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12/03/2016
Sunday Vigil

The Everyday Prayer

 

 

 
printable version
September 7 2015 09:30 | Rogner Hotel

Contribution from Abraham Skorka Rector of the Rabbinic Seminary "Marshall T.Meyer", Argentina



Abraham Skorka


Rector of the Rabbinic Seminary "Marshall T.Meyer", Argentina

 One of the most significant narratives which appear in the Hebrew Bible is undoubtedly that of the flood and Noah. God is –so to speak- angry with the acts He is seeing from human beings. The behavior of most of humanity is sweepingly described as lawless and corrupt (Gen. 6:11). In rabbinic terms, the Yetzer HaRa, the instinct toward ambition, control, and dominance is prevailing over the Yetzer HaTov, the instinct which induces humans to perform the good. The Yetzer HaRa must be dominated to serve the Yetzer HaTov and not to enslave it, as the rabbis explain its purpose[1].

The Creator regrets his act of creation (Gen. 6, 6). He is portrayed as deciding to destroy all biological presence from the Earth by sending a terrible flood. But, there is one person different from the others, and for him He saves a remnant of humanity and a pair of all the biological species. God decides to give his human project a new chance to. Noah, the descendant of Adam, will be the founder of a renewed humanity.

It is easy to imagine the impact of the flood catastrophe in the minds of the characters who survive. The prospect of human beings living in fear that God´s wrath might once again decide on the destruction of the Earth led God to institute a new covenant with humanity. The first 17 verses of the 9th chapter of the book of Genesis present the establishment of a pact between the Creator and the renewed humanity, as he did with Adam and Eve immediately after the Creation, not through an explicit covenant but by means of a blessing (Gen 1:28)[2]. Many of the elements of God’s original blessing to the whole Cosmos, which includes Adam and Eve, are repeated in this subsequent covenant with Noah, but new is the appearance of God´s promise not to destroy again a great part of humanity.  From then onwards the presence of the rainbow will remind everyone of this divine pledge to all God's human creatures. 

But beyond God´s promise to humanity never again to destroy the Earth with a devastating flood, can be heard –especially after the development of atomic weapons with their huge destructive power- God´s implicit warning to humankind: if there is another destruction of the world, it will be done by human hands.

This narrative has two elements which transcend the religious condition and faith of its readers. The first is the imperative placed upon humanity's collective conscience to take care of Nature, of the human species' planetary home. Individuals come into this world having the right to live with dignity on this planet. Even with all the pains and injustices that people suffer, no one can take away this right from the generations to come.

The second transcendent element is that of covenant. Without a strong and clear commitment, a human pact accepted by all nations and all peoples, humanity will in the future be imperiled by disastrous destruction. This threat has occurred during several crises in the past, as when thousands of missiles with nuclear warheads were poised to unleash unfathomable devastation.

 Without a social covenant it is impossible to establish a civilized society. From Plato to Rousseau, many thinkers recognized in different ways the cardinal importance of the social contract as a fundamental tool in the formation of a civilized society. Epicurus, Cicero, Hobbes and Locke, for instance, each developed, according to their individual perspectives, theories about the unavoidable necessity of a social contract in the establishment of an organized society, nation, and civilized humanity.

The concept of covenant is central in the biblical literature. The whole book of Genesis could be seen as a description of God´s efforts to covenant with human beings, to establish a relation of benefits and obligations with them. The basic rules of the primordial relationship between God and human beings included the commandment to care for and to till the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), the natural and blessed habitat prepared by God for Adam and his family. One thing only was forbidden to them: to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:2, 11). The snake in the biblical narrative entices the first human couple to disregard the prohibition by explicitly stating, “you will be like God (gods) knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5)

The second covenant with Noah was broken by the most technologically developed country of its time: Babel. They tried to reach God (or godlike heights) through their technology. They used natural elements to challenge the Creator´s sovereignty. The cost in human lives and labor meant nothing to those fixated on achieving divine stature.  Commenting on these biblical verses (Gen. 10:8-10), our rabbinic sages taught[3] that the king of Babel –Nimrod- was a dictator who imposed his self-serving will on his people. One man dragged a whole society to presume to challenge God, thereby rendering their creaturely, human lives meaningless. 

