by Simon Jacobson
May 1, 2003
How far does Babylon extend? – Talmud
Where is the Garden of Eden? It is on Earth
– Sefer HaBahir chapter 31
Passover has come and gone. The Egyptian exile
and freedom is a precursor to all oppressions and liberations.
As foretold, the war that began in Iraq on Shushan Purim (March
19) ended in the days of Nissan (April 9 is when Baghdad was
officially taken displacing the power of Saddam Hussein), just
as all major victories in history took place in this month of
redemption (see last article, In
Search of Eden, long version, a list of events that happened
The question is what happens now? Is the world
safer? Are our lives better? What will it take to make this
world a secure place? Do we have to attack Syria, Saudi Arabia,
Libya… and then what happens next? And what about all the greed
and corruption in America – does this country have the right
to preach to others and dictate terms when it as guilty as anyone?
This big question facing us today is perhaps captured
in the immortal words of the Talmud: “how far does Babylon extend?”
(Kidushin 71b). How far do the events in modern day Babylon
extend – what will be the long-term effects of our war in Babylon,
and what will happen next? How long and far will Babylon impact
Yes, the prophets tell us about the downfall of
Babylon. But even more intriguing is: what happens next? What
world is rebuilt after the fall of Babylon?
Now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from
power, is Iraq free, as promised in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”?
Will it become free? And what does freedom actually mean – freedom
by whose definition?
Will Iraq’s majority of 60% Shiite Muslims rule,
will it be controlled another faction or will civil war break
out. At least three quarters of Iraqis are members of one of
the country’s 150 tribes – what exactly will constitute freedom
in this country of so many driving forces?
This is one of the arguments posed by the anti-war
proponents. Better a stable tyranny, the known evil, than an
unstable upheaval caused by uprooting the existing regime.
Though I don’t profess to be pro-war, I cannot
agree with the anti-war movement. First of all, many of them
are just plain naïve and simplistic, believing the cliché
that we don’t fight violence (we do – ask any anti-war protester
what they would do if a thug broke into their home), or that
President Bush is evil (equated with Hitler) and is doing this
solely for money. Even more important is the fact that this
war does have many justifications, including pre-emptive self-defense
and this being part of the sustained war against global terrorism
declared by President Bush following September 11.
On the other hand, the pro-war argument can be
equally naïve. Is this really about good vs. evil. Is this
just about eliminating Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror and
torture and ‘freeing’ the Iraqi people? The fact is that the
United States has supported and even cultivated certain tyrants
when it served its interests. And then who decides the criteria
of oppression? Are all the CIA methods acceptable? Do the ends
justify the means?
I don’t want anyone getting the impression that
I am comparing American methods with Saddam’s. Or that I am
anti-war. The point here is that the issues are more complex
than say, the battle between the Yankees and the Red Sox. This
is not a black and white anti-war or pro-war argument. The stakes
are much higher.
Allow me to submit a third option. Pro-war – but
not because of the good vs. bad argument. What we are truly
facing is a battle that has been raging in one form or another
for thousands of years. This battle can be understood only in
a historical and Biblical context. There is no short-term solution
to the war. Even after removing Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin
Laden, the region is a boiling pot of stewing forces within
a population of over 1 billion (and growing) Muslims, many driven
by fierce ideology, which is not going away. His has become
a breeding ground for radical and violent martyrdom. The battle
is about the tension created by the clash between the secular
and the sacred, between the material and the spiritual, between
the universe and G-d.
Though I am not pro-war, this war is an inevitable
– even tragic – necessity to get out of our complacent reverie
and begin confronting the real issues facing our lives and the
world today. September 11 was the first wake up call; this is
the second. Let’s hope that we don’t need any more pain and
loss to realize the deeper meaning of today’s events and what
we need to do in response?
So, what is the deeper meaning of current Babylonian
events and, indeed, how far does Babylon extend? To answer this
question we need to go back to the early beginnings of Babylon
– we need to travel back to the rivers of Babylon and the search
for Eden (see previous articles).
We know that Adam settled east of Eden after being
banished from the Garden, as did his son Cain (Genesis 3:24;
4:16 and in Rashi). Adam clearly aspired to return there (why
else the need for guards with a whirling flaming sword to be
stationed at the entrance f Eden?). But what happened west of
Well, this year my personal Passover experience
gave me a first hand taste of the intriguing machinations going
on west of Eden. A little clue first: We – they – everyone –
is searching for Eden. It just goes by another name in the West.
