Tapping into “Adam II” on Shemini Atzeret

4 Oct
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next several days the various Nobel Prizes will be announced, so I thought it would be worthwhile to refresh our memories of the origins of the Prize. Alfred Nobel made his vast fortune after he invented dynamite. Initially, it was used to build railroads, but it wasn’t long before it was used for military purposes. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. In one of the most infamous journalistic errors, newspapers carried the obituary of Alfred with the headline: “The merchant of death is dead.” The story described Nobel as a man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Alfred Nobel was stunned to read this account of his legacy and set aside most of his estate to create the five Nobel Prizes that highlight peaceful advancements for humanity.

Alfred Nobel’s revelation relates closely to the theme of a recent book The Road to Character, by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He opens the book: “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”

Brooks is inspired by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in which he contrasts two opposing sides of human nature that he derives from the first two chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, we meet humanity on the move, assisting God in the creation of the world. Rav Soloveitchik called this Adam I. In modern terminology, Brooks renames Adam I is  “Résumé Adam,” the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature that seeks to build, create, produce and discover things.” In contrast, there is Adam II, derived from the character by that name whom we meet in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. Adam II is internally focused. Adam II seeks a serene, inner character, a sense of integrity in the face of life’s moral dramas. Adam II will never admit it, but he (or she) cultivates the positive attributes that will appear in his or her eulogy or obituary. We, the descendants of Adam, live in the contradiction between the outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam.

Brooks argues that our current generation’s ethos is more heavily weighted to Adam I. In this mindset, “[i]nput leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest….Impress the world.” Adam II lives by a different mindset, a moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.” Brooks adds: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”

Brooks laments that our society today has lost touch with Adam II to a large extent. Prior generations spent more time cultivating character and eulogy virtues, while our generation is heavily tilted towards résumé virtues.

Like Soloveitchik, Brooks advocates a balanced approach to the duality of human nature, and laments that we as a society have lost our way.  “The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied with the struggle to achieve.” (p.259) Using Google, Brooks discovered that the language of economics in books and publications has increased, but words having to do with morality and character have declined.  Words like conscience, virtue, bravery, gratitude, and kindness are all down over 50% over the course of the 20th century.  We are losing the language to talk about values, and we can’t nurture Adam II without it.

Brooks calls those who confront their imperfections “moral realists.”  They are aware of their flaws and strive to improve.  This is in accord with Jewish wisdom that teaches:

איזהו גיבור?  השמח בחלקו “Who is a hero?  The one who conquers his weakness.” (Avot 4:1)  Indeed our heroes such as Moses, David, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Esther, and other biblical characters had to cope with their insecurities and ultimately overcome them, making them our role models.  Jewish Heroism lies in the work of Adam II.

Our gathering today on Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to reflect on the Adam II side of our character. Shemini Atzeret is prone to get lost in the shuffle of the fall holidays. Our holiday today follows the high drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the pageantry of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, the revelry of Simhat Torah is postponed until tonight and tomorrow.  Sh’mini Atzeret seems more like a way station than a destination.

The midrash explains Shemini Atzeret as an opportunity to look inward. It’s a call to tap into our Adam II. Commenting on the designation of this holiday as “atzeret” the rabbis understood it in the sense of stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.’”

The midrash is both simple and profound. We spend all of the High Holidays and Sukkot reaching out to God, asking for forgiveness, for redemption, for life itself. We want to carry on with our lives of building and creating. Along comes Shemini Atzeret to remind us that God seeks an intimate relationship with us. This text complements another midrash that explains the sacrifices over the seven days of Sukkot as honoring the seventy nations of the world. In contrast, on Shemini Atzeret, the sacrifice honors the special relationship between God and Israel. For seven days we’re hobnobbing with the other nations, each showing off to God their greatness. Today, we confront God directly, and in so doing we confront ourselves.

Sh’mini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. If the other holidays this month up until today have been Adam I, outward focused days, today is about Adam II. It is inward-focused.

Tomorrow, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara—God creates. So too, Humanity creates. That is Adam I, and it is a necessary part of life. However, tomorrow’s reading ends with Shabbat. God ceases creation. Shabbat redirects attention from the outside to within. The verses describing Shabbat are the prelude to Adam II, the inner-focused aspect of humanity.  We need Adam II to ground our actions in the moral character that we hope will burnish our legacy. When we tap into our Adam II, we create a more intimate relationship with God that molds us into the kind of people we ought to be.

Perhaps it is the image of divine-human intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other’s company. When they died, we realized that their résumé virtues did not matter so much. What mattered most were their eulogy virtues—their kindness; their character; their integrity. On Shemini Atzeret, we remember our loved ones for these essential qualities, and we miss them terribly as a result.

May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to nurture our character so that we may bring God’s presence into the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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