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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Evil Statement

The hagaddah we read for the Pessakh seder speaks of four sons. It teaches us a general rule about the different types of people.

The first guy up looks at the seder around him, and responds with a question. The question is, essentially: "PLEASE INPUT COMPLETE LIST OF INSTRUCTIONS." We call this the wise son. The proper response, the hagaddah informs us, is to feed him a new instruction. It is a very specific and completely trivial little instruction, but it is presumably something that was not in his programming yet.

The second guy also asks a question. He wants to understand the purpose of the gathering so that he can reject it well. This is the evil son. The proper response is to hit him on the teeth, and teach him a lesson. The lesson is: "You are evil." It is a good lesson.

The third person has a question to ask. The correct English translation of that question would be "Whuuuuuuuuuh?". This is the simple son. You respond in simple, accessible terms. You talk about force and gratitude. And then you stop talking, because he'll get bored.

The fourth person is an enigma, because he has no question. Not even a little one. We call him the son who does not know to ask. Who knows what's going through that head of his. So you're supposed to start a conversation for him, on your terms.

Then the hagaddah goes into a story: Once we were slaves in Egypt to a human Pharaoh who gave us meaningless work. Now we're free. Callooh.

See, to me this whole thing is ironic. Pessakh, more than any of the other miserable holidays, seems designed to remind us that we are enslaved to God. The most prominent mitzvah on Pessakh is that for seven days we should eat matzah. Matzah, it has been pointed out millions of times over the generations, is a form of cardboard. No one in his right mind would decide of his own accord to eat it. But the way I see it, that's exactly why we're eating it. God gave us a meaningless instruction, to show us that he is our master and can order us to do whatever he wants. And we are wise little slaves, so we follow those orders.

So it's not the festival of freedom, it's the festival of renewed slavery. Once we were slaves in Egypt to a human Pharaoh who gave us meaningless work. Now we're slaves in Israel to God who gives us meaningless laws.

Now don't get me wrong- to me this is an acceptable progression. He created this world, he sets the ground rules. He chose us for an unusual position in world history, and our job is to carry it out. I respect his authority, so I always will. And contrary to popular belief, happiness has nothing to do with it. A religious person is not going to be happier than a non-religious person, and a Jewish person is not going to be happier than a non-Jewish person. The only difference between a religious Jew and everyone else is that we are God's slaves to a larger degree than they are.

So every week, when the Day of Wrest comes around, I put aside my life and resign myself to 25 hours of pacing back and forth. God has decreed that there should be nothing but rest in that day, as recognition that he created the world. Not for our sake, but to reinforce his authority. (This is not to say that I think he like a human wants to be served- it is to say that I think our serving him will serve his purposes.) And I understand the terms of my slavery, so I go along with it. Even in these past two weeks, which thanks to Pessakh had four Days of Wrest, I never once asked myself whether to break the law. It is not an option.

When the family sits around and sings songs -written by rabbis- which praise Shabbat and claim that anyone who follows it will get eternal happiness, I can't relate. I'm not a part of the group that can believe that. Here's what I believe:

God created the universe because he is the original gamist.

The players here are not complex enough to ever surprise him, so he created the universe with such infinite complexity that its design took into account every player that would ever be born, and how they would affect every other player. In effect, human players are so predictable that they can be seen as just slightly more complex design elements in the game. From this perspective, there is no player but God, and there is no audience but God.

The game of life is built on an infinitely complex series of rules known as nature, the most important rule being causality. None of these rules have ever been broken in the history of the universe. Miracles are incredibly improbable occurrences, many of which we don't understand because our understanding of nature is pathetically incomplete. We are just humans, after all. Some parts of the Torah commonly taken literally are metaphorical, and the extra stories shoehorned in by rabbis which blatantly contradict nature are just works of fiction.

