me, then kill me now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and let me not see my (own) evil!" Sheesh! That sure sounds like a lot of whining for the most humble man that ever existed in the history of the planet…
What do we make of this? Well, the rabbis made a lot of it, but more than I can relate here. Let’s just say that in every relationship, there is a push and pull, a give and take, even with God. We can think about it like this, if God is making us wear one of those cones yoked around our necks, it is probably for a good reason, even though we can’t figure out what it is. If I was Dude the dog, I would be wondering, right about now, if the big boss man that put the dreaded thing around my neck in the first place might have done it on purpose, just to embarrass me in front of my friends and family. This is the same image as a vengeful god that smites out of petty frustration and allows a realm to exist with the only purpose being to punish, for all of eternity, those that could not rise up above pettiness themselves. This is the image of a god, the likes of Zeus, Neptune, or Apollo, with a magnifying glass, burning human beings like ants, just for kicks. The One True God could never hand over any of his children to pure evil for all time. It would be as absurd as my dad, while assuring me that it will all be OK, pushing me as hard as he is capable on that old bike down a steep hill with no real option for success at the bottom, causing me to careen into oncoming traffic and a brick wall.
Each and every one of us is capable of just our individual relationship with the Creator and as well, with each other. All we can really do is to attempt to grow each day, to become closer to each other and to develop an even deeper understanding of God’s actions in the world and the reason we exist in the first place. In the end, if I had it to do over again, I would have spent as much time as I could have with my dad. When I finally had the insight to want a relationship with him, he got sick and died. I have been suffering the consequences of my poor decisions for almost half of my life now and, based on my experience, I can tell you this: Suffering seems to be a result of not getting it right the first time around; logically, punishment can only be about rectification and healing; and ultimately, life itself can only be about one thing — it can only be about meaning!