The third instance of God reaching out in covenant to human beings was with Abraham. According to the rabbis, “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all.”[4], Therefore, he succeeded in transmitting to his seed the commitment and message of living in covenant with the Holy One.

The covenantal relationship that God seeks from human beings has two aims. From the divine side, it binds God in solidarity with human existence. From the human side, it establishes limits upon mortal consciences. Living in covenant brings rights and obligations upon all participants. God promises not to destroy the world and demands moral behavior from humanity. Humans must also promise not to destroy the world by letting their ambitions and lust run out of control.     

God's promise of solidarity with humanity involves the particular faith of each individual. But the second, human promise is an imperative and a necessity for the continuity of human life on the Earth. To accept limits, to control the destructive possibilities within the human psyche is a vital and dramatic necessity in order to guarantee the continued existence of humanity.

Moses, in his last lesson to the people of Israel expressed the twofold aims of the covenant by saying[5]:

 “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”

In the context of this verse, to choose life means to have God present in human activity. But choosing life must also be understood as overcoming the destructive impulses within each individual that are part of the human condition. The fight to control the Yetzer HaRa, the instinct toward power and aggression, is an essential aspect of the biblical faith in God who demands Justice and Mercy. Therefore, to accept being in covenant means to struggle to establish limits on one's personal and social behavior.   

Freud finished his famous article Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) by dramatically analyzing this struggle as a key point for the future of humanity in a highly developed technological world.   He wrote[6]:   

The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos][7]. But who can foresee with what success and with what result? [The final sentence was added in 1931- when the menace of Hitler was already beginning to be apparent.]

 

 

Laudatio si´, the most recent encyclical of Pope Francis deals with the postmodern version of this dramatic problem that today confronts humanity. An indiscriminate and wild consumerism which threatens to destroy the environment characterizes the present world.  The encyclical does not explicitly declare that today there are leaders who see themselves as idols who are dragging people to global destruction. But it makes crystal clear that the postmodern individual suffers from indifference and a lack of real commitment to covenant with God.  It alerts us to the danger of a global catastrophe as a consequence of the destruction of the environment on the one hand, and from hunger and extreme poverty on the other. It reminds us of the paradigms that shaped the destructive purposes in the minds of dictators of the former century, some of which seem operative in leaders today.

It is interesting to compare the above quotation from Freud with the following words from Francis in Laudato Si’:

161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.

A new covenant between Humanity and the Environment is demanded by our present world. At the same time, this has to reflect a new covenant among individuals, peoples and nations in order to eradicate arrogance and domination in our behavior toward one another. For both attitudes come together. God must be (re)discovered by human beings. To use Freud's language, Eros [love] must dominate Thanatos[death]. Humanity has to discover itself in its need for profound, covenantal relationship.     



[1] As it was formulated by Rav Nahman ben Shmuel bar Nahman in the name of Rav Shmuel bar Nahman, Bereshit Raba (Vilna), Parashat Bereshit, Parashah 9, Siman 7.

[2]Regarding of a covenant between God and His Creation see: Midrash haGadol, Abrabanel and Ha’amek Davar (N.Z. Y. Berlin) on Genesis 6, 18 (Vahakimoti et Beriti) and Prof. Rabbi M. D. Cassuto: MiNoach ad Avraham (P.46-47), The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1953

 

[3] Pesahim 94, 2; Bereshit Rabba, Parshat Bereshit, parashah 23; etc.

[4] Mishnah, Avot 5, 3.

[5] Deuteronomy 30, 19

[6] Civilization And Its  Discontents. Translated from German and Edited by James Strachey. W. W. NORTON & COMPANY INC. New York, 1962.

[7] Freud refers in the page 80 of this edition to the “eternal struggle between the trends of love and death” and calls them ‘Heavenly Powers’. Thanatos is the eternal adversary of Eros.

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