Thursday, August 28, 2014

too close to G-d

Too Close to G-d
Chapter 5, Mishna 6
"With ten trials did our ancestors test the Holy One, blessed be He, in the desert, as it is stated, 'They have tested Me these ten times and did not hearken to My voice' (Numbers 14:22)."

Much this chapter offers lists and totals. The previous mishna discussed the miracles and plagues God wrought when we left Egypt, noting that they came in sets of ten. This mishna continues with the experience of Israel's sojourn in the desert, with the ten times Israel tested God's patience.

The Talmud (Erchin 15a) contains a similar statement to our mishna and enumerates the ten trials. They are as follows:

(1) The Children of Israel, pinned against the Red Sea with the Egyptians in close pursuit, complained to Moses: "Was it for a lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert?" (Exodus 14:11).

(2) After safely crossing the Sea, Israel suspected that the Egyptians ascended on the opposite bank -- until G-d had the water spit them out.

(3) Complaining for water at Marah (ibid., 15:24).

(4) Complaining for food at the Desert of Sean (ibid., 16:2-3).

(5) Leaving over Manna -- in defiance of the command not to leave the Manna overnight (16:20).

(6) Searching for Manna on the morning of the Sabbath (v. 27).

(7) Complaining for water at Refidim (17:1-3).

(8) The sin of the Golden Calf (32:1-6).

(9) The "mixed multitude" of nations which accompanied Israel complaining for meat, precipitating Israel's complaining as well (Numbers 11:4-6).

(10) The sin of the Ten Spies (who returned from spying the Land of Israel with a negative report) (ibid., Ch. 13-14). At this final trial, G-d refers to Israel as "having tested Me these ten times," as quoted in our mishna.

The number as well as the severity of the ten trials should surprise us. After witnessing G-d's might and majesty in such vivid glory, Israel proves a difficult and cantankerous nation -- seemingly showing little appreciation for the blessings G-d had showered upon it and the constant miracles He had performed and continued to perform on its behalf.

As a point of fact, this wasn't really the case. The complaints listed above were virtually the only sins of the nascent nation in its first 16 months of independence, practically no trial enjoyed unanimous participation, and we hear of very few further rebellions during their following 38 years in the desert.

Still, all that being said, considering the closeness to G-d the Jewish nation had achieved, *any* rebellion should be unconscionable. Israel appears to constantly doubt G-d's abilities: Can He sustain them with bread, water and meat? Is He powerful enough to bring them into the Land of Israel? Did He really defeat the Egyptians once and for all?

But where was the room for doubt? Didn't they just see G-d's infinite might in Egypt and at the Sea? What more could G-d have done to convince them of His power? Yet they seem to reward G-d's many tens of miracles with their own ten bouts of distrust and agnosticism? So again, apart from the sinfulness of complaining against G-d, how does their skepticism even make *sense* to us?

(Likewise, the people again and again threaten: "Let us appoint a ruler and return to Egypt." Did they really think it preferable to leave the Clouds of Glory, the Well and the Manna to wander off unprotected in a desert -- and all that to return to servitude? What possessed them to apparently prefer abandoning such supernatural love and protection for heat, thirst, and exposure -- to say nothing of slavery?)

There is a critical theme which underlies much of the story of the Wilderness. Israel seems very reluctant to admit G-d's mastery and omnipotence. Now this was not because the people did not know G-d *could* do anything. Israel was not a nation of idiots. They had obviously seen G-d's true might in Egypt and at the Sea. Yet they were unsure if G-d would perform such miracles *for them* -- in fact, you might even say they were quietly hoping He would not.

Why not? Because living with G-d in such supernatural rapture is very intimidating. When G-d cares for all of your needs, provides for you in a desert, and reveals His grandeur in the Clouds of Glory and the Tabernacle, it leaves very little breathing space. It is difficult to feel a sense of freedom and free will -- and therefore a sense of existence -- when G-d is constantly watching you and watching over you. The Children of Israel felt little room for "self": they could not easily handle the intensity and intimacy of a visible, omnipresent G-d. They thus wanted "out" -- not so much rebellion against G-d, but a sense of distance -- that they existed independently, fended for themselves, and related to G-d on their own, somewhat more human, terms.

