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The spiritual goal of Self-Reg is to enable every child, teen and adult to sense a higher truth. Something above and beyond social mores. To know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless.

The Bible is a revolutionary manifesto. The first of its kind. The paradigm of a revolutionary manifesto.

I have quite deliberately chosen the word “manifesto.” Contained within the momentous shift from paganism to monotheism is a revolutionary view of social organization. It all begins with the very first revolutionary figure in Western thought. 

He has a Sumerian name, Avram, and lives in the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. He is the first to recognize that the voice he hears is that of God. The contrast with the story of Cain — who is also Mesopotamian – is both deliberate and striking. 

The Book of Genesis is filled with allusions to Mesopotamia. The name “Eden” is a derivative of the Sumerian ‘ed’ (meaning ‘overflow’). To reinforce the image, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates are said to flow through Eden. There is an echo of the Fertile Crescent, the Cradle of Civilization, which saw the birth of writing, record-keeping, agriculture, irrigation, and the wheel. 

It is here that the first cities sprung up, which involved a complex form of social management so as to allow 40,000 humans to live together. The Uruk Phenomenon saw the build-up of a “whole complex of interwoven technologies and institutions.”(1) It was “a generally civil and humane place,” (2) with a system of judges, law courts, business contracts. Evidence was weighed and justice administered.

The opening chapters of Genesis are filled with references to Mesopotamian cities (3). There are familiar Mesopotamian stories: e.g., primeval chaos; a creation story; Cain and Abel; the flood; a righteous figure to build an Ark, with minute details of its construction and the release of birds to test when the waters have subsided; the tower of Babel. All these allusions harken back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish (4).

The time period between when the Torah was written (between the 7th and 5th- centuries BCE) and the development of the first city at Uruk is about the same as the time period between us and when the Torah was written. Just as we are fascinated with the world of the Bible, the scribes were fascinated with Mesopotamia. In each case, for a moral/theological reason. 

It was not just paganism that the scribes were denouncing. It was a civilization that did not hear the voice of God. That collapsed for precisely that reason, when Cyrus the Great captured Babylon and Mesopotamia was incorporated into the Persian empire.

That is not at all to suggest that the scribes describe Mesopotamia in the same terms used in the case of Sodom. But like Sodom, it was highly stratified. Precisely for the reason that it was not morally grounded. It was fear of punishment and not moral conscience that kept Mesopotamians in check. But because it was so stratified, individuals were incentivized to move up the social scale, being careful not to break the law – or at least, not get caught doing so.

Mesopotamia was a compact society, not covenantal. Elazar has explained the difference here in his four-part series on The Covenant Tradition in Politics. (5) In compact and contract societies, the obligations on the individual are limited to what is stipulated in the legal code and enforced by an authority. These types of society do not breed empathy and harmony, only competition and inequity.

When Avram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17), it is not just to signify that he will be the father of a nation. He will be the father of a moral civilization. But it is a long journey, and his relationship with God is, to say the least, unusual. He is still a Mesopotamian at heart, which is why he is prepared to sacrifice his cherished son. Perhaps this is also the reason why it comes as second nature for him to challenge and barter with God. But a great spiritual transformation was about to take place.

The search for the Land that God promises He will give to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12) begins with the stirring words, lekh lekha (לֶךְ־לְךָ֛). In the KJV this gets translated as, “Get thee out of thy country,” which sounds a bit like Horace Greeley telling the enterprising young man to go west. Whenever I read this line, it reminds me of my sister telling me to get out of her room when I was a little kid. But then, why would God command Avram to leave?

It is because the seeds of morality were stirring in him. Seeds that could not germinate in a Godless society. Genesis Rabbah tells the story of the young Avram smashing the idols in his father’s shop, foretelling his destiny as the first of the Patriarchs. But it wasn’t just idolatry that Abraham was fleeing; it was from a society that prayed to Gad (or in Syria, to Mammon).

Sacks interprets lekh lekha as saying: “leave your land, your homeland,  your father’s house.” (6) Abraham is not searching for a specific destination, which leads Sacks to describe him as on a quest for freedom. Something akin to Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom that began with Moses. 

Genesis tells the mesmerizing story of how Abraham’s offspring ended up living in Egypt, where they lose the very thing for which Abraham had been searching. The Israelites flourished while Joseph was Lord of Pharoah’s House. But with a new Pharoah “who had no memory of Joseph,” the Israelites end up at the bottom of the social hierarchy. As slaves, possibly corvée, forced to do the manual labour demanded by the Pharaohs’ great building projects.

Pharoah has his own version of Lekh Lekha. He tells Moses and Aaron: “You and the Israelites must leave my people at once.” (Exodus 12:31). He says Tze’u (צְּאוּ֙): literally, get out.

The Story of The Departure from Egypt ((ספר יציאת מצרים — what in the Septuagint translation became known as the Story of Exodus — towers over the Bible. There have been many attempts to identify who the Pharoah was, but the point is that he is not named. Like the great Homeric epics, this was not intended to be read as history — although that did not stop Ernle Bradford from searching for Odysseus’ travel route or Ron Wyatt from searching for Noah’s Ark. 

