Friday, December 7, 2018

Parashat Mikess: Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem
Thoughts on Mikess 2018
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R. Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. (Pirkei Avot 2:15)
After hearing Yosef’s interpretation of his dreams, Pharaoh exclaimed, “Could we find a man like him, whom is the spirit of God?” (Bereshit 41:38). He then turned to Yosef and remarked, “There is none as discerning and wise as you” (39). Just as the cupbearer and baker were overwhelmed by Yosef’s clairvoyant interpretations in prison, so too was Pharaoh at that time. But were Yosef’s explanations actually that impressive? Asked to render a plausible solution to those very dreams in his same circumstance, isn’t it possible that you too might interpret them like Yosef? What, then, were Yosef’s powers of wisdom and insight that appeared so remarkable at that time?

Many of the technological products that we buy and use are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. The operating systems of our smartphones, for example, slow down significantly after a mere two years of use. At that same time, their battery life begins to drain quickly, as well. There is, in fact, a purpose that underlies this seemingly money-making scam. The systems are able to produce at maximum capacity because they possess a confined window of time. Building a lifespan into the usage of our devices ensures their maximum efficiency during that time period.

Allison Arieff noted the irony that the same Silicon Valley culture that produces these gadgets appears obsessed with living forever. She pointed to venture capitalists like the tech billionaire Peter Thiel who have begun pouring money into anti-aging and life extension start-ups. Arieff mentioned, as well, that Google has launched the biotech company Calico to study “the biology that controls lifespan,” specifically researching the long-living naked mole rat, which shows little to no sign of aging.[1]

The tech world shares good company in its obsession with “living forever.” Our society at large has become possessed by the dream of eternal life. Noting the long list of new books related to “successful aging,” Barbara Ehrenreich remarked, “A major themes is that aging itself is abnormal and unacceptable.”[2] And before detailing the many other ways that this mindset and approach has spread throughout our culture, she wrote, “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it.” Alternatively, and more realistically, she suggested, “You can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”[3]

Peggy Noonan recently wrote about a depressing outgrowth of our society’s concept of life. She noticed the adolescent clothing donned by many of today’s well-known business executives – the casual T-shirts, hoodies and jeans. She pointed out that although our culture has always honored the young, it has never honored immaturity. The model of dignified “adult attire” has largely been lost, replaced instead by “soft clothes, the kind 5-year-olds favor.” The past ideal of a life of serious demeanor and style has disintegrated to one of childish thoughts and behavior.[4] Along the path of our futile attempts to “defy death,” we have begun to act and attempt to “be young” forever.

Joseph Epstein described this phenomenon over a decade ago, adding to it his own critique and misgivings. Epstein began “The Perpetual Adolescent” by contrasting the “grown up” attire one beheld at the baseball games of the 1940’s and 50’s – tailored suits and fedoras, to the youthful jeans, caps and T-shirts that fill the seats of today’s games. Broadly observing many of society’s general trends, he noticed a sharp shift from a society that conceived of adolescence as necessarily transient to one that yearns for its eternal existence. Epstein viewed this perspective very negatively. He suggested that it lowered the tone of national life, took away from its richness, and lowered intellectual expectations. He argued that an observable “dumbing down” of society is to be attributed to this mindset, as contemporary journalism has lost its depth by necessarily adapting to the short attention span with the soundbite, photo-op, quickie take and a general suppression of complexity.[5]

Leon Kass noticed a similar trend in his search for the underlying factors for our society’s shift away from traditional dating and marriage. He wrote about today’s shared clothing styles, spoken lingo and interest in music between parents and children, and commented: “Youth, not adulthood, is the cultural ideal, at least as celebrated in the popular culture.” Kass explained that today’s young man doesn’t feel the urge to take his father’s place, as he has seen his father continuously running from it “with all deliberate speed.”[6]

Ancient Egyptian society was pervaded by a strikingly similar feature to ours today. Leon Kass explained that Egypt sought to abolish change and to make time stand still in their pursuit of “changelessness, agelessness and permanent presence.” He elaborated: “Whether one looks to the hieroglyph in which the mobile world is represented in static ideograms; or to the worship of the eternally circling but never-changing heavenly bodies or of the cyclically rising and ebbing river, with its life-giving overflows; or to the practices of denying aging through bodily adornment and defying death through mummification and preparation for reincarnation – everywhere one looks, one sees in Egypt the rejection of change and the denial of death.”[7] Indeed, the first thing that Yosef did before approaching Pharaoh was shaving his beard (41:14). A beard is the paradigmatic sign of “old age” (hence its Hebrew word – zakan), which was the perfect emblem of the Egyptian penchant to deny change and conquer human decay.[8] Attempting to enter the mainstream Egyptian society, Yosef made sure to first dress the part.

The legacy of Am Yisrael, in contrast, was built upon the core concept of remembering the past and anticipating the future. God’s covenant with Avraham was passed down from father to son in a continuous chain. Adherents of this dynasty lived with “full awareness of time and with full acceptance of change and unavoidable decay.”[9] Consider the establishment of berit bein ha-betarim, the foundational covenant with Avraham, when God clearly stated to him: “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace, you shall be buried in ripe old age” (15:15). We were first taught then to accept – and embrace – the existence of old age and the inevitability of death.

As Yosef listened to the retelling of the ministers’ dreams and then those of Pharaoh, this veritable clash of worlds came to the fore. Denying the inevitable passing of time, the Egyptians couldn’t possibly fathom that the objects in their dreams – the vine branches, baskets of bread, cows and ears of wheat – represented the passage of time. The very concept of a set “deadline” was foreign to their intellectual conceptions. And as Yosef described their symbolism – first as three days to the ministers, and then as seven years to Pharaoh, the Egyptian dreamers were spellbound by its novelty. The idea of the fleeting nature of time, although intuitive, had been squashed by their culture and society. And Yosef’s seamless mention of this concept opened their eyes to a hidden truth.

Carpe diem,” John Keating (played by Robin Williams) famously shouted to his students in the classic film Dead Poets Society. “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary,” he urged them. Living in a world which once again seeks to freeze itself in “perpetual adolescence,” the Torah awakens us to the inevitability of aging and the concept of a lifespan. It reminds us to seize the day.

[1] Allison Arieff, “Life is Short. That’s the Point,” The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2018.
[2] Barbara Ehrenreich, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 164.
[3] Ibid., pg. xv
[4] Peggy Noonan, “If Adults Won’t Grow Up, Nobody Will,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2018. Thank you to Morris Manopla for sharing this article with me.
[5] Joseph Epstein, “The Perpetual Adolescent,” The Weekly Standard, Mar. 15, 2004.
[6] Leon R. Kass, “The End of Courtship,” Leading a Worthy Life (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 51.
[7] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 557.
[8] Ibid., pg. 563-4. Rabbi Dr. Ricky Hidary commented to me that archaeologists have in fact found that ancient drawings depict the Egyptians as clean-shaven, in contrast to the foreigners who don beards.
[9] Ibid., pg. 556-7.