This evil manifested itself most clearly in the sin of the Golden Calf. The commentators explain that no sane person would fashion a molten image with his own hands and then turn around and proclaim "this is your god, Israel, which brought you up from the Land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4). (Er, like didn't we just fashion the darn thing *ourselves* five minutes ago?) And again, Jews have always been stubborn, but they're not stupid -- not by a long shot.

Rather, what the people wanted was an intermediary -- something *in between* them and G-d. After Moses' disappearance (he returned from receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai a day later than expected), the people wanted some way to relate to G-d, some physical symbol which would enable them to perceive G-d in their hearts and minds. It would not be a god itself, yet -- they hoped -- it would somehow act as His representative -- leaving the people just one step further removed from the Real Thing. (See Ramban to Exodus 32.)

(By the way, this in a nutshell is the basis for idolatry -- and pardon my saying it, but even to some degree Christianity's embodiment of G-d. We want G-d, but not an infinite one utterly beyond our comprehension and with infinitely demanding standards. We want one we can relate to, one who is *like* us -- perhaps even one we can sway in our favor.)

This as well characterized many of Israel's early failings in the desert. They repeatedly questioned G-d's ability to provide for them -- with bread, water and meat. They hoped to see the Manna as at least a partially natural occurrence: perhaps it would fall on its own -- on the Sabbath as well, or it would not decay so inexplicably overnight (or at least it would also do so on Friday night). Likewise, many of them undoubtedly took pestle and mortar to process the Manna through the sweat of their own brows, as the Torah seems to attest (see Numbers 11:8). In truth, the Sages tell us, Manna would assume practically any taste without any preparation, and that it fell right at the doorstep of a fully righteous person while farther away from the person not so righteous. Manna was sustenance entirely spiritual -- ready to nourish a nation sated with G-d and Torah alone. But man, at times, is sooner prepared to subordinate his mind to G-d than his stomach.

When it came to the Ten Spies, the theme was similar but slightly different. By then the Jews had come to accept that their existence in the desert was supernatural. Yet they had different plans for the Land of Israel. That was not a place where Manna fell from the heavens and a miraculous well followed their every step. They would dig wells, clear the ground, plow, harvest, winnow, grind, and bake bread. And equally important, they would conquer the land *themselves*! Unlike the Exodus, G-d would sit on the sidelines this time. *They* would have to take arms and fight ; *they* would spearhead the battle. The battle, win or lose, would be their own doing. Thus, in the Land they were to have a *natural* existence: they would gain a little breathing space at last! 

In truth, the Land of Israel would be more natural, but the task of the people would be to see a physical world functioning in complete consonance with the spiritual. They would plant, but only G-d would bless their harvest with rain and abundance. They would fight the battles, but it was G-d who would win the war. "Not by might, nor by power, but through My Spirit says the L-rd of hosts" (Zachariah 4:6). (How much can a nation really commend its military prowess if it blows a shofar (ram's horn) and the walls of Jericho come tumbling down?)

The Spies, however, saw things differently. When they spied out the Land (and the sending of spies itself was their own innovation -- see Deuteronomy 1:22), that felt that *they* would have to fight the battle. No one was going to drown their enemies in the sea or strike down their firstborns. It was their war. It would be through their own might, win or lose, but they were going to go it on their own.

But one inconvenient little consideration here. If we have to fight this ourselves, reported the spies, we don't stand a chance. Israel was inhabited by giants; through their own means they would never defeat them in battle. They *wanted* to be alone and vulnerable, to feel that distance from G-d. But if that were the case, better to turn back to the slavery, the dependence -- the godless "freedom" -- of Egypt.

And so, the nation cried when the Spies returned. The date was the ninth of Av, a day ever since designated as a day of national mourning for the Jewish people. G-d responded: "You cried for nothing, and I will make this a day of crying for the generations" (Ta'anis 29a).

G-d's response contained great poetic justice, to be sure. But there was *actual* justice to it as well. We cried because we wanted to feel distant from G-d. We wanted to be a nation like every other, and without G-d battling for us we could never conquer a land of giants. And G-d responded with the ultimate corrective punishment. The Ninth of Av would be a day in which G-d would grant us our wish: He *would* conceal His Presence and Divine providence. We wanted distance? He would grant it to us! And we would recognize just how painful that distance is.