"Souls" were an early attempt to understand how we act with such complexity, but in truth all this complexity is just a byproduct of a ridiculously complex system of rules. We may understand these rules someday, or we may not. We are, after all, just humans. But the rules are there. Souls are not. When we die, that's it for us. We exist entirely within the physical universe. Maybe there are other types of "spirits" on the plane of existence God inhabits, or maybe not. Since we're stuck in here, there's no way to know. And I wouldn't believe any human -even a prophet!- who claimed to have knowledge of any supernatural beings but God. Even prophets are just humans.

Now, from our perspective we are the players. (I bet a fish would say that fish were the real players, if a fish could speak.) And so we're looking for meaning from a perspective mostly disconnected from God's. We can find some hint of God's perspective from the Torah, or from studying the world around us as a work of art, but otherwise we are so biased we can't see a thing. When we want meaning, we look for happiness. When we aren't happy, we think there's a lack of meaning in our lives.

We don't really get it.

Happiness serves an artistic purpose. It is the resolution of tension. If you look at happiness out of context, it's the lack of tension. And tension is much more beautiful (from a higher perspective, not ours) than the lack of tension. Tension causes progress. If the world were to one day become completely happy and show no signs of ever stopping, it would be at a dead end. That would be the appropriate time for God to destroy the world completely. There would be no point anymore.

So really, most of the things we look at as challenges to finding meaning in life are actually the real meaning in life. When evil people want to kill you because they're so different from you are, that's the appropriate time not to pray to God for help but to bless God for making such a beautiful world. The more diversity and tension there is, the more we see the brilliance of God's work. If there were no evil people in the world, there would be no point to the wise people's existence! With the evil people around, their lives have meaning. They go from people who sit around and be happy looking at their bright view of the world to people who get up outraged and yell "You're evil!" and aim for the teeth and try to stop the evil. That's movement. That's purpose.

There are four types of people in the world. There are people who follow well-trodden paths as far as they can go. There are people who are determined to find a path for themselves. There are people who follow the crowd on a path that doesn't go far. And there are people who don't know to walk. To each of these people, their paths (or lack thereof) are the most important thing in the world. They would like nothing more than to pursue their course for their entire lives. And they want to be free, which is to say that the other three types of people should get out of their way with their irritating distractions and stop trying to push them. But from a greater perspective, all four courses are pretty meaningless. And the point of it all, the reason those paths are there in the first place, is so that the four types of people can prevent each other from being free and happy. Because where there is little freedom or happiness, there is the meaning God intended.



If you've been following the blog, I hope it hasn't been so long that you've forgotten where the four colors come from. They fit remarkably well, which sort of validates them a little bit more. That's always cool.

It occurs to me that the four-sons division also works with most sorts of culture: High culture, counter-culture, popular culture and indifference. I bet it works with most things you'd want it to.

Now, I get what you're saying, and I'm not planning on arguing with it. But I'd like to ask you, do you really find tension to be more beautiful than happiness? I find that strange...

By the way, I recognized the colors immediately. You're right, they indeed fit very well.

I too would find it strange if any human were to pick tension over happiness. So no, I find happiness more beautiful. That is, whenever it's my happiness we're talking about. However, if I were, say, watching a movie about complete happiness, I wouldn't find it the slightest bit beautiful. I'd find it pointless and motionless. A movie which is filled with tension, and misery, and a desire for change? That's amazing. Now, the tension in the world hurts us, so we'll (and I include myself in that "we") say anything we can think of to discredit it (including calling it "meaningless" or "ugly"). But the tension and misery does not hurt God in any way. He's on the outside. He's the one playing the game, not the one stuck in it. So I'm sure that from his perspective, tension is more beautiful.

I don't know about that. I think your analogy is interest in movies is a fleshly thing, I wouldn't compare that to G-d's interest. I guess you would, though, what with the whole art thing.

It's rather hard to understand what G-d wants, or is interested in, because we have nothing to work with. Amusingly, we seem to be making Him similar to ourselves: You - the artist - would have him be interested in art. Me - the scientist (if I can call myself that) - would have him appreciate the beauty of harmony more than discord.


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