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Orientation

I've been tinkering lately with a couple of blog posts -- one about a poetry anthology that's about to hit the metaphorical streets, and another about my complicated childhood relationship with physicality -- but neither of them is quite ready for prime time yet. It feels odd to be spending so much time editing text at Typepad with nothing (yet) to show for it here, so I thought I'd offer a tiny taste of some of the Torah I've been learning.

My Wednesday morning hevruta group is slowly working our way through the book of Yeshayahu (English-speakers likely know him as Isaiah.) Today we studied chapter 11, which you can find here in a bilingual edition (though, as always, the 1917 translation you'll find there is a little dated; if you've got a Tanakh at home, chances are it will be more readable to the modern eye.)

The commentary in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible sees this chapter as a meditation on "the ideal king in the peaceful future," and divides the chapter into three sections: the ideal age as manifest in jurisprudence, the ideal age as manifest in nature, and the ideal age as manifest in Israel's relationship to other nations. It's that middle section that speaks most to me, the ideal age as manifest in nature. I think Isaiah 11:6-9 is one of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew scriptures:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.

A babe shall play
Over a viper's hole,
And an infant pass his hand
Over an adder's den.
In all of My sacred mount
Nothing evil or vile shall be done;
For the land shall be filled with devotion to Adonai
As water covers the sea.

(That's the most recent JPS translation.) This is great poetry. These images -- the cow and bear grazing together, the lion becoming an herbivore like the ox, children playing atop snakes' dens without fear -- are gorgeous. They're also impossible, at least according to the laws of the universe as we know them.

This passage describes a changed world, creation turned on its head. Enmity between predator and prey dissolved, no need for fear, the very earth filled with devotion to the Most High...! What can we make of this vision? No matter how ardently we perform mitzvot or how avidly we throw ourselves into tikkun olam (repairing the world), Isaiah's vision isn't something we can accomplish in the world as we know it. So how are we supposed to relate to Isaiah's vision of messianic time?

One way of understanding messianic time is that it's just over the horizon, something we're always moving closer to but can't reach. The important thing isn't the destination, but the path we understand ourselves to be walking toward the perfection of creation. There's something asymptotic about this understanding. It places the messianic age outside the parameters of history, making it the destination that's (by definition) perennially beyond our grasp.

I find that notion quite reassuring. If what matters is our orientation, then we have a measure of control. We can always make the leap of personal and communal teshuvah, take the existential stance of aiming ourselves in the right direction. And there's no need to measure ourselves against some standard of perfection, because perfection isn't actually possible. That we can't reach the horizon is an ontological truth, but that's okay, because what matters is not reaching the destination but striving toward it.

I read these verses from Isaiah in a deeply metaphorical way. This is poetry, not history. He's not talking about a literal lion curling up with a literal lamb. He's talking about the hope that in the days to come, we'll put an end to even the enmities which seem ingrained in our natures, and divine presence will truly suffuse all creation. That may not be a reality we can imagine reaching, but it's a pretty awesome idea to orient ourselves by.


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