So, here’s a selection from my diary.
PARADISE VALLEY RESORT, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA, PASSOVER
Passover in Scottsdale, Arizona (upscale suburb
of Phoenix). New phenomenon. Jews in resorts recreating the
exile and exodus from Egypt oppression… Just a mere 3315 years
ago the Jewish people barely escaped Egyptian tyranny, running
for their lives with no time to even wait for baked bread. And
here we are celebrating Passover – revisiting loss, bondage,
pain, suffering and freedom – sipping margaritas (kosher for
Passover of course) at a poolside in Sunny Arizona, the Grand
Canyon State. Ironic, isn’t it?
Yes, 400 people here are searching for Eden. Indeed,
our Passover is taking place at none other than PARADISE
Valley Resort. And we are not searching alone. I hear that another
eight Seders are being held in various resorts around this area.
500 people at the Princess, 900 at the Biltmore. I didn’t check
on the names or the numbers of the others, but clearly thousands
have come West in search of Eden – pleasure (the meaning of
Eden in Hebrew).
Not to mention at least 70 other Passover events
taking place all over the world. From Italy to Hawaii, from
Hungary to Puerto Rico. Of course let’s not forget the thousands
spending Passover in Florida.
So that’s what happening in the west of Eden –
everyone is in search of Eden. With only one small caveat: We
have replaced the sublime Eden above with new forms of Eden
Here in Scottsdale I serve as “scholar in residence,”
whatever that means. It seems that I am more ‘in residence’
here than ‘scholar.’ My role is to deliver several lectures
throughout the holiday. I’m one of the ‘performers’ or ‘entertainers’
if you wish. The trade off is a paid vacation for my family.
30-40 people attend my first lectures. Frankly,
most are not very interested in listening to me drone on about
life and its meaning. And hey, if they’re not into it, I might
as well lay back and relax. So off I go to the pool (on Chol
HaMoed in case you’re wondering), play some exhilarating squash
with my son, open my pores in the shvitz, wallow in the warm
whirlpool (a mikveh take off...), play some more squash – exercising
a weary body that hasn’t moved in 15 years, leaving me aching
all over – finally, a taste of mitzrayim…
And if that doesn’t work for a mitzrayim recreation
we could always try some gourmet bitter herbs (maror) with just
enough bite to feel pinched…
I deliver my lectures on… guess what, the search
for Paradise. With my fresh tan I wax eloquent about Babylon
of old and Babylon today, about Nissan and redemption. The attendees
are inspired. Not about my tan that is, but about my talk. But
between you and me, I don’t feel that I am really reaching them
– and myself. I’m going through the motions. I definitely am
not reaching the larger crowd, who aren’t even attending the
lectures. It’s not that I need them to attend; rather, it’s
more like a challenge – an opportunity to confront the apathy,
the self-contained, self-satisfied lives many of us, including
myself, so often fall back into.
So I begin investing again, observing, studying
the people around me.
An epiphany occurs in the pool on Tuesday. A group
of us are playing water volleyball, and, how shall I say this
without sounding pompous, some of the players are impressed
with my athletic prowess (don’t snicker). Our team trounces
the other with class and distinction. They exclaim: “Hey Rabbi,
you play a wicked volley ball. We must come hear you speak…”
– I kid you not.
You see, the search for Eden goes on – with no
one noticing it and nary a person letting on the slightest notion
of acknowledgment. Yes, the search for Eden continues – this
time in the shape of a wet volleyball in the blue pool of Paradise
We go hot air ballooning over the Sonora desert,
and then for a jeep tour in the desert terrain. Great tour guide.
Half Apache, half scientist, he educates us on the miraculous
resourcefulness of the desert. There’s Eden even in the parched,
arid desert – the cacti retain water in the most fascinating
way, their thorns are actually efficient leaves, medicinal benefits
abound in each plant. With the sharp, natural needle the native
Indians mastered the art of seutering, sewing, creating fish
hooks and many other uses. We do some gold panning; shoot 22
calibers at empty beer cans.
Yes, people are searching for Eden all right.
In all ways but one.
