Which is scarier – the finite, or the infinite?
I am terrified of outer space and the ocean. Staring at stars for too long nauseates me. Going on a cruise – the one and only time in my life I would do this (I’m looking at you, in-laws – I’m sorry, but you can’t convince me that a Princess Cruise to Riviera Maya will somehow be better than the hellish sojourn we took up the coast in pre-hurricane waters to Canada . . . ) – was for me the equivalent of stringing a regular person up by the ankles with a bungee cord and dangling them over a bridge, while forcing them to read aloud an extensive genealogical history of their ancestry in their second language: vertigo, headaches, a confrontation with mortality, reverse peristalsis, questions about the true meaning of family, the forgetting of functional vocabulary, undulating, and bouts of hysterical blindness may have ensued.
If that wasn’t clear enough, I don’t like infinity. When I start to get my head around it – really ponder the fact that the infinite exists – I become terrified. It’s touching my fingertip to the electric. It’s too close to something that feels dark. It’s trying to figure out something that should be better left in the realm of mystery. Trying to understand the infinite feels like playing God in some way, and between hearing horror stories about asshole surgeons with god-complexes, and having major qualms about cloning sheep, I want to stay as far away from self-deification as possible.
On the other hand, the finite is also horrible. It’s very disconcerting, on an interpersonal level. The thought that, between people, there could be a finite amount of patience; of love; of trust; it’s awful stuff. That once you use it up, it’s gone. It means there are only so many mistakes we could make with one another. Only a certain amount of days we could be adored. Only a certain amount of hours we could be annoying. And past that point, solitude. The loss of warmth. Loneliness. Social outer space.
For me, this was the scariest thing about losing my mother – not the saddest, but the scariest. When she died, I was suddenly a 24 year old orphan (my father had passed away when I was 16). Besides the vertigo of figuring out how to make sense of all the papers, bits, pieces, strands & threads, boxes and files, drawers and detritus of a life, there was also the realization that there was – I believed – no longer anyone on earth who would take me unconditionally, the way a parent does. Who would have an infinite supply of love, patience, and trust? With whom I could make innumerate mistakes, and still find a home?
Now, if I messed up too much, where would I turn? How annoying could I be without losing the relationships that were left? I’d better be on my best behavior with everyone I knew, I thought; otherwise, I’d be out on my ass in solitary orbit.
And it was only when I looked around and noticed I was, for the first time, on this earth without the two people who had made me, that I realized the finite is the thing we live with that is much scarier. Whereas the infinite is dizzying, the finite is depressing. Coming into contact with the infinite is like staring at your own reflection, when suddenly a light flicks on, and you realize it’s been a two- way mirror the whole time. The other side is right there, staring at you, without your even realizing it, separated from the world you thought was self-contained by just the thinnest bit of glass. The shock of death is the flick of the switch when the lights come on full and bright, and you realize the room you’ve been standing in is a hell of a lot bigger than you could have imagined. The shock of the finite is realizing that the answer to the question “is this really all there is?” is an apathetic “Yup.”
(This post is a Dvar Torah for this week, so now I will get all Torahrific…)
This week’s Torah portion starts out with a narrative that is about as scintillating as hearing about shodding a horse for 45 minutes. Isaac builds a well, and the denizens of the land he has migrated to claim it. So he moves on and builds another well; and again, they claim it. And he builds another, and – you get the picture. Then they fight. He finally builds a well that they don’t try to take, and he says, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
Despite this story’s, up till now, having the narrative arc of a plank of plywood, it did immediately make me think of Israel and Palestine, which made me think about the fighting that has erupted this week in the region. This week in future posts I’m going to work on educating myself more about the conflict. My position has always been one that comes from the gut, but it’s something I am truly loathe to talk about with others, because I feel my understanding of the history and intricacies of the conflict are on par with a well-read fifth-grader’s, and so it’s probably best to keep them to myself. It’s the perfect topic for, and example of, my need for civicization.
My feelings are this: Israel has a right to exist, but I feel more for the Palestinians. It is unfair for them to be displaced. They are, as this article describes, imprisoned by the limitations Israel imposes. The people of Palestine are largely poor and powerless. It is for them that I feel, for them that I cannot get fully on board with Israel. But these are things I’ve never said aloud, for fear of being called out to substantiate my beliefs and having nothing more than feelings to stand on. I’m afraid that these thoughts somehow undermine Jews – even though I see the bombing there as being antithetical to my understanding of tikkun olam, or the charge to repair the brokenness in the world, which is one of the things I love so much about Judaism.
Surprisingly, in reading other commentary on this week’s portion, I read
“While Abraham and Jacob reflect what will become the tradition of the “Wandering Jew” that has characterized so much of our history, Isaac can be viewed as the Jew who will not need to wander from place to place, but will be able to call one place home. That place is Israel, which makes him a role model for Zionists. But all Jews can appreciate that residing in one place allows one to establish roots and develop a sense of home that is not possible when one moves from place to place as is so common today. “
Just as I felt homeless upon losing both of my parents – the home I lost being the sense that there was a source of unconditional comfort and infinite love waiting for me should I need it – so do the “Wandering Jews” feel disconnected from this warmth, this comfort, this security. And being disconnected from a land they consider sacred, I can better understand their feeling detached from the infinite, and trapped in a world that is only full of the finite and the quotidien – which isn’t a world I’d like to live in. I’ve always seen the establishing of Israel as being recompense for suffering through the Holocaust, and as this it has made sense to me. But when I think of it in this other way – trying to find a place that feels like home the way parents feel like home – not the way an apartment does – where there is an infinite source of human warmth, a constantly replenishing source, where you are not at incessant risk of being judged, ostracized, dumped, forgotten, or worse – a place where you feel safe in the profoundest of ways; that I can actually empathize with.
