Lost in the River

I read today’s teaching last week, to get an idea of what I’d be working with, and I was a little surprised. It seemed to me to be an exact restatement of the principle of karma: What goes around comes around. Reading it again today, I can’t say I feel much differently. And that sort of puts me in a strange place to be.

2.7 Another comment of Hillel, upon seeing a human skull floating on the water. He addressed it thus:

Because you drowned others, they have drowned you;
In the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.

Like I said, it’s a perfect restatement of karma. You drown others; they drown you. They drown you, they shall be drowned themselves. A cosmic cycle of breathing air and breathing water till no more breath may be given. But that’s only the plain reading. That’s only the very tip of the iceberg. And if you’ve learned anything from reading any of these posts, that is never the last word.

But for me to plow on, let me first give a little lesson in a thing called Torah. It won’t take long, but it’ll change a lot. Even a small window of understanding can open a floodgate of inspiration.

The word “Torah” itself means “Law” and in its narrowest refers specifically to the five books of Moses (in English, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), but since Jews are notably fickle in a few things (one of them being whether or not we can ever be particular about anything, all in a good sense, I assure you), the word “Torah” can also be used colloquially to imply the entire Tanakh (which is the Torah plus the Nevi’im [the Prophets] and the Ketuvim [the Writings]) and also the entire oral Torah as well–from the Talmud (which itself is composed of two parts: commentary on the Torah, and then commentary on the commentary; and it is from the Talmud that the Pirkei Avot originates) all the way through other writings, and some might even go so far as to include moderns texts, too.

The point is, the Torah is a big thing. It’s no wonder that the Torah is also known as the “Etz Chaim”–the Tree of Life. The metaphor is at once adequate: It has a firm foundation in the earth, in our histories shared and newly founded, from which it grows and branches in many directions. And like any good tree, it gives us substance and sustenance and paves the way for a full and rewarding life.

Then comes the concept of PaRDeS, which I spell with nonstandard capitalization intentionally, because it’s an intriguing acronym that also happens to mean “orchard” in Hebrew, which is a peculiar thing to say having just said the Torah is often called a Tree of Life. So what is this PaRDeS I speak of? It’s a four-way method of interpreting the Torah on different levels, like how we might teach arithmetic to first-graders but calculus to college kids–it’s all math, in the end, but each go-around gets substantially deeper and more meaningful than the last.

The P stands for Peshat (“simple” or “plain”) and is the literal meaning of the text. In this case, someone drowned. Someone else drowned. Everybody else drowned. Done. The R then stands for Remez (“hint”) which implies a more allegorical approach to interpretation. In my opinion, this whole text seems innately allegorical in nature, but that’s just me. Next the D stands for Derash (which I prefer to spell “drash,” meaning “inquire” or “seek”) and it’s in this level that most common discussion on the Torah occurs today. In Hebrew schools, as children, we learn on the levels of peshat and remez, but as adults, we thrive on drash–the metaphorical, the day-to-day implications. A rabbi’s sermon, for example, or every single post in this series. Lastly is the S for Sod (rhymes with abode, meaning “secret” or “mystery”), which is the deepest level of interpretation and is said to reveal the hidden intent and meaning of the passage.

Incidentally, PaRDeS also shares the same root of the English “paradise” and it’s from this sense that the Garden of Eden is also called paradise, but that’s a tangent I’ll refrain from following today.

Why’d I mention any of this?

Because each day when I delve deeper, maybe you wonder why. And especially today, when given such a strange teaching to work with, we must go deeper to gain anything. At least with most of the others even a literal reading can teach something. But with this one? Not a chance.

What stands out to me is that he’s speaking not to anybody or anything other than the skull floating in the water. I envision in my mind that the skull is without flesh, that it’s bone and bone alone, and although this might be a mistake of imagining on my part, it’s from this standpoint that I’ll continue to dive into the depth of this blood-stained river. Also interesting in this picture is that the cause of death is unknown–and if the skull is, as I would see it in my mind, only bone and bone alone, the time of death has already long since passed, hasn’t it?

So let’s imagine we’re each standing at the edge of a river watching for anything that might float past. Some time later, a skull washes along the river. What’s the first thing you say?

I imagine some people might be startled, others intrigued, and yet, here Hillel is, seeing this skull swept by, and he says this! Because you drowned others, they have drowned you; in the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.

To me, it almost sounds like a prayer, as if he is praying for this skull, as if he is praying for the person it once belonged to. That’s curious, in a lot of ways, none of which I’ll get into here. After all, would you pray for a skull? Probably not. I likely wouldn’t. But if I should, I don’t think I’d say anything like this. Maybe “I hope you died peacefully” or perhaps, well, I don’t know what else I might say to it. I’m sure I would ask who they were, what they did, how they ended up in the river, but those are far from prayer-like, aren’t they?