Back to the resort. Last days of Passover – I
finally figured it out. The point is not to captivate the crowd;
it is to allow the crowd to captivate me. Not to capture their
attention, but to capture their ‘personality.’ I shouldn’t be
trying to get them to listen to me; I should be listening to
And listen I do. And I share with them my observations.
In my lecture on the eve of the 7th day of Passover
– when I hold them all ‘hostage’ listening to me in the inevitable
space between Mincha and Maariv (the late afternoon prayer,
which is followed by the evening service) – well, I should say,
not all, some march out into the hall – I tell them that tonight
I actually prepared 4 different speeches. Reason: Over the past
week I observed that our entire Passover group actually divide
into 4 groups. (You’ll find that most people divide into one
these four groups).
Group 1: Those that came just to enjoy an effortless,
carefree Pesach. Not far from Scottsdale there is actually a
town called Carefree, Arizona. What a name! They should have
called it Comfort Zone, Arizona, but I guess that would be too
revealing and not too… comfortable. This group paid for a carefree
Passover – no concerns, no pressure, no drive, nothing that
can get in the way. They want Eden, a purposeless, effortless,
meaningless Eden, but Eden nonetheless. Isn’t that what Paradise
is all about – no demands?
Of course, that’s only if we forget that Adam
and Eve were placed in the original Garden of Eden to ‘serve
and protect.’ When they couldn’t live up to that they were banished
from the Garden.
Group 2: Those forced to come to this resort.
Their families blackmailed them: “I am going for Passover. You
either come or not.” What can they nebach do? So they’re here
not by their own choice, trying at least to enjoy their grandchildren.
Group 3: Searchers for spiritual inspiration.
Group 4: Staff – paid to be here.
Ok, so here’s the dilemma, I tell the crowd: There
is no common denominator between these four groups. Only that
we all eat meals, sleep in plush beds and want to enjoy ourselves.
What can I do as a speaker to bring you all together? My only
solution is to present four different speeches, one for each
For group 1 I have a 30 second talk, actually
a sound bite, not to overstay my welcome. You see this group
did not come to hear me, so I tell them briefly: “Happy Pesach.
Passover is all about getting out your comfort zones and all
forms of ‘mitzrayim.’ Gut Yom Tov and enjoy your meal.
“That’s it folks. I have nothing more to say.
You can feel free to go.”
Needless to say no one leaves the Shul. I mean
who is going to acknowledge that they belong to group 1?
For group 2 my speech is no speech at all (which
mind you takes preparation as well for a speaker as myself).
I offer this group silence, not because I want to, but simply
because in all likelihood they are presently not even in the
room. They’ve been forced to come to this place, so they’re
not going to do anything more than the absolute necessity.
With group 3 – the smallest of the 4 groups –
I can speak forever. That’s why they’re here – to gain inspiration.
And group 4 is almost as interested as group 1.
Regardless, at this point I don’t need another speech. Everyone
gets my drift.
Interesting to note, I continue in my talk, that
on the eve of the 7th of Passover the Jewish people
also broke into four groups. Stuck between the Red sea ahead
of them and the pursuing Egyptians behind them, one group argued
for return to Egypt. Another group wanted to commit suicide
and jump into the sea. A third group suggested waging war with
the Egyptians. The fourth group wanted to pray. RSFP: Resignation,
Suicide, Fight, Pray. I also point out that there are four children
mentioned in the haggada – four children about whom the entire
I don’t want to offend anyone by venturing to
define which of our four groups corresponds to one of the four
groups at the sea (after my talk everyone was coming over to
me sharing the group they felt they most identified with), but
whatever group you belong to, remember that all were wrong.
G-d tells Moses: “Vi’yisou.” Move forward. The only option –
for all the four groups – is to move away from our patterns.
We must forge ahead, with resolve, toward Sinai. Toward Eden
– the true Eden.
My talk is well received, by all. Finally.
TUESDAY, APRIL 29, SAA FLIGHT 2071 FROM ATLANTA
TO CAPETOWN AND JOHANNESBURG
Barely back from Passover in Scottsdale and off
I go to Johannesburg, South Africa, on the other end of the
planet. Here too the search for Eden goes on.