Continuing on this theme of security, another trope in this parsha is that none of the relationships are what they seem. None of them play by the rules. The older brother serves the younger brother, the husband pretends his wife is his sister. The woman schemes and triumphs over the enfeebled man. Rebecca in this story reminds me of Lady Macbeth, with Isaac as Duncan, and Jacob as Macbeth. Perhaps Esau is Malcolm. Much as we like to push against traditional roles in families, let’s also face it – when your mom starts dressing like a Pussycat Doll to go on dates and tells you her romantic secrets as though you’re bunkmates at summer camp, you want a traditional Mother in your life. I imagine the same goes for sisters and brothers, fathers and grandparents, you name it. Much as we might like to think we’re “beyond” it, sometimes we crave those traditional roles, to make us feel we know our own place. For if we live in relation to one another, and if everyone gets crazy and plays musical chairs with their identities and relationships, how the hell are we supposed to know how to act?
The climax of the story, for me, is when Esau goes to get his blessing from his father. This is when we see the consequence of the family treating each other like chess pieces more than parents and children and brothers. Esau visits his father on his deathbed, to receive his blessing. He’s told to go kill an animal, prepare a feast, and then return in order to receive it. However, by the time he returns with his fragrant roast, his brother Jacob has already dressed up as Esau (which, sadly for poor Esau, involved draping himself in smelly goat skins, which were strong enough approximations of Esau’s odor and topography to trick their blind father, Isaac) and managed to steal the blessing intended for Esau from their bed-ridden papa.
Esau’s reaction surprised me. New to the Bible, I have certain expectations for the rhythm of stories and the responses of characters – namely, that they will either respond to events with shouting and fist waving, like the grandfather on the Simpsons; or, they will wail and fling themselves on the ground but then get over things quickly, like a toddler having a hysterical fit who is quite able to pull herself together in about 4 seconds when offered the candy or stuffed animal she was screaming and kicking for moments earlier.
This isn’t Esau’s reaction, though. Esau cries. He cries and asks his father why – and pleads with him. He asks over and over (I mean really – it goes on for an incredibly long time) ““Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” There was something so realistic and sad about this reaction to me – the disbelief, the denial, the misery, the fear, the begging, the no-it-can’t-be-true feeling that we have in realistic nightmares – that it made a lump form in my throat to read it. And when Isaac, like a total asshole, refuses to deal with feelings, and sticks to the word of the law without stopping to consider the possibility of listening to his son’s feelings – oh, how frustrating, to deal with people like this! Litigious paper-pushers who can’t see the person, only the arbitrary but unbendable rules – Esau just weeps. He puts his hairy paws to his face, and weeps.
This image haunted me throughout Shabbat on Friday and Saturday – pleading with an irrational rule-abider, realizing that they will never listen and make an exception, and that, to your horror, this means living in a world where the finite stores have been used up. The idea of feeling that moment gave my spirit the discomfort and pain of biting into very cold ice cream.
It also made me think yet again about the Israel/Palestine conflict – this time, focusing on the sadness, and irrationality, of the situation. Why can’t there be enough “blessings” to go around? Why must there be a finite amount which the rules say is used up by one or the other? And not to sound like a writer for Lamb Chop’s Play Along here – and I know it’s more complicated than this, but I’ll say it anyway – why is sharing so totally out of the question?
Another problem with this f-ed up family of Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau is that they are slobs. Through deception, greed, and hastiness, the characters trick each other, manipulate one another, carelessly give up their power, ignore their instincts and dispense their precious blessings. Why are they so careless with what they have? Why are they so sloppy with what matters? Why are they so quick to treat each other as opportunities, instead of as blood?
And so, in this family where opportunism prevails, blessings are finite. I take blessings as a metaphor for patience, love, and trust. The consequence of sloppiness is that there is only so much then left to go around. When you are careless with the blessings you start out with, they run out quickly. And suddenly you find yourself, a grown and hairy man who smells of goat, crumpled over and crying into your fur-slathered hands, because your daddy won’t hug you and tell you everything will be alright.
When you see others as a means to an end, the consequence is that all the good things in life become hourglasses. You’ve stopped caring about relationships, and focus only on the immediate, on your own needs. This propels you into a world where there are only so many mistakes you can make before it all runs out, and you’re alone, high & dry.
How could these ideas be applied to the current situation with Israel & Palestine?
Challenging the idea that what we perceive as finite actually is – and that, instead, there might be something lurking on the other side of the two-way mirror?
Wondering about the relationship between carelessness and the finite?
Reconsidering the importance of the rules of roles in our relationships with one another, and the consequences of shirking these roles?
Wondering how much must we look to each other to understand how to act?
What do we think about the very deep need of the soul to find a home?