Who’s to say the guy even drowned!

And then Hillel assumed he’d drowned others too.

It’s perplexing, this whole thing. Not a single bit of it makes any sense whatsoever. I keep thinking “What does it mean to drown?” but then I think again “Is that even the point?” If this is a prayer for the dead, what’s Hillel trying to say? “It’s your fault you’re dead, but don’t worry, your murderers will end up dead, too”? Or maybe a little less harshly: “You’ve left this life, but don’t worry, everyone else will, too”?

Again, it’s beginning to look a lot like karma.

I find myself torn in two. Part of me wants to say it’s about the drowning, part of me wants to say it’s about the man. On the one hand, if it is about the drowning, it’s a simple observation that what goes around comes around, that if you hurt others, they’ll hurt you, but that the cycle doesn’t end there, that they’ll get hurt, too. But on the other hand, if it’s about the man, I’m baffled to even read that Hillel said such a thing in the first place. Was it not but two weeks ago that he was teaching us “Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation”? Does the fact that this poor soul is dead exempt him from judgment? Is he no longer a being but only a thing?

The whole thing seems to contradict itself more and more, the more and more I look at it.

At the ISJL conference earlier this week, we were treated to the teachings of one Alicia Jo Rabins, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Women’s Studies. She’s pioneered an indie rock group called Girls in Trouble (they’re amazing, check them out, I’ve had her music playing nonstop since Tuesday) in which she’s put all her drashim into songs, and they’ve come out beautifully and hauntingly. Before her performance, however, she led us all in some group study of a text about Bat Yiftach (an interesting story in Judges, chapter 11–children be warned), in which she gave us each a few minutes to read through the story, discuss it amongst ourselves in pairs, and then led us in asking questions about the text–each question she took, one after the other, no space in between, probing deeper and deeper into the nuances and implications of the text.

And that’s where she left it. She gave us no answers, left us only with the seeds of the seeker, those questions we’d dug up and tossed into the air, those points that could become drashim if every soul in that room put their own thoughts and beliefs onto paper, into air.

I’ve toiled over this, and I’ve made no progress. However, just as Hillel taught two weeks ago, “Do not say ‘It is not possible to understand this,’ for ultimately it will be understood,” I will not give up on this, not at all, but I will leave it be for now. Sometimes we can do nothing more than ask questions. Sometimes those questions–What does this mean, What does this teach me, Where do I go from here–sometimes those questions are all we have, and nothing else.

It’s times like these where we pack our things, hold them close, and keep going. Only time will tell. In the end, everything will be understood. It’s only a matter of time until we get there.


One thought on “Lost in the River

  1. What initially came to mind (first glances are always the most satisfying, but never the most precise) was a shared idea with the Aborigines of Australia, who would honor the dead, not because of what they were but _because_ they were. A ritual would be held for a dead prey because it was too sustaining as it once was sustained. They made no judgment of its being, of its wrongdoings and its contributions.

    In that sense I imagine this scenario could have been preceded by a sigh of sorts. A statement not of judgment, as karma itself implies judgment (And who are we to judge or rule over karma, as many live under the pretense of doing?), but rather a statement of fact.

    The Circle of Life would surely come to mind. Perhaps what he was implying was not that these men deserved their death, as others will, but instead he was saying that this cycle was as it is. One of many things that sound simple but are complex.

    After all, imagine this: one person kills a person, and this is vindicated, and in turn that is vindicated, ad infinitum. Were he judging these men, he would essentially say we are all or many villainous at heart for committing this act, and the following acts, and this would never change.

    For this reason I very much doubt he was morally condemning this person, and I lean more to the outlook of an elegant philosophical perspective of the necessity of consequence. Which may tie into man’s sinful nature in that regard.

    Though we may perceive morality to be subjective (I myself would argue it is), and that thus every moral claim is judgment, it could also be a matter-of-factly statement _about_ morality. You should not have to feel one way or the other about an issue to state its moral affinity, given that you believe some moral stances to be absolute.

    A second interpretation might be that the word “drown” is metaphorical. What this would mean is that he was not saying this man was drowned per se, but that in general he has misdone others and others have misdone him, even if none of these misdoings actually led to his death.

    These are impressions I get from his usage of “you” when addressing an inanimate skull. Were he judging, it would seem his criticism would be said unto others, not unto that skull.

    The last word on this matter has not yet been said, that is a certainty.

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