Thursday, May 1 is what they call in Jo’burg a
“holiday.” Oh yes, everyone is talking about holiday. And the
food – oh, the food, South Africans love food. Everyone loves
food, but there is something special in the savour around these
I have become obsessed. I see the search for Eden
everywhere I turn. My mind wanders back to Babylon, the land
between the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden. What
can today’s battles in Babylon be teaching us?
Man has always been searching and always will
search for Eden. What has happened over the years is that we
have replaced our desire for Eden within for our desire for
Eden without. We have replaced our interest in the inner workings
of the universe for our interest in its outer workings. How
Yet we are told that we are now standing on the
threshold of a new age, a new awareness is about to emerge in
which our primary interest will be in the inner workings of
existence and we will see the outer as tools, vehicles, means
to access the inner.
Everyone’s in search of Eden, both those east
of Eden and those west of Eden. I guess, that in the East one
can perhaps catch glimpses or have some sense of the real Eden.
West of Eden is another story. In the West we have created a
monolith, our own version of Paradise. It’s Eden, but entirely
of another sort.
Now back to Iraq. It seems that the war in Iraq
has been won. But has it been won? A tyrant has been vanquished,
true. Yet a nation of millions remains fragmented into struggling
factions. How far does Babylon extend? What does the future
of Babylon hold and how will it affect the world?
Naïve people – including many Americans,
fed a steady diet of TV images, comic book heroes and villains,
sports icons – see life, even global events and history itself,
in black and white terms. To ensure a sense of false security,
simplicity serves well to see these battles as Cowboys and Indians.
Saddam is evil, the coalition is good. The good guys have beaten
the bad guys.
Unfortunately life is not so simple. As
this column has been contending for 2 years now, the Middle
Eastern conflict is not just a clash of civilizations. It reflects
battles – global, personal, religious – of cosmic and Biblical
proportions that trace back thousands of years to Abraham’s
home and children. And the future of existence itself hangs
in the balance.
You don’t need faith to appreciate the Biblical
dimensions involved. Just Iraq itself – let alone the entire
Arab/Muslim world – is divided between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites,
in a battle that goes back to the birth of Islam 13 centuries
ago. And the over 1 billion Muslims are not going away.
Simple minds prefer to see it as a one-time event
– the heroes have won. That makes it just so much more convenient.
It takes a visionary to really look ahead and see the birthing.
And to look ahead effectively requires looking back. Bigger
pictures are multi dimensional. Like a film you need to see
the beginning to appreciate and understand its end. And vice
Today we have the luxury of hindsight to help
us see the bigger picture. Today’s confrontations and the ones
to come are the culmination of millennia of ballets dating back
to Abraham and his children, and even earlier, to Adam in Paradise.
In the original Eden there was a seamless flow
between matter and spirit, substance and form, your work and
your mission. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge created a dichotomy.
Thus, as an effect, work became an activity at the ‘sweat of
mans’ brow.’ Work became an alienating force, separating man
from his soul’s mission. Man could no longer remain in the Garden
of Eden, and was thus banished.
Ever since, man has been searching for Eden.
We then began replacing the search for the true
Eden with many false ones. We have attempted and experimented
with many forms of pleasure and desire (Eden), all in our desperate
search to return to Eden. Yet we will know peace only when we
connect to the true Eden and integrate it with our material
So our questions today are: “how far does Babylon
extend?” How far does the confusion of Babylon affect our lives,
and can we discover a deeper clarity emerging from our Babylonian
challenges? After all, the grand Babylonian Talmud – the magnum
opus of Torah law, and the basis of civilized institutions today
– was composed on the rivers of Babylon. Though a Talmud was
also composed in the Jerusalem academy (Talmud Yerushalmi),
the final authority is Talmud Bavli – the deepest, crystallized
clarity derived from the arguments and debates, the confusion
of the Babylonian method.
Also interesting to note is the statement in the
Talmud that genealogical clarity is guaranteed in Babylon of
all places, “Ezra did not ascend [from Babylon to Israel] until
he left Babylon like pure flour,” “the silence of Babylon is
its yichus” (Kidushin 69a and on).
Babylon today challenges us to see beyond the
immediate smoke screens, and recognize the true nature of the
battle. Only then will we be able to truly win.
The challenge, my friends, is not necessarily
to destroy this myth, but to intrigue it, to engage life as
we know it with all its distortions and myths, to tickle and
pique its interest, and then to transform it.
Sometimes it takes a game of water volleyball.