Where the story of Abraham’s flight from Mesopotamia represents the rejection of a compact society, Exodus is about the battle against a hierarchical political order ruled by a supposedly divine being. What they have in common is that neither is moral. Hence freedom cannot exist in either.

Pharoah is overwhelmed by a more powerful force. If he is a god, he is a pretty feeble one at that. One who is at the mercy of Yahweh, who first makes him hard-hearted and then causes him to suffer a humiliating defeat. He provided his people with a feeling of security until such time as his inherent weakness was exposed.

Herein lies one reason why Moses is so upset when he comes down from the mountain and sees Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. These are the same people who, not that long before, had sworn to uphold the Covenant. But they had become anxious during Moses’ long absence, and for that reason reverted to their pagan ways. Much as we are seeing happen today. 

The Golden Calf episode shows us that, psychologically, the Israelites were nowhere close to being free. Indeed, the Israelites who fled Egypt never would be. Only the next generation, born and bred in the moral order, is capable of entering the Promised Land. 

The Promised Land represents a completely new kind of political order. A Just Society, in which power is distributed amongst King, Judges, Prophets, Priests, and a Holy People. All bound to God as well as to each other. All committed to succouring the poor and the helpless.

But what enforces the terms of the Covenant when the society is not governed by a monarch? The answer is: Morality. But then, what binds individuals and the group to morality? What leads them to choose good over evil, or repudiate – excommunicate! — those who seek to overturn the moral order?

To say that the source of morality is transcendental – the result of theophany — is to say what it is not. It is not a matter of mutual agreement grounded in self-interest. Not a social convention. Not confined to a specific place or time or people. It is a product not of reason but illumination. It cannot be explained in empirical terms. It cannot be explained at all. Only embraced.

Strictly speaking, the Ten Commandments are the Ten Statements; or what I referred to in Hearing the “Still, Small Voice as the Ten Axioms (although, admittedly, that is a Greek term). To be sure, they are always written in the form “Thou shalt not…” But the use of “shalt” is archaic. What they really say is: “You will murder [commit adultery, steal, lie, covet what another has], not.”

The preamble simply conveys that the Statements that follow are not of human design (7). There is no justification or rationale given. There is no logical space for asking why the Ten Statements constitute the axioms of morality. Just as it makes no sense to doubt that a straight line can always be drawn between two points, it makes no sense to doubt that murder, stealing etc. are immoral. The Ten Axioms fix the bounds of moral sense.

The commandments as such are the 613 Mitzvot that Rambam compiled in the Mishneh Torah (from Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and in large part, Leviticus).  Sticking with the analogy, the Mitzvot are the theorems of the system, each of them deriving from one of the Ten Axioms. 

We are then presented with a major conditional. If you follow the Mitzvot you and your people will be blessed. (Deuteronomy 30:19) Mitzvah has a double meaning: both commandment and performing an act of kindness. For that is what a moral act is: it restores homeostasis in those who are dysregulated.

To continue with our analogy, we then come to applying the axiomatic system. Compare: If you choose non-Euclidean geometry, you will be able to create a theory of relativity. If you choose morality, you will be able to create a Just Society

Here is a key reason why Genesis begins with Avram in Mesopotamia, and Exodus with the Israelites in Egypt. Each civilization represents a social system that was stable for an extended period, yet neither was moral. This is expressed in the theme that both were highly stratified, which breeds greed, envy, spite, and malice. Morality does the opposite: it breeds sympathy, benevolence, kindness, and goodwill.

But then, what happens to morality when a covenantal society no longer believes in God? No longer believes in the divine origins of morality — and thus, is no longer moral. As we saw in Hearing the “Still, Small Voice,” this is completely different from asking: What happens when a covenantal society no longer hears the still, small voice? Accordingly, we have two very different answers.

In the case of the former, what happens is that the society becomes anomic and is on the path to being stratified, polarized, authoritarian, and heartless. Those who cling to morality are left crying out: “Woe to them.” In the case of the latter, i.e., a society that longs to restore its moral bearings, we are led to asking Why. 

Hence the point of Midrashic Musings: not reframing Morality but rather, restoring morality. You might call this: The Story of the Departure from Dysteroception. That is, the escape from a state in which an individual or group does not process the aversive sensations triggered by seeing someone in pain — let alone deliberately harming someone. 

The goal of Self-Reg is to restore the awareness of the aversive sensations that signal homeostatic imbalance, so as to feel the hedonic sensations that are triggered by empathy, sympathy, kindness, love. To restore the very capacity to be free: to be able to choose how one acts. To see the resha’im for what they are. To be rational. To ask Why. 

To be human in the image of God.

1 Amanda H. Podanuy (2014) The Ancient Near East

2 Amanda H. Podany (2022) Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A new history of the ancient near east

3 Babylon, Erech, Accad, Nineveh, Calah

4 Speiser, E.A.. “Mesopotamian Motifs in the Early Chapters of Genesis.” Expedition Magazine 5, no. 1 (September, 1962)

5 See Daniel J. Elazar (1995) Covenant & Polity in Biblical Israel.

6 Jonathan Sacks (2009) Genesis: The Book of Beginnings.

7 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:1)

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