Thus, the Ninth of Av would become a day of tragedy for Israel -- the day in which both Temples were destroyed, the Jews were exiled from Spain, and so many other tragedies have befallen the Jewish nation throughout the ages. G-d granted us the distance we mistakenly longed for -- in the hope that eventually we would realize that true happiness stems from closeness to G-d alone. 

Thus, the tragic story of the Wilderness -- as well as much of Jewish history -- is one of distance and separation from G-d. Our ancestors shied away from complete intimacy with G-d, preferring a taste of their own independence. The lesson for us, however, is just the opposite: Our own fulfillment -- our own "self" -- stems from nothing other than annulling ourselves before G-d. When we exercise our free will -- and use it to willingly submit before our Creator -- we experience a sense of infinity -- and ultimately a sense of ourselves. Through this we can slowly rectify the sin of our ancestors -- and only then will we achieve true fulfillment.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nanjing and The Flowers of War
The Flowers of War (simplified Chinese金陵十三钗traditional Chinese金陵十三釵pinyinJīnlíng Shísān Chāi) is a 2011 Chinese historical drama war film directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Christian BaleNi Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe, Shigeo Kobayashi and Cao Kefan.[4][5][6] The film is based on a novella by Geling Yan13 Flowers of Nanjing, inspired by the diary of Minnie Vautrin.[7] The story is set in Nanking, China, during the 1937Rape of Nanking in the Second Sino-Japanese War. A group of escapees, finding sanctuary in a church compound, try to survive the plight and persecution brought on by the violent invasion of the city.[8][9]
It was selected as the Chinese entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the84th Academy Awards,[10][11][12] but did not make the final shortlist.[13] It also received a nomination for the 69th Golden Globe Awards.[14] The 6th Asian Film Awards presented The Flowers of War with several individual nominations, including Best Film.[10][15]
The film's North American distribution rights were acquired by Wrekin Hill Entertainment, in association with Row 1 Productions, leading to an Oscar-qualifying limited release in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in late December 2011, with general release in January 2012.[16][17][


In 1937, Japan invades China, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Imperial Army overruns China's capital city, Nanjing, in December and carries out the systematic and brutal Nanking massacre.
As the invading Japanese overpower the Chinese army, desperate schoolgirls flee to the nominally protective walls of their convent at a Western-run Roman Catholic cathedral. Here, John Miller (Bale), an American mortician on a task to bury the head priest, joins the group of innocent schoolgirls. He finds a boy there, George, an orphan who was raised by the dead priest, and taught English. The boy is the same age as the schoolgirls. Soon a group of flamboyant prostitutes arrive at the cathedral, seeking refuge by hiding in the cellar. Pretending to be a priest, Miller tries to keep everyone safe while trying to repair the convent's truck to use for an escape.
After an incident when rogue Japanese forces assault the cathedral (who are then killed by the dying effort of a lone Chinese Major), Japanese Colonel Hasegawa promises to protect the convent by placing guards outside the gate, and requests that the schoolgirls sing a chorale for him. Several days later, he hands Miller an official invitation for the schoolgirls to sing at the Japanese Army's victory celebration. Fearing for the safety of the virginal schoolgirls, Miller declines. Hasegawa informs him that it is an order and that the girls are going to be picked up the next day. Before they leave, the Japanese soldiers count the schoolgirls and erroneously include one of the prostitutes (who has strayed from the cellar), totalling 13.
When the de facto leader of the schoolgirls, Shu (Xinyi), convinces them that they are better off committing suicide by jumping off the cathedral tower, they are saved at the last moment when the de facto leader of the prostitutes, Yu Mo (Ni), convinces her group to protect the schoolgirls by taking their place at the Japanese party. As there are only 12 prostitutes, George, the dead priest's adoptive son, volunteers as well. Miller initially opposes their self-sacrificing decision, but ultimately assists in disguising them, using his skills as a mortician to adjust their makeup and cut their hair to appear like schoolgirls. The prostitutes also create knives out of broken windows and hide them in their cloaks.
The next day, the "13 Flowers of Nanjing" are led away by the unsuspecting Japanese soldiers. After they depart, Miller hides the schoolgirls on the truck he repaired and, using a single-person permit provided by the father of a schoolgirl, drives out of Nanjing. In the last scene, the truck is seen driving on a deserted highway heading west, away from the advancing Japanese army. The fate of the 13 Flowers remains unknown, apparently martyring themselves for the students' freedom.